President Donald Trump will be without precedent for a host of reasons: for his outspoken style and his lack of political experience, but also for the size and global span of his business interests – and the alarming potential they bring for conflicts of interest between those of America the country, and those of Donald Trump the entrepreneur.
Mr Trump is not the first businessman to enter the White House. Both Bushes made big money during their business careers. But modern presidents have placed such interests in blind trusts, run by absolutely independent outsiders. Less rich presidents have also taken steps to insulate their more modest holdings – in the case of Barack Obama by switching the family’s assets into that most neutral investment imaginable, US Treasury bonds.
Not so, or at least not yet, Mr Trump. The early signs are that he means to keep his business growing – and if that process happens to be facilitated by his being President, then what’s the problem? A couple of events last week pointed in that direction: his meeting with an Indian businessmen involved in a Trump venture in Mumbai; and the attendance of his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner at his first meeting with a foreign leader, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The trust Mr Trump places in his immediate family as advisers is no secret. Nor is there anything wrong with the arrangment in itself. The problem is the plan for his children, Ivanka, Donald Jr, and Eric to take over the running of the Trump business empire while their father attends to other matters in Washington. By no stretch of the imagination is that a blind trust, given the ties that bind the Trump clan.
The 45th president’s interests stretch across the world, from Britain to Turkey, from Indonesia to Azerbaijan to India, South Korea and the Philippines. According to The Washington Post, at least 111 Trump-related companies have done business in 18 countries. Only a few of these interests seem to be in the original Trump field of real estate. Most are branding deals. But the potential complication are no less.
Take Trump Towers Istanbul, from which Mr Trump has been paid $10m in name rights since 2014 by the project’s developers, who happen to be loud public backers of the increasingly repressive Erdogan regime. As the Post writes, this means the Trump-branded venture is “both a personal channel for dealmakers seeking to curry favour with the White House, and a potential target for attacks and security risks overseas”.
With its concern for the bottom line, business tends not to over-discriminate between friend and foe. The Trump empire’s tentacles range from countries that are the solidest of US allies, such as Britain or South Korea, to places like Azerbaijan, with autocratic regimes and dubious human rights records.
At home too, problems arise. Among the biggest lenders to the Trump group are the Bank of China, owned by the government of an arch-rival of the US, and Germany’s Deutsche Bank.
Again, there is nothing objectionable per se: property development involves big loans. Except that Deutsche Bank is currently seeking to agree a multibillion dollar fine by the US federal authorities for malpractice connected with the 2007-2008 housing crash here. If a settlement is not reached by January 20, it will be a Trump Justice Department that has the final say.
Nor is there any law forcing Mr Trump to change course. Some experts believe he might unwittingly fall foul of the ‘emoluments’ clause of the US constitution, that bars any US office holder from accepting “any present, emolument, office or title,” from a foreign power. What, for example, to make of foreign diplomats, who make a point of staying in a Trump hotel (and thus pouring money into the Trump business coffers)? Is that not a present?
But the standard ethics and conflict of interest laws for top appointees like Cabinet officers do not apply to the president. No need for concern, insists Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman who will be Mr Trump’s White House chief of staff. The White House ethics counsel, assures Mr Priebus, will make sure everything is squeaky clean.
But that raises a further problem, the opaque nature of the Trump Organisation, the umbrella group of the Trump empire. The company is not publicly listed, and the financial filings Trump operations are required to make tell but a fraction of the story. Meanwhile Mr Trump, unlike every president or presidential candidate dating back to Richard Nixon, still refuses to publish his tax returns. These would shed real light on his financial and business dealings, and their international dimensions.
It is, even as some natural Trump supporters admit, a highly unsatisfactory situation. One solution would be a genuine blind trust, run by someone who has no contact with Mr Trump or his family. Bettter still, Mr Trump would simply sell off his business entirely.
As even the arch-conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal put it last week, liquidation is the only real solution to the conflicts of interests tangle. “Millions of Americans have put their trust in Mr Trump to succeed as President and improve their lives,” it wrote, “not treat this as a four-year hiatus from his business.”
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