In the six days since Donald Trump became president-elect, he has destroyed any distinction between the Trump administration and the Trump Organization. They have merged.
One of the basic tenets of being president is that you represent the people, not your own self interest. That’s why presidents typically liquidate any assets that could present even a the perception of conflict.
If you look at President Obama’s most recent financial disclosure, for instance, you’ll find only cash, government bonds, and very broad index funds.
And although George W. Bush came to the White House with more assets, he put them into a “Qualified Diversified Trust” — a financial instrument designed to avoid conflicts. Bush’s assets were given to a trustee who invested them in a “diverse portfolio of marketable securities.” These assets were “blind” in that Bush did not know what was in the portfolio and the trustee did not communicate with Bush.
Trump has by far the most extensive business activities of any recent president. But he has taken no steps to avoid conflicts between his business activities and his role as chief executive of the federal government.
During the campaign, Trump brushed aside concerns that his business activities would create a conflict, saying he would simply turn it all over to his children. Here is how Trump dealt with the issue in a January debate.
BARTIROMO: Mr. Trump, your net worth is in the multi-billions of dollars and have an ongoing thriving hotel and real estate business. Are you planning on putting your assets in a blind trust should you become president? With such vast wealth, how difficult will it be for you to disentangle yourself from your business and your money and prioritize America’s interest first?
TRUMP: Well, it’s an interesting question because I’m very proud of my company. As you too know, I know I built a very great company. But 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.
To experts in government ethics — including those who advise politicians who want to actually avoid conflicts — Trump’s plan doesn’t pass the laugh test. Trump will be fully aware of the assets controlled by the Trump Organization and could easily make decisions to benefit its interest.
But, whatever its failings, Trump at least implicitly acknowledged during the campaign that there should be some kind of separation between his businesses and his administration.
On Monday, CNN reported that Trump is seeking Top Secret security clearances for three of his children, Ivanka, Eric, and Donald Jr..
All three play prominent roles in Trump’s financial ventures. According to the Trump Organization’s corporate website, Ivanka is responsible for “domestic and global expansion of the company’s real estate interests.” She specializes in “the Trump® Hotel brand to global markets.” Eric focuses on the expansion of Trump’s golf course portfolio, including recent acquisitions in Scotland, Ireland and the UAE. Donald Jr., meanwhile, “directs new project acquisition and development for The Trump Organization throughout the world — in areas from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia, the Middle East to South America, mainland China to the United States.”
— The Situation Room (@CNNSitRoom) November 14, 2016
CNN cites a “transition official” in its report. Trump could have privately made the request for security clearances for his three children. Instead, the request is intentionally being made public.
Whether or not his children ultimately are given a security clearance (Trump could grant it himself after he assumes office), he is credentialing them as central players in the Trump administration with the ear of the president.
Trump has also already named Ivanka, Eric, and Donald Jr. to his transition team.
This means that the people running the Trump Organization will also be selecting the highest-ranking members of the Trump administration.
Again, Trump could have sought to have his children privately advise them on the transition. Instead, he publicly announced their involvement, sending a signal to all future business partners.
If there has one thing Trump has been consistent on, it’s his belief in using all available leverage to extract the best “deal” in any situation and “win.”
The next time Ivanka seeks to bring “the Trump® Hotel brand to global markets,” for example, she will have the ultimate leverage — the full power of the United States federal government.
President Trump, meanwhile, retains ownership in all his companies. So every “win” for Ivanka, Eric, and Donald Jr. is money is his pocket.