Donald Trump was supposed to give Americans a fuller picture of how he’d separate himself from business as president at a press conference on December 15. Instead, he canceled the press conference and sent two tweets.
Trump’s plan to separate himself from his conflict of interest is to let his sons — Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump — and his executives manage his businesses, and to pledge that “no new deals will be done during my term(s) in office.”
The move suggests that not only is Trump not going to take steps to meaningfully insulate himself from conflicts of interest, he might not even understand what the conflicts are in the first place.
Trump will not be juggling the presidency of the United States with the presidency of the Trump Organization, which seems to have been his main concern. But his preexisting conflicts of interest will continue to exist. Ethics experts aren’t worrying about hypothetical future deals that Trump might do; they are concerned about how Trump’s existing business relationships and investments might interact with his presidency.
Trump promised to discuss his business at a news conference “in the near future.” “Busy times!” he tweeted. The communications team for his presidential transition didn’t offer any further details. Seven media organizations were given the opportunity to ask questions on a routine call Tuesday morning, and none asked about Trump’s announcement. Instead, a CNN reporter requested more details on Trump’s meeting with rapper and clothing designer Kanye West.
“No new deals” is meaningless
Even though I am not mandated by law to do so, I will be leaving my busineses before January 20th so that I can focus full time on the......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2016
Presidency. Two of my children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage them. No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2016
A promise of “no new deals” does nothing to alter the fact that Trump-branded projects are in progress around the world, and that foreign governments could speed them along in hopes of gaining the president-elect’s favor. (Here’s a complete list of Trump’s known conflicts of interest so far, both foreign and domestic.)
It doesn’t change the fact that the Trump International hotel at the Old Post Office in Washington, DC, is marketing itself to diplomats as the logical place to stay — and although they don’t explicitly mention that staying there enriches the president-elect, the meaning is implied.
It doesn’t change the fact that Trump-appointed members of the National Labor Relations Board could oversee unionization disputes at Trump hotels, that the Trump Department of Justice will be negotiating a multibillion-dollar settlement with Trump creditor Deutsche Bank, or that Trump will appoint the head of the General Services Administration, which oversees his lease on his DC hotel.
Trump hasn’t given any details about how he will ensure his separation from his businesses — that’s what the press conference was supposed to do — but his tweets suggest he’s transferring management rather than ownership. Merely handing over the reins for four or eight years to his sons and heirs means that whatever gains the Trump Organization makes from a Trump presidency will inevitably benefit Donald Trump and his family.
And it doesn’t clarify the big question at the heart of the matter, a question that shouldn’t even need to be asked: Whose interests will Trump put first — the country’s, or his own?
This isn’t how being president is supposed to work
Most modern presidents have put their assets and investments into a blind trust, meaning they no longer knew what they were invested in, they didn’t know the person managing it, and they didn’t know when their policy decisions — which can make stocks rise and fall — affected their personal wealth. President Barack Obama took another tack, selling his stock and investing in Treasury bonds and index funds, meaning his investments did as well as the general American economy.
Trump is doing neither. He suddenly claimed last week to have sold his publicly traded stocks in other countries months ago, but has provided no proof. Rather than appoint an independent trustee, he’s picked two of his children, whom he sees regularly. Both of them are on the executive committee of his transition team, which met this morning with Vice President Mike Pence, and both of whom inherit whatever Trump leaves to them.
His daughter Ivanka, long thought to be the heir to the Trump business empire, will instead be moving to DC to play an as-yet undefined role in her father’s presidency, while her stepmother, Melania Trump, remains in New York.
Even if Donald Jr. and Eric manage to run the company independent of their father, the promise of “no new deals” means that Trump will know exactly where his business interests lie, and has been guaranteed there will be no surprises. He won’t even need the Trump brand on buildings around the world as a reminder.