Trump Would Have a Hard Time Divesting His Businesses—Even If He Wanted To
Late on Nov. 21, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted: “Prior to the election it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world. Only the crooked media makes this a big deal!” He may have been referring to stories, since denied, about whether he used a post-election phone call with Argentina’s president to discuss a planned Trump-branded development in Buenos Aires. Or photos of Trump taking time off from vetting cabinet members to meet with his Indian business partners. Maybe it was the photo of his daughter Ivanka Trump sitting in on his Nov. 17 meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Trump’s businesses, which give him an estimated net worth of $3 billion, are far-flung. He owes debts to foreign lenders, including Deutsche Bank and UBS. He’s associated with companies battling with federal regulatory agencies, whose heads he will appoint. He has ties to real estate concerns in several countries, including Azerbaijan, the Philippines, and Turkey.
Among the conflict-of-interest questions swirling around his global business interests, the $150 million Trump Tower at Century City in Manila’s financial district stands out. Century Properties Group, the Manila company behind the tower, paid as much as $5 million to use the Trump name in a licensing agreement, according to the personal financial disclosure Trump filed with the Federal Election Commission in May. Trump has at least 10 similar deals around the world, each of which might complicate his administration’s international diplomacy. But in Manila, there’s an extra connection: In October, Century Properties’ chief executive and controlling stakeholder, Jose E.B. Antonio, was appointed to serve as a special government envoy to the U.S. for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has vowed to expel American troops from his country and is drawing closer to China.
Antonio told Bloomberg News that he visited Trump Tower in New York days after the U.S. election; he didn’t speak to the president-elect but says he saw Trump talking with potential appointees. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks says: “They did not meet.” Antonio sees no conflict between his public role and Century’s private partnership. “My role is to enlarge the relationship between the two countries,” he says. Of his business tie to Trump, he adds: “I guess it would be an asset.”
The president-elect could resolve real and apparent conflicts by liquidating all of the assets associated with the Trump Organization—including his golf courses, hotels, licensing arrangements, and office towers in Manhattan and San Francisco. Since his Nov. 8 election, Trump has shown no inclination to divest himself of his business interests. He plans to hand management over to his eldest three children—Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric—while he’s in office.
Even if Trump wanted to divest, it wouldn’t be easy. Many of his assets are in real estate, rather than in simple stocks or bonds, while others depend on his involvement for their value. “Trump the brand is very closely intertwined with Trump the man,” says Harold Vogel, an expert on entertainment-industry finance.
Trump’s international conflicts largely stem from his licensing deals with international developers. The structure of these arrangements, under which he lends his name to owner-developers on the premise that it will help them sell condos and hotel rooms at higher prices, isn’t public. With other assets, Trump might not be in a position to get top dollar. The profitability of his golf course portfolio—12 in the U.S., two in Scotland, and one in Ireland, and two more planned in the United Arab Emirates—is mostly secret. The three European courses file annual reports that are publicly available, and all three are money-losers.
Trump holds a 60-year concession to run a federal government building on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue as the Trump International Hotel, which opened in October. Under the arrangement, he shouldered about $200 million in renovation costs and pays $3 million a year in rent to the General Services Administration. According to the Washington Post, foreign diplomats are already piling into the hotel to curry favor with a Trump administration.
Trump owes Deutsche Bank, his largest lender, about $300 million in loans against the hotel and his Doral resort in Florida. Deutsche Bank is in settlement talks with the U.S. Department of Justice over its lending practices leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. Trump has said he will appoint Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions to be attorney general; Sessions hasn’t indicated whether he’d recuse himself from the Deutsche Bank case or others involving business partners of his boss. Christopher Jackson, a spokesman for Sessions, declined to comment.
One of Trump’s most valuable assets is a 30 percent stake in two office towers—one in Manhattan, one in San Francisco—valued by Bloomberg at $590 million. Both are majority-owned and managed by the publicly traded Vornado Realty Trust. Trump’s name isn’t on either one. Cathy Creswell, director of investor relations at Vornado, didn’t return calls for comment. By remaining involved in the Vornado partnership, he remains indirectly exposed to its debtors for those towers, including the Bank of China.
Some of Trump’s other assets, like his Manhattan leaseholds for 40 Wall Street, an office tower, and the building at 6 East 57th Street, which houses a 90,000-square-foot Niketown store, would be relatively easy to part with, says Joshua Stein, a New York real estate lawyer. Trump hasn’t said whether he’ll put his liquid assets—stocks, bonds, and funds totaling about $170 million as of his May disclosure—into a blind trust. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did just that. Jimmy Carter appointed an independent trustee to oversee his Georgia peanut business when he became president. Amanda Miller, a vice president of marketing for the Trump Organization, declined to comment.
Even without selling his businesses, there are ways the president-elect could wall himself off from his financial interests, says Norm Eisen, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution who previously served as the Obama administration’s ethics czar. Trump could appoint an independent chief executive officer, institute a list of Trump Organization executives he won’t talk to, and remove his children from leadership roles there. “No matter how complicated it may be to unwind his involvement in these assets, it is going to be infinitely more complicated for him and the U.S. and the world if he doesn’t,” Eisen says.
There have already been complications. Trump has agreed to pay $25 million to settle claims that his defunct Trump University cheated students. And the Trump Foundation admitted in an IRS filing to a self-dealing transaction with Trump. IRS rules generally prohibit such transactions.
Rather than taking steps to reduce his conflicts, Trump has rejected the idea that they pose any problems. His daughter Ivanka joined his call with Argentine President Mauricio Macri; her brother Eric took selfies with one of his Argentine business partners on election night. Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, who has his own real estate interests through the privately owned Kushner Cos., has been advising Trump. “During his campaign, Trump thumbed his nose a little bit at our extreme sensitivity,” says the lawyer Stein. “I would expect him to thumb his nose at conflict-of-interest concerns, too.”
—With Ben Brody and Ben Bartenstein
The bottom line: Trump’s business arrangements are unprecedented for an incoming president, and he’s shown no sign of wanting to divest.