Donald Trump could become president of the United States and still keep his day job as chairman of the Trump Organization and impresario of all things Trump-branded. He could even promote policies that advance his business interests.
Historically, presidents have gone to great lengths to avoid these conflicts of interest, but there’s no law requiring them to do so. And Trump has said little about how he would separate his economic interests from his presidential responsibilities. When pressed, he has stated that he might hand control over to family members, but during his run for office he has funneled campaign money to his own companies and tweeted that his presidential prominence might give new life to the allegedly-fraudulent Trump University.
For her part, Hillary Clinton has faced deep-reaching questions about how her tenure as secretary of state boosted her husband’s speaking fees and whether a stint in the Oval Office might benefit well-connected friends via her family’s Clinton Global Initiative. But when it comes to personal investments, the Clintons have structured their holdings to minimize the perception that their political acts might affect their own wallets.
Trump has made no such plans. And absent some thoroughly vetted reorganization of his enterprises, it seems likely that his decisions as president would be shadowed by questions about benefits that could accrue to him personally.
Aren’t there laws to prevent conflicts of interest?
Most people in government are subject to fairly strict rules regarding conflicts of interest. Cabinet members, for instance, have to recuse themselves from any decisions that might benefit them financially — including issues that would affect close family members.
But the president and vice president are exempt from these rules.
That doesn’t mean they can do anything they like to pad their bank accounts while in office. It is still illegal for a president to hand taxpayer money directly over to his companies — say through a government contract. But these restrictions leave a lot of room for dubious dealing.
Imagine a president who owned large debt-collection agency. Hiring that agency to collect student loan debt would be unacceptable. But the president could still sign new laws to tighten bankruptcy rules, encourage high-risk mortgages, or loosen restrictions on payday lending — even though these changes would undoubtedly boost his income and his companies’ bottom line.
Trump’s operations are so broad that they could be affected by all manner of policy changes: think beachfront property and climate change, overseas golf courses and foreign policy, or tax laws and his own hidden tax returns.
Is Trump really different from other rich candidates?
America has had its share of wealthy presidential candidates, from Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy to Mitt Romney and John Kerry. But Trump is something different — not just a wealthy scion, but an active businessman managing a global enterprise.
This makes it much harder for him to set aside his economic interests during his time in office.
Other wealthy figures have generally taken one of two tacks. Either they have moved their money into more benign assets like passive index funds, Treasury bills, or simple bank accounts — the path followed by President Obama.
Or they have established blind trusts, where all investment decisions are made by a fiduciary stranger and kept secret; that was the preferred approach of both President Bushes and the proposed solution of business-mogul candidates like Ross Perot and Steve Forbes.
Trouble is, these strategies work best with paper assets, like stocks and bonds, which can be secretly shuffled between different investments behind a president’s back. But Trump’s assets aren’t like that. If some temporary custodian started selling off Trump’s golf course or buildings, that would be nearly impossible to hide.
One approach would be to follow the lead of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who ran for office while still overseeing the massive enterprise that is Bloomberg media. He eventually found a compromise to keep his economic interests from overlapping with his political decisions, handing daily control over to his executive team even as he held onto a huge ownership stake.
Trump could try to follow this approach, but there is no presidential “conflict of interest board” ready to vet his plans. And being president would give him economic sway that Bloomberg never had as mayor.
Perhaps the more troubling parallel would be with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, another business giant turned national leader. Among other things, his lightly regulated tangle of business and political interests spawned a whole new genre of lobbying. Companies eager to curry favor with the Italian government would do sweetheart deals with Berlusconi’s companies, adding up to over $1 billion extra.
And while you might hope that self-dealing on that scale would be its own undoing, Berlusconi held power for nearly nine years and survived multiple lawsuits.
What about Clinton’s conflicts of interest?
Hillary Clinton has a slightly different problem when it comes to conflicts of interest.
It’s less about her personal finances, which are organized to blunt concerns about the entanglement of public policy and self-interest. A large share of the Clinton’s net worth is in a savings account. Another big chunk is in an index fund that follows the market as a whole — not picking winners and losers.
But there are other ways for political power to translate into economic advantage. Over the last 15 years, the Clintons collected more than $150 million in speaking fees, including money that Bill Clinton earned while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. In some cases, Bill Clinton even addressed companies with issues actively under consideration by the State Department.
Beyond that, there are lingering questions about the well-heeled family foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative. Its efforts to solve global problems by bringing together business and political leaders has become a major part of Bill Clinton’s post-presidential legacy. But it has also stoked criticism that donors have been effectively paying for access to the Clintons — or worse, that they were seeking preferential treatment during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.
Despite the criticism, Hillary Clinton has said that her family will continue to be involved in the foundation even if she captures the presidency.
Wouldn’t Trump put national interest ahead of personal interest?
On the few occasions where Trump has addressed possible conflicts of interest, he’s insisted that his focus on national issues would drive out any business concerns. “If I become president,” he has said, “I couldn’t care less about my company. It’s peanuts.”
One reason to believe him is that he certainly doesn’t need the money, given his already vast store of wealth.
But a large part of his net worth is caught up in his personal brand — which you can think of as the amount of money people are willing to spend for the right to put the Trump label on their products, anything from steak to golf courses.
A seat in the Oval Office could easily boost the value of Trump’s personal brand, something the candidate himself openly celebrated in a tweet suggesting that as president he might reopen lawsuit-plagued Trump University: “After the litigation is disposed of and the case won, I have instructed my execs to open Trump U(?), so much interest in it! I will be pres.”
Note, too, that on a number of occasions, Trump has paid his own companies for services provided to the campaign, essentially taking money from his campaign pocket and putting it back in his business pocket.
These kinds of campaign behaviors would seem to raise questions about how Trump plans to balance public and private interests if he becomes president.
But there’s also a more general cause for concern. Reason is fragile, and people easily seek out noble-sounding rationales for acts that benefit them personally. That’s the reason we have conflict-of-interest laws in the first place. And while the president may be exempt from those laws, he’s not immune to the broader problem. In the words of Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”