After putting off a promised explanation of how he would deal with business conflicts while in office, Donald Trump tried clarifying his approach on Twitter late last night. Trump pledged to have his sons run the family business, and to have them enter into no new deals during the course of his presidency. This probably won’t resolve concerns over conflicts of interest, however:
The New York Times picks up the thread and explains the problem with the arrangement:
President-elect Donald J. Trump said late Monday night that “no new deals will be done” by his real estate business while he is in the Oval Office, a promise that appeared meant to address ethical concerns about conflicts of interest between his elected position and his real estate empire.
But the move is unlikely to satisfy critics, including the government’s official ethics office, who have said the only way for Mr. Trump to avoid such conflicts is to entirely divest his stake in the Trump Organization.
Mr. Trump said on Twitter just after 11:30 p.m. that he would leave his businesses before his inauguration and that his grown sons, Eric and Donald Jr., along with other executives, would manage them. He added, “No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office,” and promised to hold a news conference soon to discuss the plans.
According to the NYT, the selection of a Cabinet and other key appointments during the transition has taken much more of Trump’s attention than he planned. Instead of announcing plans to deal with conflicts of interest on Thursday as initially promised, it’s been put off until next month. That gives him a little more time and perspective, but it’s far from clear that he’ll have any more opportunities to apply that to his private businesses, even for a transition to other family members. The workload will get heavier, not lighter, as Inauguration Day approaches.
These tweets look like a trial balloon, and if so, they’re not going to stay aloft for long. The problem, as George W. Bush’s ethics advisor notes in the NYT article, isn’t that Trump might use his office for new deals as much as he can leverage his power to profit from his existing businesses. We’re already seeing this with foreign dignitaries lining up reservations at Trump-owned hotels. Prices and availability at Trump resorts will soon see a sharp increase in their inverse ratio, thanks to the ability to curry favor through patronage, not to mention the potential for much more favorable treatment of Trump properties overseas.
The point of eliminating conflicts of interest for a president is primarily political, not legal. Thanks to the separation of powers in the Constitution, Congress can’t set statutes governing the presidency in that manner, although the power of impeachment exists if a president steps too far out over the line. In order to succeed politically — i.e., get an agenda passed in Congress — a president has to acquire and guard his or her political capital carefully. If an executive is seen as using the office for his personal enrichment, that political capital will dissipate quickly. Just ask Jesse Ventura what happened when he decided to moonlight as an XFL television commentator during his tenure as Minnesota governor.
Besides, it’s just this kind of potential conflict of interest for which Trump criticized Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation pay-to-play scheme. The Clintons’ refusal to comply with the arms-length agreement they signed with the Obama administration in exchange for her appointment as Secretary of State did a great deal of damage to her political capital once those relationships and arguable quid pro quo outcomes became public. Keeping his connections to his business empire runs a great risk of triggering endless questions about Trump’s motives and his income, questions that could cripple his presidency in the same way it crippled Hillary’s presidential ambitions. And that doesn’t even consider the risks of having a business empire headquartered in New York, a state that will be hostile to the Trump presidency and with Attorneys General who might be motivated to look for ways to kneecap it.
Like it or not, running for president means becoming a public servant and prioritizing the public trust over private fortunes. The best way to avoid those political landmines is to divest his interests in the business as soon as possible and hand the reins off to his sons. Trump’s been running for this office for almost two years now, and he should already have a succession plan in place for this eventuality. It’s time to put it into action.