On CNN we just heard a law professor who is an expert on professional and government ethics explain why Trump’s removing himself from the operation of his businesses is irrelevant in terms of what we now rather quaintly call ‘conflicts of interest’. This is true, of course. And Richard Painter, former Bush White House ethics counsel and now a Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota, says that turning over ownership to his children, which Trump has not agreed to do, “would be a very, very good move in the right direction.”
This is no doubt accurate, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far.
Donald Trump clearly sees his business as a family affair. Each of his three adult children work as executives in his company. They are his heirs. He’s 70 years old. In such circumstances, technical ownership between him and his adult children is a matter of dubious significance. And again, he’s given no sign he has any intention of turning over ownership to his children or anyone else. So it’s not terribly significant if he did it. And he refusing to do it.
That applies even if we were to posit the wholly improbable notion that Trump and his children would never discuss his companies operations, which is hardly credible. He’s already talking about putting his daughter’s husband in his government.
The truth is that the unique nature of his business makes divesting himself of his businesses all but impossible. The great majority of Trump’s current business is based literally on his name. The great majority of the foreign building ventures you hear about are funded by other people. A group from country X puts up the capital and Trump licenses his name and agrees to manage the property once it’s completed. Perhaps the Trumps themselves put in some limited amount of money too. But this is the basic model. What Trump is putting up his name and to a limited extent his company’s management services.
The point is that there’s no way to sell this operation to Larry Stein and have these gaudy monstrosities become Stein Towers. The value disappears or almost entirely disappears once the name goes. The value of this business is inextricably tied to Trump’s (or his immediate family members) owning them and using his name. As we speak he’s doing precisely the same thing, just with the value of the Trump name turbocharged with the new “President of the United States” brand which generations of Americans have been building up for almost a quarter of a millennium.
As long as Trump or his family owns the Trump Organization and as long as they’re hawking building ventures around the world with Trump’s name on it, the Trump Organization will continue to be a conduit, actually a firehose of money to Trump. Being President will be the business bonanza of a lifetime for Trump.
And again, let’s remember. Trump isn’t doing any of this. He’s making a big fanfare of turning over running the company, ‘operations’.
As I’ve noted, ‘conflicts of interest’ isn’t really a phrase that works in this case. The Trump family, during the transition, is actively hawking existing and new building projects around the world on the value of the American presidency.