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 has 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-to-day 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.