Report: Trump may retain an interest in his businesses as president

It’s been said before but bears repeating: The people who should be most eager to see him divest from his businesses are his fans. We all have a stake in his success as president, but those who believe most passionately in his vision of government shouldn’t want that vision tainted by perfectly avoidable ethical scandals. Why would any Trumper care a lick what happens to his businesses at this point? It’s Trump the nationalist savior they admire, not Trump the real-estate baron or licensing dealer. He’ll still be filthy rich even if he held a fire sale of his assets. And he’ll have avoided any pitfalls this problem will inevitably cause for his presidency.

Trump tried to spin this problem last week by announcing that he’s working on a plan that will remove him completely from his companies’ “business operations.” That’s great, but that doesn’t solve the ethical problem. Giving up control of the businesses is the right first step. To fully insulate him from financial temptations in making policy, though, you need an arrangement that’s double-blind: Trump can’t know how his wealth is being invested and the people who are managing his wealth can’t know which way he’s leaning on federal policy before it’s public knowledge. If he’s going to retain a financial interest in his businesses — and if his sons, of all people, are going to be managing that interest — then there’s really no blindness on either side. People who want to influence the president will have a financial pipeline to him, and they’ll know exactly who they need to talk to in order to access it. And his sons will be warmly received by anyone in the world with whom they want to do business, knowing that a sweetheart deal will implicitly be repaid with a greater likelihood of access to Trump.

President-elect Donald J. Trump is considering formally turning over the operational responsibility for his real estate company to his two adult sons, but he intends to keep a stake in the business and resist calls to divest, according to several people briefed on the discussions…

The Office of Government Ethics has told Mr. Trump’s lawyers that only a divestiture would resolve ethical concerns, guidance that was made public in an extraordinary stream of posts on the office’s Twitter feed. Officials with the office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the plan under consideration…

Some on the transition team have privately expressed concern over how foreign and domestic interests could seek to curry influence with the president by doing business with his adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, that ultimately accrues to Mr. Trump’s financial benefit…

Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric Trump, who grew up in their father’s business and are currently executive vice presidents, have told people that complaints about appearances of impropriety could be a continuing distraction for their father as he puts together his administration.

Even the kids see the problem, apparently. But what to do? One easy thing they could do is get the entire family out of business operations; if an independent trustee were appointed to manage the Trump Organization, you’d at least solve the dilemma of the people in charge of the business being privy to the president’s plans for policy. But then you run into another problem — if the trustee can only manage the assets (hotels, real estate) rather than sell any or all of them and re-invest in others then Trump will still know how to enrich himself, even if he’s no longer controlling the assets himself. The only perfect solution is full divestment. But as it turns out, that would have problems too. Trump’s business isn’t really “a business,” it’s a collection of businesses that would each need to be sold separately, which will take time and will probably result in a smaller-than-hoped-for payday for Trump since buyers would know he’s a motivated seller. It’ll also produce a gigantic tax bill, which Trump probably could avoid on grounds that capital-gains taxes can be delayed in cases where public officials sell assets to comply with conflict-of-interest laws. But it’s not clear. Conflict-of-interest laws don’t apply to the president, as Trump himself as noted, so how could he take advantage of a tax deferment related to them? And even if he can, notes Politico, he’d probably have to sign an executive order to do it, which would look as though he’s giving himself a huge tax break.

It’s a big mess, but it’s also a mess that’s been foreseeable since the day Trump announced his candidacy last June. He’s had 16 months to prepare. Did he hold off on laying the groundwork for divestment because he never really believed he might win, or did he hold off because he fully intended to use the office to enrich himself if he did win? Whatever the answer, it’s a cinch that lesser public officials will use the precedent being created here to justify retaining their own business holdings going forward. Even if Trump himself isn’t personally corrupt by enriching himself through his office, it’s a cinch that there’ll be more corruption in government in the aggregate because of his example.

Here’s Paul Ryan essentially shrugging all of this off yesterday on CNBC as though it’s none of his business, never mind that the Emoluments Clause — which could pose a big problem for Trump when his businesses receive payment from foreign governments — specifically empowers Congress to approve “emoluments” received by a federal officer. Ryan’s caucus may, and almost certainly will, be tasked with rubber-stamping Trump’s business dealings with foreign states. At least pretend that you care, Paul.

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