Trump business ties may blur conflict of interest lines
New York — After Ivanka Trump appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” wearing a $10,800 bracelet from her jewelry line, someone at her company sent photos from the interview to fashion writers to drum up free publicity. Criticism erupted over the impropriety of profiting off the presidency, and the company apologized.
If only that was the end of it.
Experts on government ethics are warning President-elect Donald Trump that he’ll never shake suspicions of a clash between his private interests and the public good if he doesn’t sell off his vast holdings, which include roughly 500 companies in more than a dozen countries.
In an interview with the New York Times this week, Trump insisted that the “law’s totally on my side,” and ethics experts agree that federal conflicts of interest rules largely exempt the president from running his businesses the way he pleases while in office.
A look at areas where conflicts may arise:
For use of the government-owned Old Post Office for his new Washington hotel, Trump agreed on annual rent to the government in a contract that was signed more than three years ago.
So what possibly could be the problem now?
Plenty, according to Steven Schooner, a professor of government procurement law at George Washington University. In addition to base rent, the president-elect agreed to additional annual payments based on various financial measures of how well the hotel is doing. Schooner says such payments typically require drawn out negotiations each year.
“How can anyone expect a government employee to negotiate with the Trump family at arm’s length and treat the Trump family like any other contractor?” Schooner asks.
Trump’s extensive operations abroad raise the possibility that his foreign policy could be shaped by his business interests, and vice versa. Trump has struck real estate deals in South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Uruguay, Panama, India and Turkey, among other countries.
One of Trump’s biggest lenders is Deutsche Bank, a German giant in settlement negotiations with the Department of Justice on its role in the mortgage blowup that triggered the 2008 financial crisis. The hit to Deutsche could be substantial, with the government reportedly demanding $14 billion.
Will a Justice Department under Trump go easy on the bank? It’s not clear anyone will know. Trump will nominate the head of that agency.
The odds that the IRS will rule against Trump may be no different than before he was elected, but it’s difficult to know for sure.
Trump has cited a long running audit by the Internal Revenue Service in refusing to release his tax returns. If he is under scrutiny, it’s not surprising. In his Oct. 9 debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump confirmed he used a $916 million loss in 1995 to avoid paying federal taxes for years.
Flurry of lawsuits
Trump said last Friday that he agreed to pay $25 million to settle three lawsuits alleging fraud at his Trump University so he could focus on his preparing for his presidency.
“When you start settling cases, you know what happens?” the president-elect said earlier this year. “Everybody sues you because you get known as a settler.”