Donald Trump Jr. is in India for a week-long business trip on behalf of the Trump Organization, which he runs with his brother Eric, to promote $1 billion in luxury residential units that their company is building there. The president’s eldest son will also be a keynote speaker at the Global Business Summit in New Delhi alongside Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Technically, Trump Jr. is a private citizen who’s visiting the world’s largest democracy in an unofficial capacity. But the line between what’s official and unofficial is blurred beyond recognition in the Trump administration. Donald Jr. is still the president’s son and an informal adviser to his father, and therefore a potential conduit to the seat of American power. The New York Times reported that buyers who put down deposits this week on the luxury units being built in India “are promised a seat at a dinner with the younger Mr. Trump.” It’s doubtful they’re paying for his sparkling wit. (In an interview with an Indian TV channel on Tuesday, he said it’s “nonsense” that he profits from the presidency, and that his critics ignore “the opportunity cost of the deals that we were not able to do.”)
Donald Jr.’s India trip is a microcosm of the Trump family’s broader ethics issues. Thanks to the president’s frequent weekend jaunts to Mar-a-Lago, the Florida resort he owns, club members effectively pay a $200,000 membership fee for unrivaled access to him, other top public officials, and even foreign dignitaries. Access breeds influence, especially with a president who tends to side with the last person he spoke with. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Trump consulted Mar-a-Lago members on whether he should back any gun-control measures after the Parkland school massacre last week.
The presidential imprimatur can also reap its own rewards. Trump’s most recent financial-disclosure forms from last June reported millions of dollars in higher incomes from Mar-a-Lago and from his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, both of which received a hefty dose of free advertising as unofficial presidential retreats. Embassies and lobbying firms representing Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have held lavish events at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.; Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak even stayed there during an official visit last year. And the Trump Organization isn’t even tracking all of its income from foreign governments, a move that risks violating the Emoluments Clause’s prohibition on unauthorized foreign gifts to elected officials.
In theory, the best solution would be for Trump to fully divest himself from his businesses and avoid any actions that could ethically compromise himself or his former company. But Trump hasn’t done that. Instead, he’s spent the last year blurring the line between his private properties and his public office, giving the appearance—if not the reality—of corruption. Congress could remedy this unprecedented situation by taking it to its logical conclusion: Absorb his businesses into the government. In short, nationalize the Trump Organization.
This an admittedly unlikely scenario, under this Republican Congress or even a Democratic one. But what would it look like in practice? First, Congress would pass a law authorizing the federal government to purchase the Trump Organization from Trump and his family. The Treasury Department would then pay Trump a fair-market value for the company, minus his personal residences. (Trump Tower in Manhattan could become federal property, for example, while Trump’s three-story apartment atop it could remain in his possession.) Once under the federal government’s control, the company could operate as a government corporation with an independent board of directors until the end of Trump’s term.
Placing Trump’s family business and all of its assets—including Mar-a-Lago, his real-estate ventures, his golf courses, and dozens of other projects and licensing agreements—into public ownership would benefit everyone involved. Memberships to Trump’s formerly private clubs would be frozen for the duration of his term, so he and other public officials could enjoy the unfettered use of his former properties without any risk of impropriety. Congress could bolster the nation’s finances by requiring the company’s profits to be contributed to the Treasury’s general fund. Ethics watchdogs and the American public could rest easy knowing that the threat of pay-to-play kleptocracy has abated.
The federal government could even put some of those properties to better use. The FBI, for example, is in dire need of a new headquarters while its current home on Pennsylvania Avenue is renovated or replaced. The Trump International Hotel isn’t as large as the massive J. Edgar Hoover Building, but it’s only a few blocks away and could be a useful temporary site for at least some of the bureau’s upper ranks. Mar-a-Lago’s spacious grounds and 126-room main house could also make it an ideal site to house Puerto Rican families that fled to Florida after hurricanes ravaged the island commonwealth last summer.
This system isn’t without precedent on an international scale. Perhaps the closest comparable situation is the Crown Estate, a unique legal entity in the United Kingdom that oversees the inherited lands and properties accumulated by British monarchs since 1066. These properties, which belong to the crown instead of the government or an individual British monarch, are held in a trust of sorts that’s overseen by a board of crown estate commissioners. The Crown Estate collects rents and other incomes like any real-estate investment portfolio, except that its excess revenues go to the British treasury rather than the monarch or shareholders.
But there’s simply no precedent in American politics for dealing with a president’s family business because it hasn’t been an issue before. Except for the vast plantations owned by early presidents, virtually none of Trump’s predecessors had significant business holdings when they entered the White House. (The practical limits of nineteenth-century commerce lowered the risk of corruption related to places like Mount Vernon and Monticello.) Modern presidents typically opted to place whatever investments and holdings they had into a blind trust to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
As Trump prepared to take office, ethics experts urged him to do the same with his business empire. They also recommended that the president erect a communications firewall of sorts between his administration and his businesses to avoid any appearance of impropriety. Doing so would uphold the fundamental ethical principle that elected officials should not use their public offices for private gain.
Trump stepped down from his day-to-day role as chairman of the Trump Organization upon taking office, but he’s retained his ownership stake in the business and dozens of others. His son Eric insisted last March that he’d keep his father separate from the business. However, he also said he’d still give his father “quarterly briefings” about the company’s affairs. It’s hard to imagine a flimsier firewall than that.
No ordinary options are left to rein in the president’s ethical woes; only extraordinary ones remain. By not separating himself from his business affairs, Trump has allowed both the appearance and the reality of cash-for-access corruption to take root in the White House. But Congress has an opportunity to restore some measure of public confidence in the integrity of American governance. All it has to do is think a little outside the box.