Business·Analysis

Are the Trump family's business ties a problem in the White House?

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump has built a multi-billion-dollar empire operating around the world. He plans to hand control over to his children, prompting concerns about conflicts of interest.

President Trump's various assets and investments could be a yuuuge issue

Donald Trump comes into the White House with a stake in more than 500 businesses around the world. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

A multi-billionaire with a stake in more than 500 companies operating in dozens of countries hands total control of his empire to his children as he becomes president.

What could possibly go wrong?

The entanglements of the Trump business and the Trump presidency are already coming into sharp focus. And an administration propelled to office by a voting bloc that wanted to put Hillary Clinton behind bars for using the wrong email server may have to answer some ethical questions of its own.

Traditionally, a U.S. president either sells off their assets or puts them into a blind trust. Trump was asked about this during one of the primary debates when he was still hoping to become the Republican nominee.

"I built a very great company," he told the crowd in Charleston, S.C. "But if I become president, I couldn't care less about my company. It's peanuts."

'Run the company, kids, have a good time'

He said then that he would focus on making America great again and leave the handling of his business dealings to his children.

"Run the company, kids, have a good time. I'm going to do it for America."

But would the company be insulated from the presidency? Would he opt for a blind trust as generations of presidents before him have done?

Trump has said he will hand control of his business interests to his children before his swearing-in as U.S. president. Here, from the left, Donald Trump, Jr., Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump and Tiffany Trump attend the second day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 19. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

"Well, I don't know if it's a blind trust if Ivanka, Don and Eric run it. If that's a blind trust, I don't know," Trump said at the time. "But I would probably have my children run it with my executives and I wouldn't ever be involved because I wouldn't care about anything but our country."

Unprecedented and unthinkable

As Trump prepares to move into the White House, the reality of that hypothetical back in Charleston suddenly looms large.

"From any other candidate this would be unthinkable," says Jeffrey Frankel, professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "As would the fact that there's court cases proceeding against him on Trump University and a whole bunch of other issues."

CBS reported on Tuesday that Trump was seeking national security clearance for his kids, a charge the transition team has denied.

"This isn't the family business anymore," says D.C.-based national security lawyer Bradley Moss. "This isn't the Trump enterprise any more. This is the presidency."

Moss says there is already intense debate about a legal framework that would cover this issue.

"But basically he is going to be forbidden from discussing with his children, with his family members, with anyone involved in the Trump empire the on-goings of the business decisions," Moss told CBC News.

Moss says there can't be idle chatter over the dinner table — Trump can't know what they're doing and the kids can't know what he's being told in government briefings.

"He can't be making decisions in a diplomatic sense or a national security sense while considering his personal financial aspects. From an ethical side, we are going to see a very interesting legal framework here."

The question then is can a system like this actually hold up — could the Trump family be trusted to keep faith with that and never discuss business dealings?

Separating business and politics

For all the precedents and tradition, there is no law forcing Trump to sell off his assets. In the U.S., presidents and vice presidents are exempt from conflict of interest laws.

And remember, Trump bucked the long-held tradition of presidential candidates releasing their tax returns.

The word unprecedented gets bandied about a lot when discussing Trump's rise to the most important political office in the western world.

Some of that is hyperbole. But these are uncharted waters.

The echoes of Trump supporters chanting "Lock her up" in reference to Hillary Clinton's email transgressions have barely subsided. Now a whole host of conflicts — legal and policy concerns — are tangled up with the president-elect's personal and financial interests.

Unprecedented indeed.

About the Author

Senior Business reporter for CBC News. A former host of On the Money and World Report on CBC Radio, Peter Armstrong has been a foreign correspondent and parliamentary reporter for CBC. Twitter: @armstrongcbc

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