4 Questions About Donald Trump's Potential Conflicts Of Interest If He's Elected

Jun 9, 2016
Originally published on June 13, 2016 11:06 am

Presidents and leading presidential candidates often arrange their financial affairs to prevent the appearance of financial conflicts of interest. But there's never been a major party nominee quite like Donald Trump. If he's elected president, he would bring to the White House a unique potential for conflicts of interest. The typical tool in such situations is a blind trust, but given Trump's unique circumstances, a blind trust might not be up to the task of preventing him from profiting from decisions he would make as president.

What sorts of conflicts might Trump have?

On taxes, the self-described multibillionaire is on record pledging tax cuts for the wealthy. He unsuccessfully fought green energy — a wind-turbine farm — offshore from a Trump golf course in Scotland, arguing that it would wreck the view. Trump-branded properties in other countries — including a luxury golfing club in Dubai, with a second one under development, plus hotels and high-rises in Istanbul, Panama City, Seoul, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro and other cities — could be affected by U.S. foreign policy.

And just five blocks from Trump's would-be next residence, the White House, his company is developing a luxury hotel. But the ornate building (once Washington's main post office) belongs to the federal government. The Trump Organization has it under a long-term lease negotiated with the General Services Administration. The hotel should be open before the presidential limousine rolls past it, headed toward the Capitol on Inauguration Day, next Jan. 20.

Does a president have to sell any assets?

No. Federal law requires presidents to disclose their financial and real estate holdings, but nothing forces a president, vice president, House member or senator to sell off assets upon taking office. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are barred from voting on legislation that directly affects their investments, but the language is narrowly worded.

What is a blind trust?

It's a legal arrangement sometimes used by elected officials to avoid potential conflicts. An independent trustee takes over an official's investment portfolio; the official cannot direct or advise the trustee on investment decisions. Most presidents have had blind trusts since Lyndon Johnson in 1963. President Obama is an exception to this practice. He doesn't have a blind trust because his assets are primarily held in plain vanilla index funds and Treasury notes.

A blind trust works for liquid assets: stocks, bonds, other financial instruments. Trump has plenty of those, but his biggest assets are all about the Trump brand. The golf courses, high-rises and so forth can't be easily unloaded. Dropping the Trump name would very likely reduce their value.

Bowdoin College government professor Andrew Rudalevige said, "To put your identity into a blind trust is a little bit difficult."

And as Washington ethics lawyer Ken Gross said, "You can't get amnesia when you put it into a trust, and forget you own it."

What does Trump say?

When Trump was asked about setting up a blind trust earlier this year during a Fox Business debate, Trump was all over the place as to what he would do with his assets:

"If I become president, I couldn't care less about my company. It's peanuts. I want to use that same — up here, whatever it may be — to make America rich again, and to make America great again. I have Ivanka and Eric and Don sitting there. Run the company, kids. Have a good time. I'm going to do it for America. ... I would put it in a blind trust. Well, I don't know if it's a blind trust if Ivanka, Don and Eric run it. But — is that a blind trust? I don't know. But I would probably have my children run it with my executives. And I wouldn't ever be involved, because I wouldn't care about anything but our country. Anything."

A campaign spokeswoman said this week that nothing has changed since he made that statement. In other words: No blind trust.

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If you were to picture a Donald Trump presidency, his business empire would be a prominent feature. Trump claims he's a multibillionaire. His official financial disclosure runs to 92 pages, listing hundreds of different entities that he owns or makes money from. America has never had a president like this or a way to avoid the built-in conflicts of interest. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Trump's wealth is on view just five blocks east of the White House. Trump Hotels is taking over what was once Washington's main post office. Earlier this spring, Trump took a break from the primaries to show off the reconstruction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: We're getting so many questions on the building itself, how it's coming. And - this is a great speaker system, boy.

OVERBY: On Inauguration Day next January, the presidential limo will roll right past the Trump International Hotel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We have close to 300 hundred rooms, super luxury. And it's going to be amazing. We're going to...

OVERBY: But in a Trump administration, there could be conflicts of interest all over the place. Take the hotel. It belongs to The Trump Organization, but the post office building belongs to the federal government. Federal conflict of interest laws don't apply to the president and vice president.

Most presidents since the 1960s have tried to avoid conflicts by putting their investments in a blind trust. An independent trustee takes control of the portfolio, and the politician gets only minimal information on performance. It works for paper wealth, stocks, bonds, other liquid assets. But Trump wouldn't be like past presidents.

ANDREW RUDALEVIGE: To put your identity into a blind trust is a little difficult.

OVERBY: This is Andrew Rudalevige, a government professor at Bowdoin College. He studies recent presidencies. He said that for Trump...

RUDALEVIGE: It's tricky because, you know, one of the things he claims is his most valued asset is his name.

OVERBY: Trump addressed the issue back in January. A debate moderator asked if he would put his holdings into a blind trust. First, Trump said three of his children would take over. They're already active in the Trump Organization. Then, he reconsidered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I don't know if it's a blind trust if Ivanka, Don and Eric run it. But - is that a blind trust? I don't know.

OVERBY: And finally, he dug in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: But I would probably have my children run it with my executives. And I wouldn't ever be involved because I wouldn't care about anything but our country.

OVERBY: Involved or not, potential conflicts abound. Rudalevige said that with Trump's branding and his ego...

RUDALEVIGE: It's hard to know how that would actually be something you could hide and not have an impact on as you were acting as president.

OVERBY: For instance, consider foreign policy. Trump has hotels and golf courses in countries all over the world.

KENNETH GROSS: So if he puts a golf course in a blind trust, it doesn't blind his knowledge of his ownership. It doesn't do anything.

OVERBY: Ken Gross is a Washington ethics lawyer who's worked on blind trusts for House members, senators and presidential candidates.

GROSS: They are useful as a political device because they sound good when people say their assets are in a blind trust.

OVERBY: But there is no blind trust that can give you amnesia. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEMI-CHARMED LIFE")

THIRD EYE BLIND: (Singing) Do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do do, do I want something else. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.