One of the more underrated “holy crap, is this real?” moments of the Donald Trump campaign came during a January debate hosted by Fox News. One of the moderators, Maria Bartiromo, asked Trump if he would place his assets in a blind trust if elected. (Legally, unelected appointees must do so, while mere custom enforces this practice for presidents and vice-presidents.) What followed was this surreal exchange:
BARTIROMO: Mr. Trump, your net worth is in the multi-billions of dollars and [you] have an ongoing thriving hotel and real estate business. Are you planning on putting your assets in a blind trust should you become president? With such vast wealth, how difficult will it be for you to disentangle yourself from your business and your money and prioritize America’s interest first?
TRUMP: Well, it’s an interesting question because I’m very proud of my company. As you too know, I know I built a very great company. But if I become president, I couldn’t care less about my company. It’s peanuts.
I want to use that same up here, whatever it may be to make America rich again and to make America great again. I have Ivanka, and Eric and Don sitting there. Run the company, kids, have a good time. I’m going to do it for America.
So I would — I would be willing to do that.
BARTIROMO: So you’ll put your assets in a blind trust?
TRUMP: I would put it in a blind trust. Well, I don’t know if it’s a blind trust if Ivanka, Don, and Eric run it. If that’s a blind trust, I don’t know. But I would probably have my children run it with my executives, and I wouldn’t ever be involved because I wouldn’t care about anything but our country, anything.
BARTIROMO: Thank you sir.
In this response, Trump affirms that he would place his assets in a blind trust, then proceeds to describe an arrangement that is the exact opposite of a blind trust. The purpose of a blind trust is to prevent a president from being influenced in his decision-making by his personal interests — say, if you owned stock in oil companies, any policies that boosted the price of oil would boost your portfolio. In a blind trust, your assets are sold off and controlled by a third party without your knowledge, so you don’t even know what you own.
Trump was proposing that he would continue to own all the same businesses and his kids would run them for him, creating an enormous temptation for him to make decisions that benefit his own self-interest. In the debate answer, he breezily promised that he would only do what’s best for America because he loves America so much. (Bartiromo’s “Thank you, sir” response to his non-answer was the final comic touch.)
But now he is promising to do essentially the opposite — to bully judges and foreign countries whose decisions harm his businesses. Today he pledged to reopen Trump University if elected. This goes way beyond mere conflict of interest, though there obviously is a major conflict of interest between his policy on regulation of for-profit universities and his ownership of one such institution. Trump envisions that, as president, his name would drive customers into his branded businesses. Basically, he’s promising to govern like an oligarch in a post-Soviet republic, but without bothering with subterfuge to hide the fact that he and his family are running the government for personal profit.