Well-connected kids.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Trump’s Tangled Web of Family and Business Ties

Timothy L. O'Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include "TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald."
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On Friday, Donald Trump named his three eldest children -- Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric -- along with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to his presidential transition team. That group will direct the appointment of about 4,000 new people to posts that the White House oversees within the federal government.

Those appointments are where the president-elect knits together people with his policies; people who get those jobs are by nature beholden to Trump’s transition team.

Membership on the transition team also gives the eldest Trump children skin in the policy game, despite months of assurances from their father and others that there would be a bright, impermeable line separating them -- and their financial stewardship of the Trump Organization -- from the inner workings of the White House.

Donald Trump himself already brings ample financial and business conflicts of interest to the White House, as I’ve noted before in columns in June and last Friday. And President Trump, like all presidents, will be free from the conflict-of-interest laws that proscribe the financial dealings of most other members of the executive branch.

That arrangement will give the future president the ability to continue engaging in the real estate and licensing deals on which he has built his fortune -- and allow him to keep his promise of forgoing the $400,000 salary that the White House’s chief executive earns annually.

Of course, if the value of your name, on which your company is built, soars as a result of being president, then giving up $400,000 isn’t quite the trade-off it appears to be. If you can craft public policies so they benefit your businesses and allow you to make even more money, well, then the trade-off evaporates further.

Instead of using laws to keep presidential greed and self-interest in check, the U.S. has relied on two voluntary traditions: disclosure (via the release of presidential tax returns) and distance (by placing presidential assets and enterprises in a blind trust).

Trump has already spent more than a year demonstrating that he has no interest in releasing his tax returns. Bringing his children onto his transition team is the first formal indication that distancing the Trump Organization from the Oval Office isn’t a high priority.

In a “60 Minutes” interview aired Sunday, Trump said he didn’t care if his controversial presidential bid damaged his business brand. “This is big-league stuff,” he said. “I don’t care about hotel occupancy. It’s peanuts compared to what we're doing.”

When Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” asked the eldest Trump children if they were going to stay in New York and run the family business, Donald Jr. and Eric quickly nodded “yes.” Ivanka was more equivocal, saying she would advocate for issues that animate her while keeping her Trump Organization job, but that she would not be part of the Trump administration. (She and her father have no choice anyway; an anti-nepotism law -- put in place after John F. Kennedy appointed his brother Robert as attorney general during his presidency -- prevents Trump from giving her any government job that the White House oversees.)

Trump’s three eldest children are all involved in managing properties globally for their father’s boutique operation. That portfolio largely consists of commercial and residential real estate, along with licensing and development deals related to golf courses and hotels.  Eric has focused on running the golf courses and the family vineyard in Virginia; Ivanka has taken the lead on the family’s hotel operations and manages her own fashion business, while Donald Jr. oversees the family’s existing real estate holdings.

Trump surrogates insist that concerns about conflicts of interest are overblown. Rudolph Giuliani, a senior Trump adviser and prospective cabinet member, told CNN that Ivanka and her two eldest brothers won’t be offering policy advice to Trump come January, though he conspicuously avoided commenting on what might happen over the next two months.

“There will have to be a wall between them with regard to government matters,” Giuliani told CNN.

Well, not between all of them. Giuliani said that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has his own business interests apart from the Trump Organization, which puts him in a “different situation” regarding conflicts than Trump’s eldest three children.

Presumably, Giuliani means that Kushner won’t be conflicted because he’s only a member of the Trump clan by marriage. Or perhaps he means that Kushner isn’t conflicted because he'd only talk business with his wife, Ivanka, while talking policy with his father-in-law, President Trump. Or perhaps Giuliani means Ivanka wouldn’t have conflicts because she’d talk business with her husband and brothers, while only talking policy with her father.

That’s all very confusing. Perhaps intentionally so. Ever since the scandals of the Watergate era, presidents have been much more forthcoming about how they manage their finances. Before Trump gets to Inauguration Day, he would do well to spell out the rules he and his family plan to lead and live by.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net