What Trump should do about his busi­ness em­pire

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE -

Barack Obama was a sen­a­tor, Ge­orge W. Bush was a gov­er­nor, Dwight Eisen­hower was a gen­eral. The typ­i­cal pres­i­dent-elect comes to the White House know­ing how to cash a gov­ern­ment pay­check.

Then there is Don­ald Trump, the na­tion’s in­com­ing en­tre­pre­neur-in-chief. Pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents have been wealthy or had busi­ness ex­pe­ri­ence (Harry Tru­man ran a men’s cloth­ing store), but it’s safe to say Trump’s shift di­rectly from corner of­fice to Oval Of­fice is un­prece­dented. He is a glob­ally ac­tive real es­tate and mar­ket­ing mogul who doesn’t plan to shut down the fam­ily busi­ness just be­cause he’s mov­ing from New York to Washington.

That de­ci­sion brings with it a wor­ri­some ques­tion about how to man­age con­flicts of in­ter­est be­tween his new and old jobs. It is in the na­ture of Trump’s two ca­reers that they are go­ing to col­lide. He’s got prop­erty in­ter­ests and brand­ing deals around the world, mean­ing when Pres­i­dent Trump makes a de­ci­sion or just speaks about, say, In­dia, there could be more than for­eign pol­icy im­pli­ca­tions at stake. There is also the value of Trump Tower Mum­bai.

The usual route for a high-rank­ing of­fi­cial is to sell off as­sets and put in­vest­ments in a blind trust man­aged by an out­sider. That of­fers as­sur­ances that all de­ci­sions made while in of­fice are for ev­ery­one’s good, not per­sonal en­rich­ment. How­ever, pres­i­dents aren’t re­quired to do that be­cause the of­fice is ex­empt from a fi­nan­cial con­flict-of-in­ter­est law gov­ern­ing other of­fi­cials in the ex­ec­u­tive branch. The think­ing is that be­ing pres­i­dent has such wide-rang­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity that con­flicts are dif­fi­cult to avoid and to po­lice.

For Trump, keep­ing of­fi­cial and pri­vate in­ter­ests on­go­ing but un­tan­gled will be es­pe­cially tricky, even if he never lifts a fin­ger to ac­tu­ally par­tic­i­pate in Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion ac­tiv­i­ties. That’s be­cause his vast em­pire is built in part on the value of his name, and his brand has never been stronger (OK, ex­cept among Democrats). That opens Trump to crit­i­cism of be­ing a walk­ing, talk­ing con­flict of in­ter­est, be­cause he’ll be the most pow­er­ful man on earth at the same time there will be Trump prod­uct for sale. Some of that prod­uct is just six blocks from the White House: the new Trump In­ter­na­tional Ho­tel — per­fect for the diplo­mat who needs to book rooms and also wants an easy con­ver­sa­tion-starter with ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials.

Trump, not one for over­think­ing life’s nu­ances, doesn’t seem wor­ried. The law’s on his side, he said, and he doesn’t care about the fu­ture per­for­mance of his com­pany. His chil­dren will tend to that while he runs the na­tion. Legally, he told The New York Times, he could be pres­i­dent of the United States and pres­i­dent of his com­pany, and even keep sign­ing the checks. “But I would like to do some­thing,” he said. “I would like to try and for­mal­ize some­thing.”

We think he needs to take con­crete ac­tion, law or no law. He doesn’t need to sell his busi­nesses or place his own­er­ship stakes in a blind trust. Trump made it clear dur­ing the cam­paign that he’d hand over day-to­day busi­ness af­fairs to his chil­dren, and the vot­ers ac­cepted that. If the hon­ey­moon suite at Trump’s ho­tels sells out, or con­versely can’t be given away, that will be one of many odd­i­ties of the Trump era.

But Trump and his chil­dren should be care­ful not to use their mar­ket­ing prow­ess to try to make any quick bucks from the pres­i­dency. That would be un­seemly, which is what the fam­ily learned af­ter an overea­ger em­ployee pub­li­cized the $10,800 Ivanka Trump bracelet she wore dur­ing the “60 Min­utes” in­ter­view.

More broadly, be­fore tak­ing of­fice Trump needs to dis­en­gage en­tirely from busi­ness ac­tiv­i­ties and set in place eth­i­cal pro­to­cols to pre­vent con­flicts of in­ter­est or even ap­pear­ances of con­flict. That should in­clude nam­ing one or sev­eral White House of­fi­cials to keep close tabs on ac­tiv­ity to pro­tect the pres­i­dency and the pub­lic from un­ex­pected trou­ble. Some quick ex­tra ad­vice: What­ever the White House and State Depart­ment did to build a fire­wall be­tween the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion and Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton’s work wasn’t enough. Ea­ger for­eign donors to the foun­da­tion thought they were owed ac­cess to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

If Trump doesn’t sep­a­rate him­self from his and his fam­ily’s busi­ness in­ter­ests, how long be­fore he’s seen as tak­ing ac­tion as pres­i­dent be­cause it was good for Trump and not Amer­ica? Those kinds of al­le­ga­tions would harm the pres­i­dency. Ul­ti­mately they would tar­nish the rules of fair­ness ev­ery­one must re­spect.

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