Matthew Yglesias worries the Trump will ratchet up the self-dealing and corruption once he gets in office. Reflecting on Trump’s recent sit-down meeting with staff at The New York Times, the editors made this observation in a recent editorial:
And in one area, Mr. Trump remained quite inflexible: He made clear he has no intention of selling his businesses and stepping decisively away from corrupting his presidency with an exponentially enhanced version of the self-dealing he accused Hillary Clinton of engaging in.
That last clause is important. Ross Douthat is worried about this as well (The Trump Revelations):
Amid prodding by my colleagues on these issues, he made only the vaguest of promises about firewalling himself off from his companies and investments, while constantly stressing that no clear conflict-of-interest laws govern the presidency, playing down the appearance of corruption as inconsequential and basically suggesting that he intends to continue the kind of seemingly self-dealing moments (photo ops with business partners, self-interested comments to foreign politicians) that have already cropped up during his transition.There will be no blind trust; he won’t sell off anything, because real estate is too hard to unload; he’s still signing checks (though he would eventually phase that out); he’d love to have his son-in-law working for him (maybe solving the Israel-Palestine problem!) even though nepotism laws might make it hard; his kids would run the business and he could hardly be asked not to have contact with Ivanka, could he?We didn’t need to worry, he promised, because he didn’t care about his business any more, only about America — though of course he was aware that the Trump Hotel in Washington might see more business, and that his brand was probably doing well worldwide.
Whether or not you believe a politician when he panders, it’s wise to believe him when he doesn’t. So our hour with Donald Trump left me persuaded that whether he governs effectively or incompetently, as a moderate or a conservative or something in between, his administration will be closer to a king’s court than any presidency before it — and it will be very, very good to be the king.
Trump’s interview statements on potential conflicts of interest are worth a close look. I’ve looked through the full transcript of the interview and excerpted the passages below. The New York Times gathered somewhat shorter excerpts from the full range of discussion and has published them, along with brief commentary. What follows consists of passages from the interview. Where the Times has commented on a passage, I’ve highlighted that in green and then followed it with their commentary, set in italics. The yellow highlighting is mine.
SHEAR: You’ve talked about the impact of the wind farms on your golf course. People, experts who are lawyers and ethics experts, say that all of that is totally inappropriate, so I guess the question for you is, what do you see as the appropriate structure for keeping those two things separate, and are there any lines that you think you won’t want to cross once you’re in the White House?TRUMP: O.K. First of all, on countries. I think that countries will not do that to us. I don’t think if they’re run by a person that understands leadership and negotiation they’re in no position to do that to us, no matter what I do. They’re in no position to do that to us, and that won’t happen, but I’m going to take a look at it. A very serious look. I want to also see how much this is costing, you know, what’s the cost to it, and I’ll be talking to you folks in the not-too-distant future about it, having to do with what just took place.As far as the, you know, potential conflict of interests, though, I mean I know that from the standpoint, the law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest. That’s been reported very widely. Despite that, I don’t want there to be a conflict of interest anyway.
NYTIMES COMMENT: Mr. Trump is correct that federal law, for the most part, exempts the President from conflict of interest rules, meaning he is allowed to take actions that could benefit his financial holdings. But in modern times, most presidents have voluntarily put their financial assets into blind trusts. Mr. Trump has said he does not intend to take such a step, instead will turn his companies over to his children.
Read this story for more on Mr. Trump’s potential conflicts of interest.
BILL BENZON: It’s one thing for law to except the President from conflict of interest laws. But it’s rather strange for Trump to interpret that as saying “the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” That kind of self-serving sloppiness is disturbing. The interview continues:
And the laws, the president can’t. And I understand why the president can’t have a conflict of interest now because everything a president does in some ways is like a conflict of interest, but I have, I’ve built a very great company and it’s a big company and it’s all over the world. People are starting to see, when they look at all these different jobs, like in India and other things, number one, a job like that builds great relationships with the people of India, so it’s all good. But I have to say, the partners come in, they’re very, very successful people. They come in, they’d say, they said, ‘Would it be possible to have a picture?’ Actually, my children are working on that job. So I can say to them, Arthur, ‘I don’t want to have a picture,’ or, I can take a picture. I mean, I think it’s wonderful to take a picture. I’m fine with a picture. But if it were up to some people, I would never, ever see my daughter Ivanka again. That would be like you never seeing your son again. That wouldn’t be good. That wouldn’t be good. But I’d never, ever see my daughter Ivanka. […]UNKNOWN: You could sell your company though, right? With all due respect, you could sell your company and then …TRUMP: Well …UNKNOWN: And then you could see them all the time.TRUMP: That’s a very hard thing to do, you know what, because I have real estate. I have real estate all over the world, which now people are understanding. When I filed my forms with the federal election, people said, ‘Wow that’s really a big company, that’s a big company.’ It really is big, it’s diverse, it’s all over the world. It’s a great company with great assets. I think that, you know, selling real estate isn’t like selling stock. Selling real estate is much different, it’s in a much different world. I’d say this, and I mean this and I said it on “60 Minutes” the other night: My company is so unimportant to me relative to what I’m doing, ’cause I don’t need money, I don’t need anything, and by the way, I’m very under-leveraged, I have a very small percentage of my money in debt, very very small percentage of my money in debt, in fact, banks have said ‘We’d like to loan you money, we’d like to give you any amount of money.’ I’ve been there before, I’ve had it both ways, I’ve been over-levered, I’ve been under-levered and, especially as you get older, under-levered is much better.
