Depth of Trump empire poses unprecedented conflicts of interest, experts say

"He's off the hook," analyst Kenneth Gross said of Trump being exempt from federal law that bans the use of public office to grow personal wealth.
By Doug G. Ware  |  Nov. 11, 2016 at 9:18 PM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- While having a billionaire in the White House calling the shots for the domestic economy might have its advantages, a president who's so deeply-rooted in the American corporate apparatus also raises its share of red flags, experts say.

The positive effects of a Donald Trump administration are already being felt on Wall Street, just three days after his stunning upset. But government watchdogs, financial experts and policy academics are now beginning to wonder if the successful developer's personal interests might trump those of the 325 million Americans he will soon be acting in behalf of.

"If he doesn't address this problem, every single decision he makes will be questioned as a conflict of interest," policy expert Paul S. Ryan told Politico Friday. "President-elect Trump campaigned against corruption, and America deserves his making good on that promise and cleaning up government."

In fact, experts note, Trump's business dealings are so extensive and so influenced by White House policy that they create a scenario so unprecedented that there aren't any laws on U.S. books to address them.

How, for example, will President Trump behave if he must decide between a choice that negatively affects his business -- and one that negatively impacts middle- or lower-class Americans?

Experts note that business executives are trained to take steps that are in the best interests of their companies' bottom lines. How then, some wonder, will Trump be able to make such an adjustment -- when many citizens are still waiting for his long-promised tax returns?

The president-elect's vast empire includes more than 500 entities worldwide -- most of which, at one time or another, are led in the direction that Trump takes them. One way to remove himself from potential conflicts of interests, observers believe, is for Trump to hand over business control of his empire -- which, one of his attorneys said this week, is exactly what will happen.

That, however, might not be possible. The Office of Government Ethics, which monitors the executive branch, prohibits such "blind trusts" -- meaning Trump's children might not even be eligible to run their family business, Bloomberg reported.

Nonetheless, even if Trump is removed from the day-to-day operational control of his businesses, some wonder if that will be enough. After all, he is still going to want his empire to be taken care of while he's away.

"This is as intricate a government ethics problem as has ever existed, and I hope he'll be getting a bunch of experts into a room to figure out how to deal with this," Norm Eisen, former ethics czar under President Barack Obama, said.

In order to avoid potentially serious conflicts of interest as president of the United States related to his vast business empire, Donald Trump, pictured here ringing the opening bell at the Nasdaq exchange in New York City in 2005, has said he is prepared to entirely "sever ties" to his companies to properly serve the American people. File Photo by Monika Graff/UPI

Federal law doesn't require Trump to relinquish potentially conflicting business interests, because the president and vice president are entirely exempt from statutes that bar civic servants from using their public office to boost personal wealth. The Office of Government Ethics has said, though, that presidents and VPs "should conduct themselves as if they were so bound" by those laws.

"He's off the hook when it comes to the requirements," analyst Kenneth Gross told Bloomberg last month.

In the weeks before his election, Trump publicly said he would entirely remove himself from his business dealings if he was elected.

"I won't discuss [business] with them," he said in September. "It's just so unimportant compared to what we're doing about making America great again. I just wouldn't care.

"I will sever connections, and I'll have my children and my executives run the company."

Trump is already expected to tap some family members to fill certain advisory roles, including possibly naming son-in-law Jared Kushner as White House chief of staff.

Bloomberg reported that there are multiple aspects of Trump's empire that he may need to address before he's even sworn-in -- including more tax disclosures for domestic and overseas holdings, debts to foreign banks and pending legal action involving some of his businesses, including Trump University.

"He would be on both sides of the issue," former IRS Commissioner Sheldon Cohen said.

"Of course, you've got to be concerned about it."

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