A Guide to Trump’s Conflicts

A U.S. president’s stock portfolio might normally be the focus of potential financial conflicts of interest. Donald Trump, of course, is no typical president. The Trump Organization’s global business interests raise almost limitless possibilities for conflicts, or at least the appearance thereof. Trump promised a plan to “take me completely out" of operations of his businesses, then postponed spelling out the details, then tweeted that he will put his sons in charge, then spelled out limits on new deals. Short of complete divestiture, which he’s ruled out, Trump is unlikely to satisfy critics.

1. What are Trump’s conflicts?

He’s a leader with commercial projects and partnerships across the globe. He listed more than 500 businesses in a personal disclosure form filed during the 2016 presidential campaign, suggesting at least some stake in licensing, hotel, golf and other businesses in Azerbaijan, Brazil, China, Egypt, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Israel, the Philippines and Turkey. As Bloomberg View’s Timothy L. O’Brien wrote in June 2016, “it would be hard to conceive of any major global trade deal that wouldn’t raise a red flag given Trump’s international presence.”

2. What’s the danger?

In Trump’s case, conflicts could arise if, say, an interest group or foreign government steered business to a Trump property, like the Trump International Hotel Washington D.C., a short walk from the White House. Or if he favored a country where he has a commercial interest, or the American television network that airs his show. Or if -- and this one, at least, is really happening -- the Trump Organization’s largest lender, Deutsche Bank, is fending off investigations by the U.S. Justice Department even as it continues to count the president as a client.

3. What does Trump say?

That he took care of the conflict issue by selling his stock portfolio and stepping away from business operations. The businesses were put in a trust overseen by an independent ethics officer and managed by Trump’s sons, Eric and Don Jr., and Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg. Trump also vowed that there wouldn’t be any new international business deals while he’s president -- a pledge that’s already been tested -- and that domestic deals will be reviewed by the ethics officer. Trump paints all of this as going above and beyond legal requirements, because, by definition, "the president can’t have a conflict of interest."

4. Is that true?

Strictly speaking, yes. Congress specifically exempted the president and vice president from the federal law banning members of the executive branch from taking "acts affecting a personal financial interest." Still, most recent presidents have placed their assets in a blind trust, to avoid even the appearance of conflicts.

5. Did Obama use a blind trust?

No. His investments were mostly in Treasury notes and index funds, and he didn’t control their allocation, so the potential for conflict was seen as minimal. Instead, he disclosed his investments every year.

6. Why isn’t Trump using a blind trust?

To use a blind trust, a public official must turn his or her holdings over to an independent trustee, who becomes the exclusive decision-maker on keeping, selling or reinvesting them. The trustee has no contact with the official. Trump, by contrast, indicated that he wanted any trust to be run by his own children. Plus, his assets are hard to miss: There’s little question that he derives income from the Trump Towers Istanbul. To create a truly blind trust, Trump would probably have to liquidate his holdings.

7. Do any other conflict-of-interest rules apply to a president?

Laws against accepting bribes apply to all Americans. Then there’s the foreign emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits a “person holding any office of profit or trust” from accepting a “present, emolument, office or title” from a foreign state without Congress’s permission. The rule is why, for instance, President Barack Obama didn’t keep an $18,000 watch given to him by a former Saudi king. Trump’s interests create more opportunities for emolument -- "returns arising from office or employment usually in the form of compensation or perquisites," per Merriam-Webster -- than for a typical president. But some scholars say the lightly litigated emoluments clause doesn’t apply to the president, and Trump’s lawyers say the clause doesn’t apply to the arms-length transactions in which the president’s businesses engage.

8. What do Trump’s critics want?

The most sweeping recommendation is that Trump sell his business in full. This is what the normally tight-lipped U.S. Office of Governmental Ethics seemed to believe Trump declared when, as president-elect, he said he would leave his business “in total.” The office, which is charged with preventing conflicts of interest in the executive branch, lauded Trump that day with a torrent of tweets, one of which said, "Bravo! Only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest. Good call!" One problem: Trump didn’t say he’d divest.

9. What do Trump defenders say?

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey, who served in the Justice Department under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, wrote in the Washington Post that it’s unfair to expect Trump "to sell off business holdings that he has built and managed most of his life, and with which he is personally identified in a way that few other business magnates are."

10. What does the public say?

In a Bloomberg National Poll conducted in December 2016, two-thirds surveyed said Trump should choose between being businessman or president, though 69 percent said selling all his businesses "goes too far." A McClatchy-Marist Poll in February found that 53 percent of Americans said Trump’s conflicts amounted to something unethical or illegal.

The Reference Shelf

— With assistance by Caleb Melby

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