Why Donald Trump’s potential conflicts of interest are so important

Donald Trump’s cancellation of a news conference about potential conflicts of interest between his presidency and his business dealings has only sharpened concerns. With roughly one month to go until the inauguration, a sense of urgency is building around Trump’s need to clarify his plans for his business.

The perceived hazard is not only potential self-dealing by Trump – who could conceivably use the presidency to boost his real estate developments at home or abroad, guide justice department activity, or renegotiate debts or leases – but also potential blackmail or bribery of Trump or his family members or associates based on their significant debts or other liabilities around the world.

Here are the key questions in play:

What’s the big deal?

Nobody knows, exactly, because Trump has not released his tax returns, thereby hiding what he owns and what he owes. Any such analysis as presented in this Q&A, in fact, proceeds in moonless darkness. But financial disclosures by Trump, a few extant tax documents, and estimates of Trump’s assets by Forbes, which in September pegged Trump’s net worth at $3.7bn, and others give us a picture to work with.

Can’t a president be in business?

Yes. The nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics advised Congress on Tuesday that “it has been the consistent policy of the executive branch that a President should conduct himself ‘as if’ he were bound by … financial conflict of interest law”. But it’s not clear that the president is in fact bound by said law. (There’s not much precedent here to work with.) The emoluments clause of the constitution bans gifts from foreign entities to US officeholders, but there’s some debate about whether the clause applies to the presidency. Trump himself does not believe that the law “mandates” that he leave his businesses.

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