Trump Says He Will ‘Leave His Business.’ That Probably Means Nothing.

By
Out of business?Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Donald Trump has spent his first three weeks as president-elect demonstrating how seriously he takes his obligation to eliminate the conflicts of interest his business presents. Which is to say, he has demonstrated that he takes them as seriously as you take this photo of Glenn Beck.

During the campaign, Trump vowed to place his company into a “blind trust,” an arrangement that is so obviously impossible in this circumstance — you can’t “blindly” own a collection of real-estate properties that have your name printed on them — the suggestion seemed an insult to the public’s intelligence (or else to Trump’s). The mogul further heightened the absurdity of his proposal by explaining that this “blind trust” would be run by his children.

Upon winning the White House, Trump has refused to abide by the terms of this (utterly inadequate) promise, giving the managers of his “blind trust” positions on his transition team, and letting one of them into closed-door meetings with foreign dignitaries. He has also personally met with his Indian business partners, implored a British politician to fight a wind farm that would mar the view at one of his golf courses, allowed his hotel to court the patronage of 100 foreign diplomats, looked into leasing multiple floors of Trump Tower to the Secret Service for millions of dollars, and let the kingdom of Bahrain — which he had attacked the Clinton Foundation for taking money from — book his D.C. hotel for a celebratory luncheon next month.

In the wake of all these ugly headlines, Trump published the following tweets Wednesday morning.

Now, considering the way Trump has comported himself lately, one might think that news outlets would be careful not to present this inscrutably vague promise at face value. But then, one would be wrong.

It’s possible that Trump is signaling a substantive effort to extricate himself from his conflicts of interest. The phrase “legal documents” offers a scintilla of hope, in that regard. But if those legal documents don’t transfer ownership of the company from Trump to someone with a different last name — or, at least, transfer control of it to an independent board of directors, while mandating rigorous transparency measures that expose the organization’s inner workings to public scrutiny — then his tweets mean literally nothing.

To briefly elaborate on the two options just referenced: The best thing Trump can do would be to liquidate his company as quickly as possible. Granted, the business will be worth less when it isn’t owned by the president of the United States — which is to say, when it isn’t a kleptocratic enterprise — but selling now would allow Trump to avoid paying taxes on the profit of the sale. (To help keep the revolving door between the federal government and the economy’s commanding heights well-greased, executive branch employees are allowed to dispose of their assets in tax-advantaged ways.)

Failing that, Trump could take the approach proposed by The Economist:

The best solution is for Mr Trump to follow precedent and put his assets at arm’s length. The business should also be transparent to Congress and the public. Three steps are required. First, the firm must aggregate its legal entities under one holding company and publish consolidated accounts that capture its entire scope of activity. Second, an independent board of directors must be appointed, and it must appoint an external chief executive. Lastly, this board must be given a mandate that allows it to sell, but not buy, assets; and that requires it to distribute all profits as dividends and to refrain from new foreign investments. The effect would be to turn the Trump Organisation into a mature portfolio of domestic property assets which generate rental payments for the Trumps.

Trump does not appear to be interested in taking either of these routes.

The president-elect has promised to “leave his business,” in the sense of transferring control to his children, since early in his primary campaign. If he is just reiterating that promise, there’s no news here.