NYTIMES COMMENT: The Wall Street Journal editorial board, among others, has suggested that the only solution to Mr. Trump’s potential conflicts of interest is to sell off all of his assets, and then have a blind trust reinvest the proceeds. Mr. Trump suggests that this is not practical.
UNKNOWN: Mr. President-elect …TRUMP: Just a minute, because it’s an important question. I don’t care about my company. I mean, if a partner comes in from India or if a partner comes in from Canada, where we did a beautiful big building that just opened, and they want to take a picture and come into my office, and my kids come in and, I originally made the deal with these people, I mean what am I going to say? I’m not going to talk to you, I’m not going to take pictures? You have to, you know, on a human basis, you take pictures. But I just want to say that I am given the right to do something so important in terms of so many of the issues we discussed, in terms of health care, in terms of so many different things. I don’t care about my company. It doesn’t matter. My kids run it. They’ll say I have a conflict because we just opened a beautiful hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, so every time somebody stays at that hotel, if they stay because I’m president, I guess you could say it’s a conflict of interest. It’s a conflict of interest, but again, I’m not going to have anything to do with the hotel, and they may very well. I mean it could be that occupancy at that hotel will be because, psychologically, occupancy at that hotel will be probably a more valuable asset now than it was before, O.K.? The brand is certainly a hotter brand than it was before. I can’t help that, but I don’t care. I said on “60 Minutes”: I don’t care. Because it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters to me is running our country. […]BARBARO: But the structures, just to be clear, that’s the question. How do you formalize the separation of these things so that there is not a question of whether or not you as president …TRUMP: O.K.BARBARO: … are trying to influence something, like wind farms?TRUMP: O.K., I don’t want to influence anything, because it’s not that, it’s not that important to me. It’s hard to explain.BARBARO: Yes, but the structures?TRUMP: Now, according to the law, see I figured there’s something where you put something in this massive trust and there’s also — nothing is written. In other words, in theory, I can be president of the United States and run my business 100 percent, sign checks on my business, which I am phasing out of very rapidly, you know, I sign checks, I’m the old-fashioned type. I like to sign checks so I know what is going on as opposed to pressing a computer button, boom, and thousands of checks are automatically sent. It keeps, it tells me what’s going on a little bit and it tells contractors that I’m watching. But I am phasing that out now, and handing that to Eric Trump and Don Trump and Ivanka Trump for the most part, and some of my executives, so that’s happening right now.But in theory I could run my business perfectly, and then run the country perfectly. And there’s never been a case like this where somebody’s had, like, if you look at other people of wealth, they didn’t have this kind of asset and this kind of wealth, frankly. It’s just a different thing.But there is no — I assumed that you’d have to set up some type of trust or whatever and you know. And I was actually a little bit surprised to see it. So in theory I don’t have to do anything. But I would like to do something. I would like to try and formalize something, because I don’t care about my business.Doral is going to run very nice. We own this incredible place in Miami. We own many incredible places, including Turnberry, I guess you heard. There’s one guy that does — when I say Turnberry, you know what that is, right. Do a little [inaudible]. But they’re going to run well, we have good managers, they’re going to run really well.So I don’t have to do anything, but I want to do something if I can. If there is something.
NYTIMES COMMENT: Mr. Trump is hinting that even though federal law does not require him to do anything specific to separate himself from his vast business empire, he is inclined to submit to some sort of voluntary standard of ethics that would avoid conflicts of interest or their appearance. But he leaves open the possibility that there may not be a way to accomplish it.
This story has more about Mr. Trump’s business ties.
-Julie Hirschfeld Davis
BILL BENZON: As for having his children run his business, just how would that be an arms-length relationship? One last snippet from the interview:
BARBARO: Can you promise us when you decide exactly what that is, you’ll come tell The New York Times about it? One last snippet from the interview:[laughter]TRUMP: I will. I’ve started it already.