Donald Trump is currently both president-elect of the United States and chair of the Trump Organization, his vast business that includes real estate development projects around the world. It’s an unprecedented situation — one that’s extremely vulnerable to conflicts of interest and the potential for corruption.
Foreign governments are already trying to curry favor with the Trump administration by staying in Trump’s hotels and appointing his business partners as diplomatic envoys. Trump has met in his New York office with business partners from India. He brought up an issue he considers crucial to his Scotland golf course, wind farms, in a call with British politician Nigel Farage. And stalled Trump-branded projects in Argentina and the nation of Georgia have suddenly been able to proceed since he was elected president.
Now Trump is saying he’ll announce his plan to avoid these conflicts at a press conference on December 15:
I will be holding a major news conference in New York City with my children on December 15 to discuss the fact that I will be leaving my ...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 30, 2016
great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country in order to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! While I am not mandated to ....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 30, 2016
do this under the law, I feel it is visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses..— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 30, 2016
Hence, legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations. The Presidency is a far more important task!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 30, 2016
But there’s a key caveat here: If Trump is sticking to the plan he’s had all along — to hand control of the Trump Organization to his adult children — that’s not really avoiding conflicts of interest.
Usually, presidents sell their investments and businesses and instead put their money in a “blind trust,” meaning that they don’t know what investments they hold and the person who’s overseeing them doesn’t have an interest in them. (On a call with reporters, Trump spokesperson Jason Miller didn’t say whether transferring ownership of the businesses was part of the plan at all.)
Even if Trump does transfer ownership, having your children run your business isn’t a blind trust. It’s a smokescreen. Trump will still know what his business interests are. And his children haven’t separated business and political interests, either. His daughter Ivanka Trump has joined calls or visits so far with the leaders of Turkey, Argentina, and Japan.
What’s more, Trump is also only promising to deal with the Trump Organization itself. Because he hasn’t released his tax returns, we don’t know what other sources of income he might have. Nor has he said what he’ll do with his stock portfolio.
So even if Trump does decide to relinquish ownership of his company, that doesn’t mean he’s avoiding conflicts of interest. And note that throughout his career, Trump has used positions of power and responsibility to enrich himself.