GOP Sen. Bob Corker was at dinner Monday night when a friend made a surprising revelation: The president isn’t required to give up his or her financial dealings when they enter the Oval Office.
“I just realized myself last night that it didn’t apply,” Corker told The Daily Beast Tuesday. “There have been a lot of issues in this campaign that have been brought to people’s attention, that they were unaware of. My guess is that it’ll be looked at [once the election cycle is over.]”
Whether it’s President Trump or President Clinton, both would bring major potential conflicts of interest to the Oval Office if elected—between a large international corporate empire and a global foundation, respectively. And there’s no law that requires them not to engage in self-dealing—something that even senior lawmakers are unaware of.
Senior government officials in the Executive Branch are barred from participating in any matter that has a financial benefit for the official or the official’s immediate family, to include their spouse or child. But the same rules that restrain, say, the secretary of defense, doesn’t apply to the president.
Traditionally, the president has put his finances into a blind trust that is controlled by someone independent. Every president from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush has followed this convention to prevent conflicts of interest. President Obama opted instead to file away most of his money in simple U.S. Treasury bonds, which are low-yield and uncontroversial.
But with a Trump or Clinton White House, the public will just have to take the president as his or her word that they aren’t acting in a way that would benefit themselves personally, based on what little they’ve said publicly on the matter—no law would prevent them from doing so. That’s not particularly reassuring considering the public’s distrust of both candidates: A June poll found that 62 percent of the public viewed Clinton as not honest, while 63 percent said the same of Trump.
And this is especially disconcerting considering the backgrounds of the two candidates for president.
“Either candidate would pose unparalleled conflict of interest questions, for sure,” said John Wonderlich, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group. “For Hillary, it’s primarily the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative, and for Trump, it’s his business and debts.”
Neither Trump nor Clinton’s campaign responded to a Daily Beast inquiry about what specific steps they would take to prevent conflicts of interest while in office.
But there are some hints about what actions they may take to set themselves apart—kind of—from their civilian interests.
The Clinton Foundation is planning to spin off many of its international programs to prevent conflicts if Hillary Clinton is elected, while Trump has said that his company would be put into “blind trust” run by his children (this is not actually a blind trust, which requires an entirely independent trustee to handle finances).
The gap between what Clinton promised for transparency with the Clinton Foundation and what actually occurred remains a stain on her reputation. The State Department was not always formally notified when a foreign government contributed to the foundation, as promised, and the organization fell short of its promise to annually publish the names of its contributors.
But Trump’s conflict of interests as a businessman with international investments are a magnitude more complicated than Clinton’s Foundation. His business dealings are attached to locations all around the world, and his daily decisions as president could impact his company’s financial prosperity. And while Trump says that he will not participate in his business while in the White House, he has also been known to change his mind on a whim.
“Trump is a very different beast. His holdings span the globe, with many holdings shared with other governmental officials and some invested in countries with which the U.S. does not have good relations. I have a hard time imagining how Trump could ease his many, many conflicts of interest,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at the left-leaning consumer rights group Public Citizen. “Though, to repeat, it need not be done under the law.”
The feeling is widespread: Richard Painter, the White House ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, and Norman Eisen, who held the same position under Obama, joined together in a Washington Post op-ed Tuesday afternoon to declare that a Trump presidency would be “ethically compromised” due to his refusal to disclose tax returns or use a blind trust.
“Trump has said that if elected he would have his children manage his business and would not discuss business matters with them. That is not sufficient,” they write.
The only fix would be through Capitol Hill, where lawmakers could pass a new law. But members of Congress are not well informed on the law and the loophole—and the loophole also applies to them. Other experienced lawmakers were also unaware of how the law affected presidents—but seemed immediately interested in fixing it.
“I don’t know what laws apply to the executive on that,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who was a lawyer before entering politics, when asked about it. Former GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain said—in his usual, jovial manner, that the loophole needed to be plugged as soon as possible.
“Maybe we ought to fix that—now that there’s no likelihood of me being president,” McCain said.