President-elect Donald Trump claims he’s taken a small step toward alleviating the massive conflict of interest posed by his business empire: Back in June, his spokesperson says, he sold his stock portfolio of up to $40 million in publicly traded companies.
The president-elect said he did it because he didn’t think “it's appropriate for me to be owing stocks when I'm making deals for this country.”
But there are some reasons to be skeptical. Trump didn’t announce the stock sale at the time, and hasn’t mentioned it since, even when it would have been politically advantageous to do so. He also hasn’t provided any documentation to back up his claim. And even if he did get rid of his stock, he hasn’t said what he did with the money — and it’s quite possible, given his massive conflicts of interest, that he just traded one conflict for another.
If you want to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, selling his stock would be a positive move in avoiding conflicts of interest, although his stock portfolio is dwarfed by the businesses he owns himself.
But by not offering any proof, he’s stuck to the same insufficient message on the intersection of his presidency and his business empire: The American people should just trust him.
Trump owned as much as $40 million in stock in May
Trump’s biggest conflicts of interest center on the Trump Organization, his real estate and brand licensing business. Foreign governments have an incentive to grease the rails for Trump projects and spend money at Trump-owned hotels in the US to curry favor, and Trump could use the powers of the presidency to make problems go away or open new opportunities for his businesses at home and abroad.
But that’s not the only conflict of interest. Earlier this year, Trump also had a stake in many other companies besides his own, in the form of a stock portfolio valued at as much as $40 million.
Trump’s financial disclosure for 2016, which he filed in May, listed stock holdings valued at up to $100,000 apiece in many of the largest companies in the American economy — medical and pharmaceutical companies (among them McKesson, Celgene, Gilead, and Express Scripts); retail stores (including Office Depot, Kroger, and the parent company of T.J. Maxx); technology companies (including Alphabet, Google’s parent company, as well as Amazon and Apple); and financial institutions (Wells Fargo, Visa, and Prudential, among others).
All presidents pursue policies that cause stock prices to fluctuate. That’s why past presidents have sold off their assets and put the proceeds in a blind trust, so that they don’t know what financial instruments they own and can’t make decisions that would enrich them personally. President Obama’s money is invested in index funds, which track the overall performance of the stock market, and Treasury bonds.
But the possible conflicts of interest are even more acute for Trump, who has promised to go after individual companies. He at one point owned as much as $250,000 worth of bonds from the parent company of Carrier, the air conditioning company he pressured to keep jobs in the United States. He owns stock in Apple, and he’s promised to try to force to move some of its manufacturing operations back from China. Trump was also at one point invested in the company that stands to gain from the Dakota Access Pipeline, currently the subject of intense protest and controversy.
Trump says he’s sold his stock. Did he?
Trump’s declaration that he sold his stock six months ago raises two main questions. The first is whether he really did so. The second is whether he simply reinvested the money into his other, much bigger conflicts of interest.
Trump didn’t offer any documentation to prove that he’s sold his stock. His next required financial disclosure, mandated by a 1978 government ethics law, won’t be released until May 2018.
If Trump did sell his stock, it’s odd that he didn’t mention it before. Since the election, statements to journalists about how Trump would address conflicts of interest involving his businesses never mentioned that he’d sold off stocks — which would have provided some evidence, if true, that Trump was serious about addressing the issue.
In November, spokesperson Hope Hicks said Trump had sold his stock in Energy Transfer Partners, which is building the Dakota Access Pipeline, but didn’t mention that he had apparently sold it along with all of the stock he owned.
On December 2, the Washington Post ran an article about Trump’s stock portfolio and said that a campaign spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
So there are good reasons to be skeptical of Trump’s claim.
Second, merely selling stock might have actually heightened the conflicts instead of alleviating them, because even if Trump did sell his stock, what did he do with the money? One possibility: In June, Trump said he wouldn’t use campaign contributions to cover a $50 million “loan” to his campaign, leading some journalists to suggest he might have sold the stock and used the proceeds for his run for office:
June 23: Trump announces he won't seek repayment of $50 million loaned to his campaign. Dec. 6: Spox says he sold all his stock in June.— Garance Franke-Ruta (@thegarance) December 7, 2016
But this is pure conjecture. It’s also possible he just plunged it into his other businesses, where the conflicts of interest are more complicated and potentially more momentous, and where the amount of money in play is much higher. There’s no reason to take Trump at his word on this — in part because even if he’s telling the truth, there’s no way to know that he didn’t just trade one conflict for a much larger one.
No way to know — at least until he makes voluntary financial disclosures or releases his tax returns.