On Christmas Eve, President-elect Donald Trump announced he’s closing his controversial charitable foundation in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
But don’t be fooled — the end of the Trump Foundation doesn’t mean Trump has solved his conflict of interest problems. As long as he continues to own his for-profit Trump Organization — and to date he’s indicated no willingness to divest — conflict of interest issues will shadow Trump’s presidency.
The Trump Foundation is plagued by scandal and has been barred from fundraising since September. Officials admitted to using funds for political donations and self-dealing — both of which are illegal. Investigative reporting by the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold revealed that despite Trump’s frequent claims about how he generously donated his personal money for his foundation’s charitable work, public records indicate he actually hasn’t forked over a cent since 2008, and most of his “giving” consisted of free rounds of golf at Trump-owned golf resorts. The full picture of Trump’s charitable giving (or lack thereof) remains clouded by Trump’s unprecedented refusal to release his tax returns.
Nonetheless, in the statement announcing his plan to shutter the foundation, Trump began by asserting that “the Foundation has done enormous good works over the years in contributing millions of dollars to countless worthy groups, including supporting veterans, law enforcement officers and children.”
“However, to avoid even the appearance of any conflict with my role as President I have decided to continue to pursue my strong interest in philanthropy in other ways,” he added.
No timeline was provided, but the Trump Foundation can’t officially close up shop until the New York attorney general’s office completes its ongoing investigation into the foundation’s aforementioned illegal political donations and self-dealing.
Tip of the iceberg
Trump’s scandal-plagued charity represents a small problem relative to continued ownership of his international business, the Trump Organization.
Every modern president has either placed their assets in a blind trust or divested — former President Jimmy Carter even went as far as to put his peanut farm in a blind trust. Trump, however, doesn’t plan to follow suit. According to what he’s said so far, his plan is to let two of his adult children, Donald Jr. and Eric, manage his international business while he’s president. But the illiquidity of Trump’s assets — he will continue to know which buildings around the world are adorned with his name, and how policy decisions affect them — combined with the fact his sons are serving in official roles during the presidential transition, indicate the firewall will be far from sufficient.
The problem was summarized by the statement Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) released about the Trump Foundation news.
“The announcement that the Foundation will be shut down is a necessary first step for the incoming administration to avoid massive ethics problems, but it does not come close to ending the story,” CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said. “The Foundation’s past instances of wrongdoing must be fully investigated and President-elect Trump must sell his businesses and take comprehensive steps to prevent conflicts of interest for him and his administration. If Donald Trump truly wants to ‘drain the swamp’ and usher in a new level of respectability for the government, there are many serious issues that must be resolved and many business and financial interests that must be disclosed — and not just on Christmas Eve when most of America isn’t watching.”
Not only is Trump’s continued ownership of his business ethically problematic, but it will also result in him violating the Constitution soon after he’s sworn in as President. Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution bars office holders from accepting “any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” Foreign governments are already booking events at Trump’s new D.C. hotel — a clear example of a foreign state providing Trump with an emolument (“a salary, fee, or profit from employment or office”) that could be intended to curry favor with the soon-to-be-president.