By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey
November 22, 2016, in the Washington Post
Suggestions that President-elect Donald Trump put his business holdings in a “blind trust” to avoid potential conflicts of interest are unrealistic and unfair. Such a trust would not eliminate the virtual certainty that actions Trump takes as president will affect his personal wealth, for good or ill. The step is not required by law. And presidents who have chosen to use this device held very different assets than Trump’s. He can keep his holdings and adopt a reasonable system to avoid conflicts and reassure the American people that the Trump administration is acting ethically.
To establish a blind trust of the sort used by his predecessors, Trump would not merely have to liquidate a securities portfolio and permit an independent trustee to manage those assets. He would have to sell off business holdings that he has built and managed most of his life, and with which he is personally identified in a way that few other business magnates are.
These businesses also provide employment for many thousands of people, including his children. All of it would have to go. This liquidation would by definition take place in the context of a “buyer’s market,” and so Trump would also be required to accept a vast personal loss in financial worth. Those suggesting the blind trust model must understand that their proposal is a poison pill Trump will not swallow.
Moreover, requiring Trump to liquidate his holdings would discourage other entrepreneurs from seeking the presidency, leaving the field clear for professional politicians and investors. Given that the American people have made clear their disgust with Washington’s elite, creating a disincentive for businesspeople to seek the presidency is not in the public interest.
Trump has suggested that he will let his adult children run the family businesses during his presidency, and there is nothing in the Constitution that prevents this arrangement. The emoluments clause, often invoked as the reason Trump must sell his businesses, is no bar. This constitutional provision prevents the president (and any other federal officer) from accepting gifts or compensation from foreign states. It does not limit Trump’s ability to benefit from dealings with non-state foreign entities. Whether a “state-controlled” entity falls within the emoluments clause prohibitions has traditionally been addressed on a case-by-case basis, depending principally on how independently such an entity operates from an actual government.
Likewise, neither federal law nor regulations limit the president in this area. Presidential candidates and presidents must disclose their finances, but the president is not covered by the principal financial conflict-of-interest law, and the relevant regulations specifically exclude the president. Indeed, it is doubtful that Congress could constitutionally limit the president’s personal investments or business activities consistent with separation of powers principles.
Of course, Trump’s wide holdings will likely raise real or perceived conflicts of interest during his presidency. Establishing a blind trust would have helped him address those concerns. There are, however, other measures that the president-elect can take to avoid conflicts. He can establish a firewall between himself and his adult children with respect to family business affairs. They would agree to give him no information about their business dealings, and he would pledge not to discuss those dealings with them.
In addition, his children could promise to refer any potential transactions involving foreign corporations or other entities to the White House counsel’s office or the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to analyze whether it would raise concerns under the emoluments clause. If the answer is yes, then they will avoid that transaction. The president himself would not be informed of the request or determination.
Finally, to the extent he wishes to seek advice about public policy from his children — which he appears to have done frequently before his election — the president can consult the White House counsel’s office about whether discussing a particular issue with them would create potential conflicts of interest. Most government issues do not have a direct impact on the hospitality industry and simply taking action that is good for the economy as a whole would not give rise to a conflict.
It is clear that Trump cannot satisfy all of his critics, but these measures are both reasonable and workable. They would — or should — reassure most Americans that his administration is acting with probity.
David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey, who practice appellate and constitutional law in the District, served in the Justice Department under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Rivkin also served in the White House counsel’s office in the George H.W. Bush administration.