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Trump's potential for conflict of interest is 'almost infinite'

Donald Trump visits Turnberry Golf Club in Turnberry, Scotland.
Ian MacNicol | Getty Images
Donald Trump visits Turnberry Golf Club in Turnberry, Scotland.

Most of the controversies surrounding President-elect Donald Trump during and after the election were especially divisive along old and new partisan lines. His statements about immigration, trade, and now his cabinet choices all seem to please or outrage voters based on their ideological background.

But the biggest Trump fans and "Never Trumpers" alike should be concerned about something we haven't yet quite experienced on such a serious scale in American politics, and that is having a President of the United States who's also the owner of dozens of iconic and eponymous businesses. Oh, and so far that incoming president says he intends to continue owning and running them.

It's not just that Mr. Trump is a businessperson, it's the fact that he has so many varied and well-known business interests that the potential for conflict of interest is almost infinite. This is a far cry from President Jimmy Carter, who was able to solve his potential conflicts simply by handing his peanut farm over to an independent lawyer for his term in the White House.

Sure, it's possible someone could have found a way to curry favor with Mr. Carter by doing a generous amount of business with that farm, but that was always a bit of a stretch. And since the farm was President Carter's one and only recognizable business, doing any kind of shady deal connected to it would have been very hard to conceal or whitewash in some way.

The President-elect owns residential and commercial real estate in the most expensive urban locations in America, hotels and golf clubs all over the world, just to name a few. He has varied stock holdings in any number of companies that could easily be positively effected by legislation or Executive Orders. Just today, the Associated Press reported that he has a relatively small stock holding in the company building the highly controversial Dakota Access oil pipeline. The list goes on and on.

And so far, Mr. Trump has been basically defiant in response to critics who say he needs to make some major moves to reduce the temptations from every side for financial/political chicanery. During his meeting with the New York Times earlier this week, Trump said he intends to keep running his businesses and that, "the law's totally on my side, the president can't have a conflict of interest. And legal scholars have since mostly backed him up on that claim, with the possible exception of deals with foreign countries.

"The so-called "solutions" to the Trump conflict of interest issue are no solutions at all. Looking closely at them reveals they are all simply different levels of trouble."

Why don't we have tougher rules? The most obvious reason is the United States has never really been in a predicament like this with such an entrepreneurial and competitive business owner in major office. The closest we've experienced to something like this were the 12 years Michael Bloomberg served as Mayor of New York City.

Bloomberg made promises that he would not take an active role in running his business during those years, a promise most reports say he did not keep, but there were also never any real accusations and evidence that Bloomberg was guilty of any conflict of interest during his time in office. And while New York City carries out the equivalent of many nations' commerce in any given year, comparing the position of mayor to President of the United States is no real comparison at all.

Another reason why we don't have more effective rules in place is because the laws the U.S. uses to curb the financial activities of our chief executive were likely directly derived from the relatively few safeguards the British aristocracy attached to their kings in the Middle Ages. No one at that time expected the kings of England to cease trying to increase their wealth and property while on the throne. The lords simply wanted to make sure the king did not unfairly infringe on their agrarian territorial lands and/or take property from them and them alone.

That is why the only major charge to the British monarchs found in Magna Carta and the King's Coronation Oath are promises the king must make to respect the rule of law in regards to property, including and especially the property of the Church. And again, the only property that was really safe was that Church property and the property of the lords. Otherwise, it was pretty much all fair game for the king as far as the middle and lower classes went.

The so-called "solutions" to the Trump conflict of interest issue are no solutions at all. Looking closely at them reveals they are all simply different levels of trouble. The Wall Street Journal recently published an editorial calling on President-elect Trump to liquidate his assets as soon as possible. But, aside from the excessive amount of time that would take with so many real estate holdings involved, that process is ripe for corruption as any private buyer or foreign government could simply overpay for an asset, agree to buy an otherwise unwanted asset, or trade some other kind of personal favor during such a process.

Even if the sale were carried out by entirely independent managers, Trump's properties are so well known that keeping the facts on who buys them and for how much is a pipe dream. This is the same problem we'd encounter if Mr. Trump handed over his business to a similar type of outside manager just while he's in office. And if he simply allows his children to run his company, the potential for currying favor with the White House through them is obvious to all.

These are similar to the many issues that dogged Hillary Clinton and the entire Clinton family in the run-up to and during her entire official election run. Foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation were rightly scrutinized and criticized. Former President Bill Clinton's speaking fees and other business dealings often looked shady. And lucrative and alluring job offers for Chelsea Clinton over the years continue to be questioned. And remember when former Vice President Dick Cheney's years as CEO of Halliburton led critics to insist his pushing for the Iraq War was all about helping his oil industry friends?


All of that, even all of that combined could be nothing compared to the criticism the Trump administration could face on an hourly basis over the next four years. Unless President-elect Trump and his family exercise an uncharacteristic level of personal restraint, almost every policy the White House proposes will be endlessly checked and cross-checked for something that affects the Trump Organization's bottom line. If there is a way to invest in the forensic accounting industry, you might want to go long.

But without the needed legal safeguards in place, the only reality when it comes to Donald Trump's many opportunities to enrich himself while in office is that we're going to have to trust him. It seems silly to have remind ourselves that a person voted into the most powerful office in the world with access to the nuclear codes is someone we have to give some level of trust anyway or else no one would be able to sleep at night for the next four years at least.

But if that's not at all comforting, perhaps the best thing Congress can do is cobble together a bi-partisan subcommittee to act as a fair but steady watchdog when it comes to Mr. Trump's financial dealings. There have been some instances over the past year where Trump did indeed change his behavior and messaging.

For someone who has repeatedly said he wants to "drain the swamp" in Washington, Mr. Trump should actually welcome that kind of an effort that would literally make his job easier. But unless we see some very clear signs of restraint in this area, the angry and ugly feelings so much of us experienced during the bruising 2016 election will simply continue for the foreseeable future.


Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.