As Donald Trump prepares to become president, he’s promising to explain how he’ll deal with the many conflicts of interest posed by his businesses and charitable foundation, even as he insists they pose “no big deal.”
But short of selling his properties and putting the proceeds in a blind trust, it’s not clear that Trump can completely resolve the controversies over his many businesses.
“There’s a uniform consensus among everyone who does government ethics for a living … those who are still in government and those who have left government, that Donald Trump must divest,” says Norm Eisen, former ethics adviser to President Obama, and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “He’s got to sell his holdings, through using a blind trust or the equivalent of it, as every president has done for 40 years.”
Since his election, Trump has settled some outstanding legal disputes, including lawsuits over Trump University and unionization drives at hotels in Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.
Trump’s efforts to put these issues behind him suggest he recognizes that he and his family face serious conflicts of interest, Eisen says.
“That being said, [Trump’s actions] are not enough. They are baby steps, when what we need is a giant leap,” Eisen says.
Trump says he will hold a press conference soon to explain his plans for his extensive network of businesses, but hasn’t said when it will take place.
An earlier press conference to address the issue was canceled in December. His transition team cited the complexity of Trump’s businesses and said he needed more time to decide what to do.
But Trump himself suggested to reporters in Palm Beach last week that addressing the conflicts was a simple matter and said his businesses are “no big deal.”
“When I ran, people knew I have a very big business. So, I mean, they elected me at least partially for that reason. So I think that’s going to work out very easily. It’s actually a very simple situation,” he said.
One issue that Trump appears eager to put behind him involves his charity, the Trump Foundation.
Trump has been accused of using money from the charity, most of which was donated by other people, to pay expenses related to his businesses. The foundation has acknowledged “self-dealing” on its tax returns, although it’s unclear what specific violations took place.
Trump announced on Christmas Eve that he would shutter the foundation, a move that makes sense, says former IRS official Philip Hackney, associate professor of law at Louisiana State University.
“It begins to eliminate a minor conflict. I really think the Trump Organization is a much more significant conflict than the Trump Foundation was ever close to being,” Hackney says.
But the New York Attorney-General’s office, which is investigating the charity, quickly scotched the idea of shutting it down prematurely.
Closing the foundation too soon could complicate the investigation, Eisen says.
“We don’t want any information to disappear into the ether when the charity closes. That’s a particular problem for Donald Trump because he has a propensity for secrecy,” he says.