Trump's fundamental conflict of interest

A selection of Donald Trump branded chocolate bars.
A selection of Donald Trump branded chocolate bars.

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Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: President-elect Trump 's economic interests across the globe could be a problem for his presidency
  • Possibility of corruption is biggest risk that stems from his family continuing to profit from Trump properties, writes Zelizer

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." He is the co-host of the podcast Politics & Polls. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)This coming week, President-elect Donald Trump is scheduled to explain to the nation how he plans to handle his sprawling business empire of hotels, resorts and other businesses while he serves as president of the United States.

After refusing to release his tax returns during the campaign and initially insisting that he had every right to keep his businesses -- with the plan being to let his children control the empire -- he seemed to reverse course in late November when he tweeted that he will leave his "great business in total" and reveal the details on December 15. His transition spokesman, Jason Miller, also told reporters this week that he had sold his stocks in June, although he didn't provide any proof.
Then, in Trumpian fashion, the news turned again. The New York Times reported that Trump was planning to keep a stake in the business. As he originally indicated, it appears that his sons, with whom he is in close contact, will be in charge of handling the operations. Apparently Donald Trump is even going to stay on as an executive producer of NBC's "Celebrity Apprentice" while he is president.
As a result, at this point there is no real evidence that he or his family are planning to build a true firewall between the President-elect and his economic interests.
The president is largely exempt from conflict of interest laws, though legal experts have pointed out that he could be covered by the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which forbids officials from accepting gifts from foreign governments without congressional authorization. But that doesn't mean conflicts won't have an impact.
If President Trump does not wall himself off from his businesses, the political ramifications could be extremely serious -- and they will be multifold. If the Trumps control the presidency and the Trump business, our democracy will suffer.
Trump has contended that his business empire is worth $10 billion. If that is true, it has been argued that he would be unlikely to be corrupted because any amount intended as a bribe would be insignificant to a President Trump in the context of his fortune (although he is also someone who notoriously wants to earn every dollar that he can get his hands on -- or keep every dollar he can avoid paying someone).
But it is equally true that if he's worth $10 billion, any further monetary gains from keeping his business would hardly seem warranted if there's any risk of imperiling his presidency. What advantage could he possibly gain by holding onto a stake in the business, except perhaps to insure that his children were employed?
Here are the risks:

Outright corruption

The possibility of corruption is the biggest risk that stems from his family continuing to profit from the Trump properties, both within the United States and overseas. Running a dual operation of politics and business will vastly increase the opportunities for individuals and governments to essentially bribe the President, either directly or indirectly by moving forward with lucrative deals or helping to secure new investments. For much of modern American history, the nation has been working as hard as possible to diminish the possibility of this happening. This moves us in the opposite direction and creates the conditions for a scandal worse than Watergate.

Muddied motives

Even if there is not outright corruption, there will be constant instances where the motivations of different players in political negotiations are simply unclear and untrustworthy. Even before he has stepped foot into his new job, we have seen this arise on many occasions. There have been news reports about his investments in the parent company of Carrier, Ivanka's pending business deal with a Japanese government-backed company (which was in play when she met with the Japanese leader during his visit to her father), Trump's praise for the brutal war on drugs in the Philippines where he has a hotel, or his conversation with the leader of Taiwan, where earlier this year someone who said they were associated with the campaign was reportedly in talks about opening a new property on his behalf.
Do Trump business ties pose conflicts?
Do Trump business ties pose conflicts?

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When it was revealed that the Bahrain government was to host an event at Trump's new D.C. hotel, many eyebrows were raised about what their intentions were. There have even been concerns that Trump is using the entire appointment process as a way to showcase his properties in New York, New Jersey and Florida with free advertising every time someone comes in and out of a meeting.
There are also specific properties where his influence over government policy will conflict with the needs of his holdings, of which he is a notorious micro-manager. Democrats have been asking how the Government Services Administration will deal with the Trump hotel company that signed a 60-year lease for the old US Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue.
All of these kinds of connections continue to undermine the credibility of his decisions and create confusion among officials dealing with Trump about what is expected of them, even if the new President does not say a thing.
Given that Trump has been so protective about disclosing the full scope of his investments, and as the Wall Street Journal reports many of them are difficult to discern because they are obscured through complicated LLC's, Americans don't even know where the conflicts might be. In short, we need to know that Trump will only be thinking about what's in the interest of America, not in the interest of his bank account.

Decisions for himself, not for the republic

With the family still running its businesses, there could be many occasions when the President might actually make decisions for the purpose of providing his family economic benefits rather than for the good of the nation. While this might be technically legal (although scholars are debating this) it doesn't make the situation any less problematic. With the job of the presidency comes the responsibility of thinking about what is best for the nation.
This could be Trump's 'constitutional crisis'
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Of course, nobody would say that politics is pristine. Presidents have a number of factors that they consider when making decisions, from the interests of their party to the interest group pressure that they face on any given problem. But there is every reason to remove the very obvious negative incentive of private profit. This is a problem that is easily solved. The point of removing these kinds of incentives is to protect him from the temptation to make the wrong move, so that he doesn't even have this option on the table.

Who will pay to protect his properties?

Now that he is going to be the president of the United States, his properties and resorts will be seen as potential targets. This will probably mean that it will be necessary to direct vast government resources to protect the holdings as well as the areas surrounding them. This has already become an issue right here in New York, where the Secret Service has been racking up massive bills, as has the city, to keep Trump Tower secure while he uses it as his White House-in-waiting. If there is some kind of attack on a property overseas or within the United States, this might require a military response and budgetary resources. "We have to have protection for those buildings," said the ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, Richard Painter, "Will it be US taxpayer money or foreign government money? Foreign government funding raises constitutional issues."

Eroding the perception of public service

We live in an era when public confidence in government is in terrible shape. Ever since the turbulence over Vietnam and Watergate, public trust in government institutions has continued to steadily decline. Of all the political figures in the nation, the presidency looms largest in the minds of average citizens, from little children to the elderly.
If Trump decides that holding the presidency is not worth the sacrifice of selling off his businesses, or even stepping down as an executive producer for "Celebrity Apprentice," it will send a troubling signal to the electorate about what it means to be president. For a child in school, this would mean that the honor of being president is not worth the costs of losing control of a business. It would mean that a potential conflict of interest for the president is something that we can live with.
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So in the coming week, Donald Trump has his first chance to show that he is really not the person many of his critics think him to be, and that he has a true understanding of the weight of the job he will now hold. He can only doing so by cutting his ties to the business that he has created, and not by handing this off to his children. He must create a true firewall between the Trump White House and Trump Incorporated.
Otherwise, it is virtually inevitable that these worlds will continue to verge in very dangerous ways, bringing back the atmosphere that led to Watergate and spurred the ethics reforms that today so many Americans assume should be part of our government.