Let's just give Donald Trump $15 billion

In exchange America would get his middling business and an ironclad law that the president won't be allowed conflicts of interest. Trust me, it's worth it.

A few bucks per citizen is a small price to pay for preventing the whole regulatory apparatus from being warped.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

It's looking more and more clear that corruption is going to be a serious issue with a Donald Trump administration. From his probably-illegal ownership of a hotel in D.C. to his involvement with companies in Saudi Arabia, his potential conflicts of interests are wildly unprecedented, and he has shrugged off any suggestion that he needs to divest himself of financial conflicts to govern responsibly.

For longtime students of Trump history, this is not remotely surprising. There are two constants in the Trump universe: self-promotion, and structuring contracts so as to maximally enrich himself.

What is to be done? It would be best, of course, if our elected representatives could be trusted to behave honorably and ethically. But we're well past that point in this country. If Trump is to be stopped from bending the entire federal government to serve his personal business interests, we all might just have to pay him billions of dollars.

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Here's the plan. The government will simply purchase all the various Trump properties, in return for an ironclad law that the president will not be allowed to have financial conflicts of interest. For reasons I will explain below, it will pay a big markup from the market price, let's say 300 percent. Trump says he is worth $10 billion, but on the open market it's likely somewhere in the neighborhood of $3-5 billion, so for the low, low price of $9-15 billion, we can go some distance towards protecting the American state from being Trump-ized.

There are various reasons to pay more than the sticker price.

First is that the bigger the payoff, the more likely Trump will be to accept it. It's certainly highly unfair for taxpayers to collectively pay billions to make an already-rich man much richer, but the reasonably clean and efficient government we have now is worth far, far more than the few billion we'd have to shell out to buy all of Trump's stuff. A few bucks per citizen is a small price to pay for preventing the whole regulatory apparatus from being warped into a mechanism for forcing people to stay at Trump hotels and eat Trump steaks. As Duncan Black writes, "It's better for us to pay the corruption tax up front."

Second is a genuine point in Trump's favor: How much of his net worth is tied up in his personal brand. As was made abundantly clear in the investigations into his business history, Trump is a pretty terrible manager of real estate development, casinos, or other such projects. But he is an absolutely peerless self-promoter and showman. Since so much of his current business is tied up with licensing his image and name, or is otherwise permeated with Trumpy essence, his properties would not be worth nearly so much to someone else. The federal government can thus offer a big premium to account for this fact, and give him a reasonably fair value he might actually accept.

It's an interesting question whether Trump would actually support something like this. He seems to set great store in being a businessman who owns things and makes deals. Actually having to stop being the owner of Trump Tower and all the rest would probably be a significant psychological blow.

However, he's perhaps even more invested in being fantastically rich — and doesn't actually have tons and tons of money rolling in. What glimpses we have of his tax returns show a balance sheet that is probably clogged with gigantic losses from years ago; he's been skating on big tax breaks and fairly small side hustles for quite some time. This generally fits with the sort of penny-ante corruption that Trump seems to be leaning towards — forcing foreign dignitaries to stay at his hotels and such. If someone were to present him with a windfall of billions in cash money, straight up, he might just take it.

Now, don't get me wrong. This is about the least bad of two terrible options. The idea that we'd have to essentially bribe the president to not turn the government into part of the Trump Organization is horrifying and indicative of a country that is rotting from the inside out. It would certainly be a queasy step to take. And there's no guarantee that Trump wouldn't cook up some different hustles afterwards.

But I believe it really is better than the alternative. Congressional Republicans who aren't quite content to be Trump lickspittles for the next four years ought to consider it.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.