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Trump’s Plan To Separate Himself From His Businesses Is Essentially Worthless

In this April 9, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump acknowledges supporters while leaving Trump Tower in New York. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JULIO CORTEZ
In this April 9, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump acknowledges supporters while leaving Trump Tower in New York. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JULIO CORTEZ

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump owns a lot of companies. His latest personal financial disclosure statement is a beast at 104 pages, listing all of his assets and their estimated values.

These financial interests present scores of conflicts for a potential President Trump. With Trump in the White House, no existing law would require him to avoid decisions that might directly affect his personal wealth.

So what, then, would prevent Trump from using the power of the presidency to benefit his own companies?

Trump attempted to answer that question on Friday, during a press conference at his golf course in Scotland. There, Trump was confronted with a recent CNN poll showing that nearly 7-in-10 voters want him to cut ties with his businesses if he’s elected president. Apparently, the poll showed, most voters want assurance that the president is acting in their best interest, and not his own.

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Trump — as he has before — said he will “absolutely cut ties” with his businesses if elected president, and hand the reins over to his adult children.

“If I win, even though I don’t have to do that I would probably put everything in trust,” he said on Friday, acknowledging the fact that legally, he doesn’t have to abandon his businesses if he doesn’t want to. “My children will run it along with my executives. It’s a big company. My children will run it along with my executives, and just do a good job running it.”

But here’s the problem: According to government ethics experts, Trump’s plan won’t actually absolve him of his nearly endless conflicts of interest.

How Trump Could Make A Mint Off The White HouseIf the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump wins the presidency this November, it will be a historic result for…thinkprogress.orgThe ethical problem with Trump’s plan is, at its core, nepotism. Under most conflict of interest laws (laws that, again, don’t apply to the president), the interests of your family — your children, your siblings, your spouse — count as your own. Under most conflict of interest laws, elected officials cannot participate in decisions where the outcome would impact the financial interests of their families.

“There’s always been a sense that something that benefits the interests of your children creates just as much of a conflict as something that benefits you,” said Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “So that doesn’t really get him anywhere, as I see it.”

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Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, agreed. In an interview with ThinkProgress earlier this month, he said it might be difficult for Trump to make decisions he knew could harm his kids’ pocketbooks.

If he’s giving this high leverage portfolio to his kids, and he starts reigning in the banks, he knows it’s going to destroy his kids’ wealth.

“If he’s giving this high leverage portfolio to his kids, and he starts reigning in the banks, he knows it’s going to destroy his kids’ wealth,” he said.

Even if, theoretically, Trump didn’t care about the financial well-being of his children, Bookbinder added that Trump would still likely have pretty direct contact with both his children and his business executives, to whom he says he’s going to hand control of his companies.

“Presumably there’s going to be pretty frequent contact between him and his children,” Bookbinder said, “So you don’t have a level of confidence that there’s not conflict there.”

As for Trump’s suggestion that he’d put his interests into a blind trust, Painter said that probably wouldn’t solve the problem. Trump knows what his own companies are — he knows how much they’re worth, and what policies would affect them. Painter likened this idea to “putting a diamond ring in a shoebox and pretending you don’t know what’s in the shoebox.”

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According to Painter, the only way for Trump to erase his myriad conflicts of interest would be to “get rid of the real estate holdings, put them in a holding company, do an IPO of that company, and get rid of it all, covert it to cash, pay the capital gains tax, and maybe get a certificate of divestiture which lets [him] postpone the capital gains tax.” Trump, however, hasn’t signaled that any of that would happen if he takes the White House.