One Question About a Trump Presidency Nobody Can Answer

November 11th 2016

Mike Rothschild

As President-elect Donald Trump begins his transition from businessman and presidential candidate to actual president, one key question remains unanswered: what happens to Trump's business? In this case, the massive private entity of hotels, golf courses and commercial ventures known as the Trump Organization. What role will Trump have in running it, and will he be able to profit from it?

There is no law that mandates what a president does with their assets. While most government employees are bound by strict conflict-of-interest laws, the president is not. On the campaign trail, Trump said on numerous occasions that he would put his interests into a "blind trust" run by his children. This is a financial instrument that gives control of the assets to an independent manager, who runs it without the input or knowledge of the asset holder.

There is precedent in this act, as wealthier modern presidents and candidates have made use of the blind trust. Lyndon Johnson was the first, in order to keep a television station he owned free from conflict of interest allegations. Other presidents followed, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W .Bush and George H.W. Bush. President Barack Obama set up a blind trust, as well, but sold it off for the sake of transparency.

Trump clearly believes a blind trust is the beginning and end of the answer to the question of what happens to his assets. He told "Fox and Friends" in a September interview, “I will sever connections and I’ll have my children and my executives run the company and I won’t discuss it with them. It’s just so unimportant compared to what we’re doing about making American great again."

Many journalists have pointed out that what he's talking about is not actually a blind trust, which is meant for the asset holder to have no knowledge of the performance of the assets. Will Trump be able to keep himself from asking his kids how his new Washington, D.C., hotel is doing, or using Air Force One to pop off to Scotland to cut the ribbon on a new golf course? And even if Trump's children end up running the company, they were an integral part of his presidential campaign. So integral that they were just added to his transition team -- even as the Trump Organization announced Friday it was making plans to formally transfer control of the company to the them.

How will Trump the businessman and Trump the president be separated? Nobody seems to know, yet.

There are also troubling questions about the countless entanglements between Trump and his foreign interests. The Organization has companies and holdings around the world, and stories from Slate, Bloomberg, and Newsweek detail vast networks of holding companies, investments, licensing agreements and land deals in dozens of countries; including China, Brazil, England, Canada, Germany, South Korea, Ukraine and, perhaps most troubling of all, Russia.

It is impossible to know how Trump would profit from official dealings between these countries.

Furthermore, it's unclear how the government will investigate and regulate Trump businesses, given that he will be the head of the government. Like conflict of interest laws, ethics laws that were passed in the wake of Watergate, meant to prevent elected officials from engaging in deals that would involve their own financial interests, don't apply to the presidency. Trump would be in a position to sign bills that would directly enhance his own financial standing --  and with a Republican Congress, it's likely that these bills would face little opposition.

What happens to the Trump Organization is a serious question with far-ranging implications for U.S. foreign policy, trade, economics and law. And it's likely that nobody knows the answer  -- and if Trump does, he's not letting on.