On November 5, 2008, President-elect Barack Obama unveiled his transition team: a collection of longtime servants of politics and government, none of whom were related to him through blood or marriage.
In contrast, President-elect Donald Trump’s newly announced transition team reads more like a seating chart for Thanksgiving dinner at Mar-a-Lago, full of family members who have also been tasked with running his businesses so that he can run the country. What this means for his ability—or desire—to avoid unprecedented conflicts of interest is uncertain, but it doesn’t look promising.
Today, Trump’s “Transition Team Executive Committee,” led by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, is made up of a handful of members of Congress; the Florida Attorney General, Pam Bondi, who declined to investigate Trump University; the tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who funded secret lawsuits against Gawker, the media company, ultimately bankrupting it; and former Breitbart News executive Steve Bannon, who served as CEO of the Trump campaign.
But then there’s Donald Jr., Eric, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner—all of whom played crucial roles on the Trump campaign, and three of whom—the Trump children—are expected to take over the family business so that Daddy can run the country.
Trump previously promised the children will run his business via a blind trust, a dubious claim from the outset, since, by definition, a blind trust means an independent party.
Presidents have historically moved their finances to blind trusts to prevent conflicts, though President Obama chose instead to put his money in US Treasury bonds. And as The Daily Beast’s Tim Mak previously reported, the only way to ensure Trump’s business dealings weren’t informing policy or vice versa would be for Congress to get involved and pass new regulations closing the loopholes which grant special treatment to the president and Vice President, something Congress was already unlikely to do due to a lack of understanding of the issue, and now is even less inclined to do since Republicans controls both chambers.
Regardless, Trump’s claim that a blind trust run by his kids would sufficiently disconnect him from his business seems even more dubious, given the their roles in the incoming administration.
Asked how the Trump children could do both, a spokesperson for the Trump Organization provided The Daily Beast with few answers.
“We are in the process of vetting various structures with the goal of the immediate transfer of management of The Trump Organization and its portfolio of businesses to Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric Trump as well as a team of highly skilled executives,” the Trump Organization official said. “This is a top priority at the Organization and the structure that is ultimately selected will comply with all applicable rules and regulations.”
Michael Cohen, Trump’s attorney, said Thursday on CNN that “everything will be done legally.” He added that Trump is, “not interested in the company anymore.”
But, as The Wall Street Journal reported in July, the president and vice president of the United States aren’t constrained by the same laws as executives in other branches of government, laws that force those lawmakers and officials to recuse themselves on certain issues or divest from investments that could improperly enrich them.
“Because the president of the United States is the single most consequential decision maker on the planet,” Norman Eisen, a fellow at Brookings Institution and the former ethics counsel to the Obama administration, told the Journal, “Congress has decided his hands shouldn’t be tied on any issue because of conflicts of interest over any potential financial or personal gain.”
The election of a celebrity businessman with dealings all over the world is a first for the United States, and because Trump never engaged in the standard practice of releasing his tax returns, the media and the public are not even aware of the extent to which he is beholden to business interests outside of America. But we do know a bit.
As Newsweek reported in September, “If Trump gets into the White House, the president of the United States will be in a business deal with an Azerbaijani billionaire whose father is a prominent government official identified by American intelligence as a money launderer for the Iranian military. The Trump Organization’s partners in India would place America’s crucial but shaky alliance with Pakistan at risk. Relations between Trump and Turkey’s government are deteriorating in part because of his business connections there, and that country’s president has told people close to him that he will not allow a Trump-led America to use a military base that has been a critical staging area for the bombing campaign in Syria against the Islamic State group, known as ISIS. In other words, all these entanglements would imperil the national security of the United States.”
Throughout his campaign, Trump found ways to enrich himself. He bought his own books at retail cost from Barnes & Noble, potentially profiting improperly from their sale. He frequented his own restaurants in the atrium of Trump Tower and paid for it with campaign funds, and paid his own company rent for apartments for employees of his campaign. He also spent millions of dollars on Tag Air Inc., the company which runs his private jet and of which he is CEO.
There’s little reason to believe his desire to maintain his wealth or his interest in the well-being of his company ended on Election Day.
The Trump children were effective surrogates for their father because of their palpable loyalty to him, which at least in Ivanka’s case, threatened her own brand of women’s clothing and accessories, which has been boycotted by women unhappy with her father’s rhetoric and policy propels (as they are). All three children work for their father at the Trump Organization and appear to be close to him. None of them have any conventional political or governmental experience outside of his campaign, and even then, they did little by way of crafting policy. Ivanka essentially assumed the role of a political spouse for her father, speaking and appearing on his behalf with more frequency than his actual wife, Melania. While Don Jr. and Eric assumed less vital but still visible roles.
What exactly they’ll end up doing in the White House is not yet clear, but if they’re working for the Trump Organization, one has to wonder whose brand will come first: Trump’s or America’s.