Friday 23 August 2019

The anti-business businessman will have conflicts of interest to untangle

A member of the New York Police Department stands in front of Trump Tower on 5th Avenue to provide security to US President-elect Donald Trump. AFP/Getty Images
A member of the New York Police Department stands in front of Trump Tower on 5th Avenue to provide security to US President-elect Donald Trump. AFP/Getty Images

Christopher Williams

'Part of the beauty of me is that I'm very rich," said Donald Trump back in 2011 as he publicly mused on the idea of a run for the presidency.

The incoming 45th president is indeed very rich. Clearly the richest ever, in fact. Regardless of his opaque finances, convoluted business empire and the debatable intangible value of the Trump brand, he is several times richer than any other holder of America's highest office.

The next richest president was George Washington, who, like Mr Trump, invested in property. Mr Washington amassed land worth a relatively modest $500m (€460m) or so in today's money, and had not a single golf course or casino to his name.

Estimates of Mr Trump's net worth vary wildly, not least when made by the man himself. In a deposition during one of his many legal battles, Mr Trump said he based such assessments on his "feelings" that "can change rapidly from day to day". The best independent estimates peg Mr Trump's fortune at about $3bn. Now that he has secured his improbable victory, does Mr Trump's wealth matter?

The beauty of it, as he would have it, during the campaign was that it made him less reliant on traditional sources of political funding, many of them representing the hated "elites" he has vowed to crush.

With the campaign over, what effect, if any, will Mr Trump's money and commercial interests have on the presidency?

Previous holders of the office who have had significant business interests have sought to avoid potential conflicts of interest by using blind trusts or other structures to distance themselves from their money.

Jimmy Carter put his peanut farm and peanut warehouse in the hands of his brother Billy and a lawyer friend, for instance, while he was in the White House.

No US president has ever had a business as high profile or as international as Mr Trump, however. The geopolitics Mr Carter faced in the late 1970s and early 1980s had little to do with peanut farming in Georgia.

The same cannot be said for the Trump Organisation. It is involved in residential and retail developments in cities spanning Turkey, Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro.

Its alleged ties to Russian financiers, who it has been claimed bailed out the company when it hit trouble in the 1990s, have never been clearly explained and cause understandable nervousness among US securocrats. As far as we know the republic has never had a president that owed lots of money in a hostile country.

Mr Trump denies any links with Russia and has seemingly indicated he plans to follow convention by recusing himself from commerce. We are yet to learn how many of his plans will be implemented, of course.

"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," he said over the summer.

Whatever the outcome, there is no question that Mr Trump will face more conflicts of interest than any president in history. It is unavoidable.

There is, of course, a major contradiction here that cuts deep across America's increasingly ambivalent relationship with business. Mr Trump positioned himself simultaneously as the most voracious capitalist imaginable and the scourge of big business.

He has successfully marketed himself as a man who would sell his granny to the circus and then summon a posse to beat himself up for doing it.

What Mr Trump's victory will really mean for business is anyone's guess.

Promises to turn back time and bring back industrial jobs to the rust belt seem hard to renege on, however, and more likely to cause economic chaos.

While there are many unknowns, we know one thing for sure: America under Trump the billionaire, anti-business businessman is a more unpredictable place.

Irish Independent

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