New questions arise over Trump's potential business conflicts

Trump's global business ties puts ethics laws to the test

Donald Trump's global business empire poses widespread potential conflicts of interest with his presidency. The question is how to solve them.

Articles over the weekend in The Washington Post and The New York Times offered new details on how Trump and his family met with their overseas business partners after the election. The Post story described plans for a luxury Trump tower in the country of Georgia that had been bogged down for years in government red tape, but suddenly got clearance to proceed.

Separately, The New York Times reported that Trump's business partner in the Philippines, Jose E.B. Antonio, flew to New York to meet with the Trump family after the election. Antonio was recently appointed the Philippines' official envoy to the U.S., and he and the Trumps discussed expanding their relationship after Trump becomes president, the report said.

The stories follow news that Trump met with his Indian business partners after the election, and that he spoke with British politician Nigel Farage about offshore windmills that could affect his Scottish golf course.

Trump has flip-flopped on whether or how he plans to ring-fence his business from his presidency. At first, he said he would hand the company over to his children, who he promised would have no role in government.

But since then, his kids — especially daughter Ivanka — have attended official meetings with the president-elect. And Trump told The New York Times last week that since government ethics rules don't apply to the president, he isn't required to make any changes.

"The president can't have a conflict of interest," he told the Times.

The Trump Towers Istanbul — one holding luxury apartments, the other, office space, with a shopping mall connecting the two, in Istanbul, Nov. 23, 2016.
Monique Jaques | The New York Times

It's clear, however, that Trump will need to do something to answer even his supporters, who say he needs to build a wall between his company and office. But so far, all of the solutions proposed have been unrealistic or ineffective window dressing, legal and ethics experts have said.

Selling the company outright is not feasible, since Trump's real estate assets are not liquid, hard to offload quickly and based largely on the value of his name. Putting his ownership into a "blind trust," and turning the company over to his kids, would do little to separate him from the company.

The best and clearest solution comes courtesy of The Economist. It proposes a three-part plan. First, Trump should put his hundreds of legal entities into one holding company, and publish its financials and entire list of activities to provide transparency. Second, he should create a fully independent board of directors that will then appoint a CEO, and would have the power to sell assets but not buy them. Finally, the board should be required to distribute all profits as dividends and "refrain from new foreign investments."

"The effect would be to turn the Trump Organization into a mature portfolio of domestic property assets which generate rental payments for the Trumps," the publication said.

Trump has a history of doing as much as he's allowed in business. But this time, especially for a candidate that rode to office promising to "drain the swamp" of self-dealing in Washington, he should consider taking a different approach.