There may be no way to fully separate Trump the businessman and Trump the brand from Trump the president.
But with the American people’s choice to elect an outsider and businessman in Donald Trump come serious and troubling concerns, and a critical question: How will Trump deal with the potential conflicts between his family’s business and the presidency?
The Trump Organization’s labyrinth of corporate and financial ties is overwhelming. Its reach is worldwide. It is hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to banks. There are licensing deals, relationships with or shares in more than 500 companies, and real estate holdings, partnerships and plans across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Then there’s foreign investment in U.S. properties, particularly from China and Russia. Trump even made a deal once with Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
And that’s just what we know.
Then, there’s what we do not know. While Trump filed financial disclosure forms required of presidential candidates, they include only basic information. Trump’s refusal to release his federal tax returns means there’s little detail available. It’s time for him to release them now that he is president-elect. But even with them, we wouldn’t know everything. He must disclose more, including what countries, banks and leaders of foreign governments he has business relationships with.
The more the American public knows, the more everyone can evaluate whether his administration’s actions benefit his family fortunes. The appearance of and potential for conflicts of interest, particularly in terms of foreign investment and debt, is unprecedented. It’s almost a no-win situation; even if the new president’s actions were best for the nation and consistent with prior policy, he’d still be open to criticism. There’s no ethical playbook to follow.
Then there are his older children, Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka, who, as of now, are wearing conflicting hats. They’re on the presidential transition team, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, could be a top adviser officially or unofficially. The three children aren’t expected to have formal government roles, and efforts are underway to turn control of the business to them.
But having family oversee the company is not a blind trust by any definition, and doesn’t solve the problem. The recent interview on “60 Minutes” could be a hint of what could come. Ivanka Trump discussed issues like wage equality and child care while wearing a $10,800 gold and diamond bracelet from her jewelry line. The next day, the bracelet was touted by the Ivanka Trump Fine Jewelry line, with a picture from the interview. Just days later, Ivanka Trump sat in on the president-elect’s meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Those incidents highlight the potential for larger problems. President-elect Trump and his family have to take the lead in separating the business from the politics — both in appearance and in reality. So far, they haven’t done so.
And it goes beyond foreign ties. Any move Trump makes on housing, financial regulations or tax policy, such as looser banking rules or lower corporate taxes, could affect his empire. Trump also is an investor in a company with interests in the Dakota Access Pipeline. Then there’s his new Washington hotel, in space leased from the federal government. The family should make public the lease agreement. Meanwhile, his Las Vegas hotel has a case before the National Labor Relations Board because the hotel refused to bargain with its culinary union. The board, to which Trump will appoint members, ruled against the hotel, which has now sued in federal court to overturn the ruling.
Even with a massive bureaucracy, with layers of government between Trump as president and Trump as businessman, the conflicts are real.
Beyond releasing his tax returns, Trump must work with White House and congressional attorneys to draft a detailed document on how the government will oversee and account for actions that would affect the Trump Organization. President Barack Obama noted the importance of a strong White House counsel and ethics office, and that’s especially the case now. But it’s complicated because the president, vice president and members of Congress are exempt from federal laws that bar other staffers from doing anything that might be a conflict of interest. Nepotism laws, which prevent family members from taking government jobs, apply, but there are loopholes.
There isn’t an easy solution to how to separate Trump from, well, Trump. Leaving his children in charge isn’t sufficient. In such a complex empire, only the drastic answer of selling all his holdings would create complete separation. Even in the unlikely event he’d do that, it would take years to untangle his finances. What’s certain is that Trump must commit himself to avoiding even the appearance of a conflict and tell us what procedures his counsel will put in place to keep him at arm’s length.
During the campaign, Trump derided Hillary Clinton’s conflicts and secretiveness. Now it’s his turn to be in that spotlight.
Potential for conflicts of interest
Donald Trump’s business endeavors abroad, some linked to controversy, could clash with the best interests of the U.S. government. Here are a few of Trump’s business connections overseas:
n South Korea: Trump has a contractual relationship with Daewoo Engineering and Construction, which planned to use the Trump name on condominiums there. Even after accounting fraud evidence and a bankruptcy, Daewoo continues to have an association with the Trump Organization. Daewoo is involved in nuclear energy.
n India: There are real estate deals to build towers in Mumbai and Pune, and a state and local government probe into land records on one of them has ensued. The Trump Organization wants to expand significantly.
n Turkey: Trump has a branding agreement on two towers in Istanbul. His partner has been accused of criminal activity and is at odds with Turkey’s president, who once suggested Trump’s name be taken off the towers.
n Azerbaijan: Trump made millions from a licensing deal for a hotel in Baku, which was almost finished but never opened after the country’s economy collapsed. His partner is a member of one of the country’s wealthiest families and has ties to the ruling regime, which U.S. officials have criticized for corruption and human rights abuses.
n United Arab Emirates: Trump has had multiple branding deals in Dubai projects, including golf courses and villas.
n China: A tower being built in New Jersey by Kushner Cos. (run by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner) has a license deal to use Trump’s name. It raised tens of millions of dollars through EB-5, a federal program that grants visas in exchange for investment — mostly from Chinese investors.
n Banks: Trump has obtained hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from Germany-based Deutsche Bank. Deutsche Bank is in financial trouble, and the U.S. Justice Department is trying to reach a settlement with the bank over previous bad lending practices. The Bank of China, meanwhile, is a tenant in Trump Tower.