Outlining Trump's Potential Conflicts Of Interest

Dec 11, 2016
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now it's time for our regular segment, Words You'll Hear. That's where we take a word or phrase that will be in the news next week and talk about what it means and why it matters. This week, the phrase is conflict of interest. We're already hearing it during the transition to the Trump administration because of the president-elect's wide-ranging business interests. Donald Trump said in an interview on Fox News this morning that he will allow his adult children to manage his businesses. And he doesn't plan to sell his business operations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: They're not making deals, and they're going to run my company. I have a lot of property and great stuff. They're going to run it. They're going to run it. Hopefully they're going to run it properly. I'm sure they're going to run it properly. But I'm not going to do deals. And I think, you know, I think that's going to be good.

MARTIN: This Thursday, President-elect Trump is expected to make an announcement about what he plans to do with his businesses. To find out more about the possible conflicts of interest at issue here, we reached NPR business editor Marilyn Geewax. She is heading up a new NPR initiative looking into Trump's business interests and areas of possible conflict.

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Well, first of all, let me just say that the Trump Organization is a tough one to follow because it's very private. It's family-owned, and they have stakes in hundreds of companies spread over at least 20 countries. So it's a very strange structure, and it's been in the Trump family since the 1920s. They've never gone public, so there aren't a lot of public records.

And Mr. Trump himself has refused to release his tax records, so the most you can do is take educated guesses and look at the scant filings that he has put out there. Experts say that he's probably worth between $3-and-a-half billion and $4 billion. So to understand where that wealth comes from - if you look at his businesses, you can make it a little bit simpler by putting it into three big groupings.

There are three things he fundamentally does. One is licensing. That's where he puts his name on lots of different things. That could be anything from a mattress to neckties - just all sorts of things. The second thing is a collection of golf courses and resorts. And there are big names in there like Doral golf course down in south Florida.

And the third thing is, he has a big cluster of sort of real estate and retail. Like, if you think about the Trump Tower, it has stores in it. It has restaurants. It has offices. So there's that third grouping. And again, that's just licensing, golf courses, real estate.

MARTIN: What's the controlling authority here? Is there - is this a matter of perception, or is this a law that he has to abide by?

GEEWAX: Well, it's kind of tricky because all of those businesses that he has - there could be these conflicts of interest where his profits and his job as president might conflict. So who's in charge of that? Well, there are conflict of interest laws, but as luck would have it, they apply to members of the Cabinet but oddly enough not to the president and the vice president. They were written so that they don't apply to the president.

But there is something in the Constitution. It's this weird name. It's called the Emoluments Clause. That's an old-timey word. It basically means to profit from holding an office. And the Founding Fathers didn't want presidents taking bribes from foreign governments, so they put this clause in the Constitution.

But what's a bribe? It's kind of, well - if somebody's doing business in your hotel in another country, is that a bribe, or is it just they're staying at your hotel? It's a very complicated situation.

MARTIN: So again, the question is, why does this matter? Trump voters knew what they were getting. I mean, they voted for him. He campaigned on the idea that because he is a business person he would be less swayed by money in politics. So again, the question is, why is it important to keep tabs on these potential conflicts of interest now?

GEEWAX: Here's the thing. The United States is a very rich country, and part of the reason that it's very rich is because that it's been very transparent. It's sort of - when you do business in the United States, it's pretty honest. Like, courts uphold contracts, and there are laws against bribery and that kind of thing.

And countries that have good reputations - Germany, the U.K., Canada, the United States - we are attractive to people around the world to invest here because they basically believe the system is honest and clean. Countries that have bad conflicts of interest, lots of corruption - nobody wants to do business there. It hurts all of their citizens. So we all have a stake in America having a good reputation.

MARTIN: So what are we expecting to happen this week?

GEEWAX: On Thursday, the president-elect says he will have a press conference where he's going to talk about these conflicts of interest and how he plans to solve them. Most people are speculating that he's going to announce that he'll be turning over daily operations to his children, but most ethicists say (laughter) - the people who follow these things say that only total divestiture would really solve these problems.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Marilyn Geewax. Thanks, Marilyn.

GEEWAX: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.