At long last, Donald Trump on Wednesday unveiled his plan to separate himself from his business interests while president, something he previously promised would be oh-so simple to do at the same time he was finding reasons to delay taking any clear action on the matter. Based on what Trump shared Wednesday, the plan wasn’t worth the wait.
Standing on stage at Trump Tower, a building he owns, and joined by his adult children, two of whom he says will run the family business in his stead, the next president of the United States let his lawyer do most of the talking for him. For roughly 15 minutes, Sheri Dillon described a plan that she promised would “completely isolate” Trump from the management of his family business. But it won’t.
Even if we assume everyone involved will follow the plan Dillon laid out to the letter—a rather large assumption when it comes to Trump—the steps she described came nowhere close to addressing the very real concerns raised by good government types and ethics watchdogs, many of whom wasted no time making their frustrations clear following the press conference. “His elaborate-looking scheme constitutes at best a Potemkin trust, to coin a semi-Russian phrase,” Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe told Slate. “Mr. Trump’s ill-advised course will precipitate scandal and corruption,” Norm Eisen, who served as the chief ethics lawyer for the Obama White House, told the Atlantic. “Donald Trump’s announcement today is a classic bait and switch,” added David Donnelly, head of the money-in-politics watchdog Every Voice.
My colleagues Jim Newell and Jamelle Bouie have offered their own unflattering assessments of Trump’s plan, but the specifics are worth a closer look. Trump’s plan can be broken down into five separate parts. Let’s take them in order.
Trump will pass control of his business to his sons.
The promise: Trump will turn over management of the Trump Organization to his two sons Donald Jr. and Eric and a longtime company executive, Allen Weisselberg. Trump’s daughter Ivanka will likewise have no further involvement in the company now that she’s moving to Washington, D.C., with her husband, Jared Kushner, who will serve as a senior adviser to the president.
The problem: Trump will still have an ownership stake in the company, and therefore has a clear financial interest in its success. Nothing that Trump’s legal team described Wednesday will change that. Furthermore, it’s difficult—if not impossible—to imagine a firewall between Trump and his two adult sons, both of whom served as high-profile political surrogates during the campaign and are often seen by their father’s side. If we were to assume a firewall moving forward, that still wouldn’t change the past, during which both Eric and Donald Jr. played prominent—and official—roles in their father’s presidential transition. And even if we believe that Trump and his sons—and Ivanka and Jared—are willing and able to live through the next four or eight years without talking politics or business, that can’t stop other actors—be they domestic investors or foreign leaders—from trying to curry favor with Eric or Donald Jr. as a way to get in the good graces of the president, or to simply create the appearance that they have.
The Trump Organization will hire watchdogs.
The promise: The Trump Organization will employ an ethics adviser who will need to sign off on any actions that raise potential conflicts of interest. Additionally, it will also hire a chief compliance counsel, who will be responsible for ensuring that the company does not take any action “that could be perceived as exploiting the Office of the Presidency.”
The problem: Dillon suggested that the adviser will be a “recognized expert in the field of government experts,” but made no mention of how, exactly, that person would be selected. It’s possible, and maybe even likely, that Trump Organization execs will have a say in who gets that job, as well as who fills the role as chief compliance counsel at their company. And unless these hires are given set terms, either of these Trump employees could theoretically be fired if their oversight proves too costly to the Trump Organization. Many of the most recognizable experts in the field of government ethics, meanwhile, have called on Trump to fully divest himself from his business and place his assets in a blind trust, which serves as a reminder that Trump is not one to follow advice he does not like.
No new foreign deals.
The promise: The Trump Organization will engage in no “new foreign deals” while Trump is president. The company will, however, still be free to engage in any new domestic deals that survive what Dillon promised would be a “vigorous vetting process.”
The problem: New is the key word when it comes to foreign deals. The Trump Organization is believed to already being doing business in about 20 countries, and it appears many of those deals will continue. Trump’s foreign business partners now have an incentive to play nice or risk the direct or indirect wrath of the Trump administration. And it’s unclear if a “new” deal with a current partner would be considered “new” at all. Meanwhile, domestic companies and potential investors will know that they are getting involved with a company that has direct ties to the White House, something they will be free to trumpet publicly. The fact Trump has made it clear he is eager to single out corporations for public praise or scolding compounds these concerns. Meanwhile, without more details, the promised vigorous vetting process amounts to little more than trust us.
Trump won’t look at detailed Trump Org financial reports.
The promise: Trump will no longer have access to detailed financial reports concerning his family’s individual business interests that include separate business-by-business accounting. Instead, he’ll receive broad information reflecting the company’s profits and losses as a whole.
The problem: Dillon suggested this move would “reinforce the wall” between Trump and the Trump Organization, but that wall will still have plenty of windows. The president will still know which companies are parts of the Trump family empire (and how could he forget when so many specifically feature his own name?). He’ll be able to continue to track their fortunes via the media, allowing him to weigh in indirectly when he wants, as he managed to do shortly after the election during a call with a British political leader by bringing up the issue of wind farms he believes will ruin the views of one of his Scottish golf courses.
Hotel profits from foreign governments will go straight to the Treasury.
The promise: The company will donate “all profits” from any money paid to his hotels by foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury.
The problem: Dillon described this move as one taken out of an abundance of caution to avoid complaints about Trump violating the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which bars elected officials from receiving payment from foreign governments. It’s a classic Trumpian flourish—he loves, after all, to use other people’s money to play the part of benevolent billionaire without being one—but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. His company still stands to gain when foreign governments hold lavish affairs at his hotels. More importantly, the hotel fees are only a drop in the bucket of the money Trump receives from foreign governments and the companies they control. The far bigger problem is the millions of dollars he receives in things like rent from state-controlled companies, such as the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, which is set to renegotiate its lease agreement at Trump Tower during Trump’s first term. As Tribe put it to Slate, “Trump remains a walking, tweeting violation of the Emoluments Clause from the moment he takes office.”
And those are just the problems that arose from the specific parts of the Trump Organization the newly announced plan addressed. There are myriad other concerns that went unmentioned, such as the millions of dollars of debt from Trump’s businesses and other properties that are reportedly held by more than 150 different financial institutions, or the fact that it appears Trump could violate the government lease on his new Washington, D.C, hotel as soon as he’s sworn in.
After her 15-minute spiel, Dillon took no questions from the assembled media, who later failed to press the president-elect on any of the specifics when they had the chance, even as he gestured to the stacks of manila folders—purportedly full of legal documents related to his company—strategically positioned behind the podium as evidence of how serious he is about separating himself from the business empire that bears his name. Trump, however, couldn’t help himself in his closing remarks, which made it painfully obvious that he won’t forget about his family’s fortune while he is in the White House.
“I hope at the end of eight years I'll come back and say, ‘Oh, you did a good job,’ ” Trump said in reference to his sons and business successors. “Otherwise, if they do a bad job, I'll say, ‘You're fired.’ ” Those are hardly the words of a man with no say in how his family business will be run.