On Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump announced that he would completely leave his business interests as president.
However, he provided no details on how he would separate himself. His property holdings and business interests both domestically and internationally have been the subject of great debate over the course of the campaign only heating up after his election with questions about conflicts of interest. At times, Trump has even suggested that he will not divest himself from his businesses.
When the matter first arose during the campaign, the real estate mogul mentioned that he would set up a blind trust, seemingly not understanding the meaning of the term as he said that his children would then run the businesses, many of which are sheltered under the umbrella of the Trump Organization.
More recently, he rebuffed any questions of conflicts by saying that Americans voted him in knowing that he had the business entanglements that they now question, ignoring the fact that those have been a topic from the beginning.
And last week, in a sit down interview at the New York Times building, he said that it was “impossible” for a president to have a conflict of interest. But in a series of tweets on Wednesday, he seemed to shift, saying that he would hold a news conference with his children to discuss his plans to leave his business. Specifically, he announced:
“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 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 do this under the law, I fell it is visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses. Hence, legal documents are being rafted which take me completely out of business operations. The Presidency is a far more important task.”
Senior Adviser Kellyanne Conway indicated that the children will be taking a much larger role in the business, implying that the arrangement which is being crafted is the one that most found unacceptable when it was first suggested by Trump during the campaign — the purported ‘blind trust.’
The explanations so far leave far more questions than they answer. To being with, leaving the children to tend to the business while involving them in government — as he has — solves virtually nothing. Second, experts have warned, that simply turning over business operations to the children will also accomplish little to nothing to solve any potential conflicts.
More importantly, what has been lost in the debate is the real problem. All of the attention has been focused on conflicts of interest rules from which the president is typically exempt. The real problem arises from the fact that foreign interests — and domestic ones — will seek favorable treatment from the U.S. government by handing Trump businesses money.
Specifically, the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that no U.S. political officials should receive gifts from foreign governments. The mere fact that Trump holds a stake in offshore properties or foreign dignitaries use his hotels in the U.S., as is already the case, presents a fundamental problem.
“The problem does not go away if he still owns the company that gets the money,” warned Richard Painter, who served as chief ethics lawyer under President Bush from 2005 to 2007.
Also, Painter warned that any conversations that mixed political talk with business talk could immediately present concerns about ‘pay to play’ or ‘quid pro quo’ arrangements. The President-elect seems to already done that when it came to his golf course in Scotland when he had discussions regarding some matters with British politician Nigel Farage.
These are far more serious concerns as they not only involve matters prohibited by the Constitution, but they may also involve a host of criminal laws. President Trump is going to have a very difficult time explaining how the monies being directed to his businesses are not in the hopes of currying favor with the President or the U.S. government. In the end, Trump’s resistance to properly distancing himself from his business interests could well turn into a much bigger problem than mere conflicts of interest.