Timothy O'Brien: 'Trump Could Divest Or Sell Assets To Avoid Conflicts Of Interest'

Jan 13, 2017
Originally published on January 13, 2017 6:03 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Timothy O'Brien knows more about Donald Trump's business than most reporters. He has actually seen multiple years of Trump's tax returns. He also wrote the biography "TrumpNation: The Art Of Being The Donald." He has been closely watching how Trump plans to deal with his business while he's president.

O'Brien argues Trump could easily prevent conflicts of interest, and one way would be to just sell his business. Tim O'Brien is with us now. Welcome to the show.

TIMOTHY O'BRIEN: It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: First, let's just explain to people. How did you get to see Trump's tax returns?

O'BRIEN: Because he sued me. That's probably not the best way to try to get to see his tax returns, is it?

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Right, yeah, not like a blueprint for reporters going forward (laughter).

O'BRIEN: No, no. I was at The New York Times at the time when I wrote my book, and he sued me for libel. And that case ultimately got thrown out of court. During the course of that suit, I got his financial and business records along with his tax returns. We deposed him for two days, et cetera, et cetera.

MCEVERS: How many years of tax returns did you see?

O'BRIEN: I saw several, but I can't speak specifically about the returns themselves because they were sealed.

MCEVERS: One thing we do hear about - a lot about Trump's business is that it is a, quote, "vast real estate empire," and you have a problem with that term. Why?

O'BRIEN: I do have a problem with that term because it's neither vast nor an empire. It's actually pretty easy to quickly describe what he has. Overseas, he mainly has a handful of licensing operations that he gets a fee for slapping his name on other people's buildings. And he's got three golf courses, two in Scotland and one in Ireland.

In the U.S., he owns one commercial building outright - 40 Wall Street, and he doesn't even own the land underneath 40 Wall Street. He owns very little of Trump Tower, his signature building, because it's a condominium. And like many of the Trump-named buildings in New York that are condominiums, the condo owners own it once he sells them the units.

He's got some lucrative real estate, a retail space on Fifth Avenue. He's got a bunch of other golf courses. And then he's got 30 percent stakes in two other big buildings owned by Vornado Realty.

MCEVERS: So Trump held a press conference this week, and he and his lawyer laid out plans for how he is going to handle his business as president, you know, announcements such as his two sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, will take control of the Trump organization. They'll be no new international deals. What did you make of it? Do you think that was sufficient?

O'BRIEN: Well, I think the key thing to focus on here is the goal of all this isn't to penalize Donald Trump financially. The goal is to make sure the American public gets clean policymaking that isn't corrupted or influenced by personal deal making, and that applies to politicians of both parties.

In Donald Trump's case, he has this handful of businesses that are carrying significant amounts of debt. For example, he owns - owes over a billion dollars to about 150 institutions across Wall Street. He's going to be regulating all those banks. He plans to push through an aggressive deregulation of the financial services industry. It's going to be impossible for him to pursue those goals without people questioning whether or not he's doing them in the service of his own business needs.

MCEVERS: But their argument at the press conference - Trump and his lawyer, Sheri Dillon - was that you can't sell the businesses I mean because there's no way you could get a fair price because you're dealing with the president the United States.

O'BRIEN: It would not be a complex matter to bundle up those businesses and take them public in a REET, for example, or to sell them. And he certainly would not get wounded in fire sale prices. And there would be a reasonable auction. He would do very well.

MCEVERS: Trump and his team argue that his name is his brand, and his brand is his name, and there's no way he could possibly unwind himself from that. What do you make of that argument?

O'BRIEN: If he sells off the buildings, his name disappears. They can put the branding on hold for four or eight years, however long he's in the White House. He and his family have said they didn't go into public service for the money, and Trump should follow suit.

MCEVERS: I mean Trump is about to become arguably the most powerful person in the world. Why do you think he has been so reluctant to give up his business?

O'BRIEN: Well, I think there's good reasons for that. You know, it started on Avenue Z in Brooklyn with Fred Trump, who was a high school dropout who needed his mother's signature to get his first business deals done. And he built it into a middle-income housing empire worth hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Donald inherited that and took it to Manhattan and turned himself into a globally recognized name. So there's a lot of history and emotion and personal issues tied up in that that are wholly understandable about why he wouldn't want to give it up.

MCEVERS: Tim O'Brien is executive editor of Bloomberg View. He's the author of "TrumpNation: The Art Of Being The Donald." He joined us from New York. Thank you very much.

O'BRIEN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.