The other day I experienced a flash of alarm. There was a claim from an Argentine journalist that when the president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, phoned Donald Trump to congratulate him on his election victory, the talk turned to permits for the building of a Trump skyscraper in Buenos Aires. Mr. Macri’s press officer quickly and sharply denied the report: “They didn’t talk about the tower at all. It’s absolutely untrue.” So did the Trump transition office. The journalist apparently offered no proof. The story more or less ended there.
But what alarmed me was this question: Does Donald Trump know he can’t ever have a conversation like this? Does he fully understand that a president can never use the office, its power and influence, for his own financial enrichment? That he can’t, however offhandedly, both do business and be president? That future and credible reports that he had engaged in such a conflict of interest would doom his presidency? And that solving the question of his businesses and their relation to his presidency is urgent?
This week, in an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Trump was not reassuring. When pressed on how, exactly, he means to distance himself from his business interests, he couldn’t stop himself from promoting a few of them: “We just opened a beautiful hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue,” he said. “The brand is certainly a hotter brand.”
“In theory, I can be president of the United States and run my business 100%,” he said, adding that he is “phasing that out now.” “In theory I don’t have to do anything. But I would like to do something. I would like to try and formalize something, because I don’t care about my business.”
He said, “I’ve greatly reduced meetings with contractors, meetings with different people.” Thank goodness for that. He’s the president-elect.
He noted that presidents are exempt from conflict-of-interest laws, but “I understand why the president can’t have a conflict of interest now because everything a president does in some ways is like a conflict of interest, but I have—I’ve built a very great company and it’s a big company and it’s all over the world. People are starting to see, when they look at all these different jobs, like in India and other things, No. 1, a job like that builds great relationships with the people of India, so it’s all good.” Business partners come in, they want a picture, “I think it’s wonderful to take a picture.”
Might he sell his businesses? “That’s a very hard thing to do, you know what, because I have real estate.” Selling real estate isn’t like selling a stock. “I don’t care about my company. I mean, if a partner comes in from India or if a partner comes in from Canada, where we did a beautiful big building that just opened, and they want to take a picture and come into my office, and my kids come in and I originally made the deal with these people, I mean what am I going to say? ‘I’m not going to talk to you,’ ‘I’m not going to take pictures’?”
Yes, that’s exactly what you say! I’m not going to pose with you because I will soon be president of the United States and the prestige of that office precludes taking the picture you’ll soon use in your brochure.
In the interview Mr. Trump was not defensive—he was garrulous, forthcoming as to his thought processes, and yet he seemed curiously unaware as to the urgency of the subject.
If he is not aware it is crucial, the reason may come down to five words: the habits of a lifetime.
For half a century Donald Trump has devoted all his professional energies to money, profit, the deal. That is how he thinks: It’s his deepest neural pathway. He’s a free-market capitalist who started with a lot and turned it into more. He created jobs, employs many. Good! But that’s his mind: money, profit, the deal. He has brought up his children to enter his business. Whatever else they do, they have surely absorbed the family ethos.
And now, for the first time in his life, money, profit, the deal is not his job.
He will be president of the United States. He can’t help the family business as president. He can’t help his children make a living as president.
He has to be losing money as president and putting personal profit motives behind him. Which means putting the ways and habits of a lifetime behind him.
Because he’s entered something much bigger: the presidency. History. The welfare of the republic.
That’s his job now, and it requires sacrifice.
I don’t know if there’s anyone around him who can convince him that the attitude with which he’s operated for 50 years must end, and something wholly new and different begin.
But whoever does must be aware of this:
The press, which wants to kill him, is going to zero in on his biggest weak spot: money, profit, the deal. Democrats too will watch like hawks. And this is understandable! Presidents shouldn’t ever give the impression things aren’t on the up and up. And Mr. Trump campaigned saying he’d dismantle the rigged system, drain the swamp, fight the racket.
The press does not believe, not for a second, and Democrats do not believe, not for a second, that Mr. Trump will be able to change the habits of a lifetime. They are relying on it.
Mr. Trump shocked them by winning. He should shock them now with rectitude.
Financial sophisticates know and explain how complicated all this is. Mr. Trump can’t establish a blind trust because blind trusts normally consist of stocks, bonds—liquid assets. Mr. Trump’s wealth is in famous entities, in his brand. He knows where his buildings are, his past and current deals are.
He said when campaigning that if elected he’d turn the business over to his children. But that would require never talking to them about matters touching on the central family ethos: money, profit, the deal.
The editorial page of this newspaper offered a sound though difficult route: Mr. Trump should liquidate his stake in his company and put the proceeds in a true blind trust, in which the Trump children keep the assets in their name. He can “transfer more to them as long as he pays a hefty gift tax.” A fire sale on real estate would no doubt be seized upon by buyers like Donald Trump—people looking for the greatest asset at the lowest price. But it’s hard to see how any other plan would help Mr. Trump avoid endless accusations that he is enriching himself as president, that he is, in fact, a dopey kleptocrat who can’t help doing what he does.
It would be a painful act, selling the business he loves and around which he has ordered his life. But there would be comfort in this: In doing the right thing, in denying his opponents a sword, in enhancing his stature and demonstrating that yes, he will sacrifice for his country.
That’s pretty great comfort.
You’ve made your money. Now go be a patriot.