There’s a way presidents handle their businesses — and then there’s what Trump’s doing
Just two weeks into the election of Donald Trump, conflicts of interest in his business are already justifiably raising all kinds of questions that many Republicans, including Trump himself, don’t seem too interested in answering. So, here’s a quick history lesson: when President Jimmy Carter took office back in the 1970s, Republicans were so incensed by the great conflict of interest that was his small peanut farm that a Republican-leaning investigator was hired to, as Rachel Maddow put it last week, “go up and down through every peanut shell to try to find something, anything scandalous.” They found nothing, but to avoid even the narrowest chance that his new political post would unfairly benefit his business (again, a tiny peanut farm), Carter gave it up.
Clearly this isn’t be the first time a president with business holdings (just not to the extent of Trump’s enormous brand) came into office. After all, there’s a way presidents are supposed to handle their businesses, and then, well, there’s the way Trump is handling this. President John F. Kennedy placed all of his assets into a blind trust, ceding control and knowledge of his wealth to trusted individuals so it wouldn’t influence his politics.
Even President Nixon, hardly known for his honesty, liquidated all of his (admittedly minimal) assets, again, to avoid a conflict of interests. Trump repeatedly fell back on Nixon and the fact that Nixon didn’t release his tax returns as a sort of justification for why he didn’t need to; if he’s so keen on taking cues from Nixon, here’s his chance.
As MSNBC chief legal correspondent Ari Melber notes, Trump isn’t obligated to fully remove himself from his businesses by the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. However, presidents are required to meet stringent disclosure requirements and to “avoid abusing government power for private gain.” Although Trump could try to argue that he isn’t explicitly using his office for private gain, there’s no shortage of examples of his new job very much benefiting his brand. For example, foreign diplomats are already admitting that they’ll only be staying at Trump Hotel and drinking Trump wine when they visit, so as to not insult him.
Additionally, according to a report published by La Nacion, Trump asked Argentina President Mauricio Macri for help with permits for one of his delayed office building projects in central Buenos Aires in a chat that was supposedly just congratulatory. Worse yet, Ivanka Trump, who herself is a businesswoman in her own right while also playing a substantial hand in her father’s business operations, was reportedly involved in the call and sat in on Trump’s meeting with Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.
While Trump could easily (although less easily with the incriminating La Nacion report) claim there was no intent to promote himself, that’s difficult to believe, especially looking at all that his equally despicable family members and in-laws are already doing to advance themselves and their own brands through his new job.
While Trump can’t be penalized for staying involved in his businesses nor for handing them off to his children, it’s worth noting that the Emoluments clause in the Constitution bans government officials (i.e. presidents) from accepting any kind of gift from a foreign entity. According to Melber, “A transaction between a Trump entity and a company owned by a foreign government … could be grounds for impeachment.”
You’d think Trump would do something — be more transparent about his holdings, establish a blind trust, etc. — to reassure people that this isn’t the huge fucking problem it is. “Prior to the election it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world. Only the crooked media makes this a big deal!” Trump tweeted on Monday.
This isn’t a partisan issue: no matter what Trump says, mixing politics with business and personal profit is incredibly dangerous, especially given the global nature of Trump’s business empire and the close contact he’ll have with foreign officials as president. But at the end of the day, his inability to recognize and address this has the potential to hurt him more than anyone.