Donald Trump held his first press conference Wednesday to directly answer the question of what he plans to do to inoculate himself from his many conflicts of interest. His answer: pretty much nothing.
Trump’s plan, as his lawyer Sheri Dillon outlined, is to put his businesses in a trust managed by his two adult sons, Eric and Donald Jr., and the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg.
“I could actually run my business and run government at the same time. I don't like the way that looks,” Trump said. “But I would be able to do that if I wanted to.”
An ethics adviser at the Trump Organization, who is yet to be hired, will have to approve new “deals.” Trump promised to donate the profits from foreign bookings at his hotels to the federal Treasury. And he will limit his “information rights” so that he only knows how the Trump Organization is doing overall, rather than the profit and loss of individual ventures.
Trump patted himself on the back for doing more than was legally required to get rid of conflicts of interest — “I have a no-conflict situation because I'm president … it’s a nice thing to have.” It’s true that the president is exempt from conflict-of-interest laws governing other government employees. The question, though, is not whether he’s following the letter of the law, but whether he’s actually tackling the problem.
The Trump Organization is an opaque, privately held enterprise with business interests all over the globe. These relationships present all kinds of ethical questions, many of which aren’t even knowable to the public because Trump refuses to release his tax returns. Instead of separating himself from these ties, he is maintaining ownership of the company and he’ll still have a financial interest. He is just outsourcing the management — to his own sons, who Trump promises will never talk business with him.
Trump’s trust isn’t a blind trust
Many observers have called for Trump to set up a true blind trust that will put distance between him and his business. A trust run by Trump’s family members is not blind — and under Office of Government Ethics rules, assets in a blind trust aren’t considered “blind” until they’re sold and the profits are reinvested.
If Trump wants to know how his businesses are doing, all he has to do is talk to his children. He will still be aware of where his businesses are located and where his new deals are being done. As Dillon said, “President Trump can't un-know he owns Trump Tower,” and “the press will make sure any new developments at the Trump Organization are well publicized.”
The argument Dillon made against setting up a blind trust is, essentially, that it would be too complicated. She had answers to many of these objections at the press conference. But many of them boiled down to the fact that selling his businesses would be inconvenient and expensive for Trump. “President Trump should not be expected to destroy the company he built,” she said.
If Trump sold his businesses, she said, it would raise questions about whether buyers were paying an inflated value to curry favor with the president. If he sold them to his children, they’d have to take out large commercial loans. If he financed the sale, he’d still have a financial interest in his properties.
But none of this is to say that it would be impossible. And all of these potential conflicts were very much knowable before Trump ran for president.
What Trump’s conflicts of interest mean for policy
Trump hasn’t addressed how he will tackle domestic conflicts of interest in policymaking. He will oversee lenders who have lent money to him, appoint members to a labor relations board who rule on disputes at his properties, and hire the next head of the Government Services Agency, which rents him his DC hotel.
On the foreign policy front, Trump claims he’ll donate foreign profits from his hotels to the Treasury. But he’d still be profiting, even if he gets rid of the proceeds. (He still earned the money; he’s just using it in in an altruistic way.) Trump could also make money off other foreign business deals. All of this, ethics lawyers argue, would violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
While it might not be ideal for Trump personally to sell his properties, it’s an entirely reasonable expectation. If Trump held any other position in the government, he wouldn’t have a choice. His conflicts of interest would be illegal under federal law, and he’d have no choice but to create a blind trust.
It’s true that is a lot to ask — and it’s why the Office of Government Ethics suggests that presidents explain financial disclosure requirements to Cabinet members early in their nomination process, in case candidates decide it simply isn’t worth it to go through all that in order to get a high-level government position.
The conflict-of-interest law doesn’t apply to the president. But what Trump’s lawyers are saying is that it’s reasonable to have a lower standard, and lower expectations, for the most powerful person in the land than it is for the people who work for him.
And in a joke at the end of the press conference — saying he’ll tell his sons, “You’re fired!” if they do a bad job running the company — Trump seemed to confirm that he’d be coming back, and that what’s good for the Trump Organization over the next four to eight years will be good for President Trump.