By Nadja Popovich and Jan Diehm
I will be leaving my great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country in order to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Donald Trump tweeted on Wednesday. The early morning announcement, which provided no further details but promised a press conference on 15 December, followed weeks of bad press over conflicts of interest posed by the Trump Organization’s international real estate dealings.
“While I am not mandated to do this under the law,” Trump wrote, “I feel it is visually important, as president, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses.”
So far, the visuals haven’t been good for the president-elect. Photos showing his daughter Ivanka Trump – who is slated to take over the family business – sitting in on meetings with foreign leaders raised new concerns over the failure to separate the Trump family brand from the presidency. Days later, a series of Facebook photos showed a meeting between the president-elect and Indian real estate partners, adding fuel to the fire.
Closer to home, the business interests of the Trump Organization will cross paths with the US government on multiple fronts, providing ample opportunity for further conflicts.
General Services Administration v Trump International Hotel, DC
One of President-elect Trump’s most immediate conflicts of interest stands less than a mile from the White House: the brand-new Trump International Hotel Washington DC.
The hotel, which was repeatedly plugged by Trump on the campaign trail, is located in the Old Post Office Pavilion, a federal building leased by the Trump Organization in 2013 – well ahead of any campaign announcements. But the terms of that deal specifically forbid any “elected official of the Government of the United States” from holding “any share of part of this Lease” or benefiting from it in any way – a potential problem for the president-elect.
Trump will also appoint the head of the General Services Administration, the agency tasked with overseeing the Old Post Office Pavilion lease. That puts the GSA in the awkward position of renegotiating terms of the lease with the president or his family if Trump hands his business over to his children on 15 December, as he has suggested in the past.
Trump's children – Ivanka, Donald Jr and Eric – have also been named to the presidential transition team, which advises on cabinet and other government agency appointments.
Experts argue that the GSA should break its lease with the Trump organization before inauguration day if the president-elect does not resolve these conflicts in a more robust manner. But the agency itself has been more cautious, saying it will coordinate with the Trump transition team to resolve “any issues”.
Other government agencies also play a role in the hotel’s conflict-of-interest saga, such as the National Park Service, which recently took steps to help approve a tax subsidy worth up to $32m for the Trump Organization.
National Labor Relations Board v Trump International Hotel Las Vegas
Earlier this November, the National Labor Relations Board – an independent federal agency tasked with investigating unfair labor practices – ruled against the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas for refusing to bargain with the union representing much of its staff. Now, President-elect Trump will be tasked with appointing new members to the five-person oversight board.
Immediately, that will mean filling two vacant seats that have been empty for most of the Obama years due to deep partisan divides over the role of the NLRB. (Generally, Republicans haven’t looked kindly on an agency that would shore up union rights.)
In November of next year, Trump will also replace the NLRB’s general counsel – the person responsible for seeking enforcement of NLRB orders in federal courts. That position is currently held by Richard Griffin Jr, an Obama appointee and former union attorney. Over the long term, the three current board members’ five-year terms will end during Trump’s presidency.
The group that runs the Trump hotel in Las Vegas, Trump Ruffin, has appealed the NLRB's decision in federal court and will likely face off against Griffin or the next Trump appointee.
Department of Justice v Deutsche Bank
In September, the DoJ asked German lender Deutsche Bank to pay $14bnover its role in the 2008 financial crisis. (The bank is accused of selling bad mortgage-backed securities, bonds backed by risky mortgages that were central to the 2008 financial crash.)
Deutsche, which was reportedly prepared to pay $2-3bn in settlement, balked at the DoJ’s higher fine and has been negotiating it down ever since. Those negotiations may stretch into the new administration.
Deutsche Bank also happens to be Trump’s lender of choice, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. The German banking giant has “led or participated in loans of at least $2.5 billion to companies affiliated with Mr. Trump”, and the bank holds another $1bn in “loan commitments” to Trump affiliates, according to the Journal.
That relationship could be tricky to navigate for the Trump administration. As president, Trump will oversee the justice department and appoint the Attorney General, who will in turn oversee the DoJ’s Deutsche deal if it is not resolved before 20 January 2017.
What the President-elect could do
Trump has suggested he would leave his business “in total” by turning over operations to his children, who already hold executive roles in the company. But experts argue that such an arrangement would not solve the conflicts of interest at home or abroad.
Simply put: the interests of President-elect Trump are linked to those of his family, children included.
To guarantee a separation of personal interests from public policy, Trump would need to set up a “genuine blind trust” – one managed by an independent party – or liquidate his business assets, according to more than a dozen government ethics experts and watchdog organizations who wrote a letter to the future . As difficult as it would be to sell all of Trump’s properties, liquidation would more realistically divorce Trump from his conflicts.
If family members stay involved with the Trump Organization, the Trump administration would need to enforce “a clear firewall … so that these family members have no involvement with policy decisions at the White House”, the letter argued.
But such an arrangement is unlikely because Trump’s three oldest children – and heirs to the family business – have been named to the executive committee of the new administration’s transition team. That role gives them advisory power over their father’s picks to lead the very organizations their business interests with the Trump Organization will come up against.