Trump’s businesses: Why conflicts of interest are inevitable
As President Trump takes office this week, he is already mired in “an unprecedented ethical quagmire,” said Time.com. The president owns a vast real estate empire with 500 businesses in two dozen countries around the world—“from luxury towers in Turkey to a New York City lease agreement with China.” His policy decisions could easily enrich those businesses, and so could the decisions of foreign leaders—which would be a violation of the Constitution, which prevents federal employees from accepting gifts or money from foreign sources. What is Trump’s plan to avoid this looming ethical crisis? asked Libby Nelson in Vox.com. “It’s a sham.” Trump announced last week he will put his sprawling business interests in a trust headed by his adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric. The company will conduct no new foreign deals, and an unnamed ethics adviser will review all new domestic deals. Trump will continue to own the Trump Organization and make government decisions that affect the company’s bottom line—though we’ll never know the details, because he refuses to release his tax returns. And if he wants to hear how his beloved family company is faring, all he has to do is ask his boys.
Trump could literally make billions from his presidency, said Ray Fisman in Slate.com. For an example of how it will work, look at Italy’s own “cartoonish, orange-faced businessman turned politician,” Silvio Berlusconi. His TV business, Mediaset, made an estimated billion euros in overpaid commercials from companies currying favor during Berlusconi’s premiership. To bribe Trump, corporations or foreign governments could easily overpay the Trump Organization for a condo or the right to license the Trump name or buy property Trump owns. Trump can also use his policy powers to enrich himself, said Rosalind Helderman in The Washington Post. His Department of Housing and Urban Development could reverse its opposition to the lucrative sale of a large New York apartment complex partly owned by Trump. His Environmental Protection Agency could “roll back clean-water rules he and other golf course owners have said are harmful to their industry.” He’ll be able to pressure federal regulators to ignore safety and wage violations at unionized Trump construction sites and hotels. The potential for abuse is staggering.
Trump’s critics are forgetting something, said Edwin Williamson in TheWeeklyStandard.com. No president “has had financial interests approaching the extent and complexity of the Trump Organization”—and Trump cannot fully divest himself from those complicated ties “without creating an entirely new set of conflicts.” If he chooses to sell his assets, investors could overpay for Trump holdings to ingratiate themselves. Besides, Trump’s supporters couldn’t care less about these supposed conflicts, said Kelly Riddell in The Washington Times. When he ran for president, voters knew he had a vast business empire. He won the election anyway. As one Trump voter put it, “If we expect successful people to give up their wealth to be POTUS, we will be stuck with professional politicians.”
It’s absurd to say that “Trump was validated for all time by his election win,” said Margaret Hartmann in NYMag.com. First of all, a Pew poll shows 57 percent of Americans are very or somewhat concerned that Trump’s business ties “conflict with his ability to serve the country’s best interests.” And while many Americans might not be avidly following this issue now, they will likely soon “come to care about repeated accusations that Trump is using his office to enrich himself, and the haze of scandal hanging about his presidency.”
“Like so much else,” said Sheelah Kolhatkar in The New Yorker, Trump’s fate ultimately rests with Congressional Republicans, who have the power to investigate and/or impeach him. As Trump has smugly pointed out, the president is technically excluded from the law against conflicts of interest among elected officials. But he could still fall foul of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which forbids all federal workers, including the president, from accepting gifts or money from foreign sources. Trump might violate that clause on Day One of his presidency simply by profiting from the Trump Organization’s foreign deals. With the scope of the Emoluments Clause unclear and untested, “this is a fight between Trump and Congress,” says Trevor Potter, former legal counsel to George H. W. Bush. “And at the moment, Congress is not fighting Trump.” Somewhere down the road, that may change.