It’s good that Trump sold his stock holdings but they were a fraction of the problem

“Conflicts of interest over, right?”
“Conflicts of interest over, right?”
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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After weeks of speculation about whether and how he might detach himself from his business empire, US president-elect Donald Trump demurely announced this week that he sold all of his stock holdings in June, conceding that they just might have impaired his judgment as president.

“I think I would have a tremendous, really, a conflict of interest owning all of these different companies,” Trump told NBC’s Matt Lauer on Dec. 7. ”I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to be owning stocks when I’m making deals for this country that maybe will affect one company positively and one company negatively, so I just felt that it was a conflict.”

He’s right, of course. According to a 2016 filing with the Federal Elections Commission, Trump owned millions of dollars worth of stock in companies in the technology, automobile, oil & gas, and telecom sectors. The potential conflicts gained attention this week when Boeing shares sunk after Trump tweeted about the company’s government contracts.

While Trump could plausibly enrich himself by making deals that benefit companies he has stock in, it would be tricky—and time-consuming—to make a serious, sustainable profit. The real issues lie in his business empire, where Trump has such a mesh of global entanglements that any number of routine presidential decisions could make him seriously richer or poorer.

Imagine—hypothetically, of course—that Trump angered Turkey’s authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Worried about a licensing deal in which he is paid by Istanbul real estate developers for use of his name on a tower, Trump responds by praising a nasty crackdown Erdogan has embarked on. Soon after, Erdogan drops his complaint. And so with a bit of deft (hypothetical) PR, Trump has saved himself up to $5 million a year, judging by figures declared in his finances.

So while Trump’s divestment is a gently promising sign, it’s also a distraction from the massive, unprecedented steps he’d have to take to shield himself from conflicts of interest around the company he has run for decades.