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Trump conflicts could become a risky distraction

Donald Trump and some of his business executives attend an opening ceremony for a property in Las Vegas, Nevada back in 2008. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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The many international business entanglements of President-elect Trump are getting a lot of attention lately. But there are also plenty of potential business conflicts right here in America. Once in power, the Trump administration will make decisions large and small that could directly affect Trump business revenues.

Let’s start simple. Presidents travel a lot and perhaps the next one will stay in hotels with his name on them, along with his entourage of staffers and security. That means a big tab for taxpayers. Legal experts say staying at a Trump hotel may not run afoul of rules if the hotels meet certain standards and charge a fair rate. But the typical rulebook does not address the very unusual situation of President-elect Trump.

“Even if you’re paying reasonable market rates, there are choices being made about who gets the business and who doesn’t,” said Meredith McGehee, chief of policy at Issue One, a nonprofit that focuses on money in politics. “If Trump administration folks were staying at a Trump hotel, that’s money in the pocket of the Trump business.”

Also, if his family flies on Trump planes while the Secret Service protects them, the government would compensate the company for agents’ airfare. But all the travel stuff is potentially small change compared to what can be done with the levers of power the Trump administration will control.

As president, Trump will be able to make appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, which recently ruled against his Vegas hotel in a union dispute. He’ll be over the General Services Administration, basically the landlord for his Washington hotel. Also under his influence will be the IRS, the Environmental Protection Agency and many other powerful entities that make decisions that can have massive consequences for Trump businesses.

Dealing with the many potential conflicts is a tricky and unprecedented question. Trump told the New York Times that “the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” That may be accurate in a very narrow technical sense, but it’s out of line with what all recent presidents did to address their own potential conflicts.

And there is a specific concern for conservatives, who hope that the Trump presidency will bring about significant policy changes. Unless he addresses the business conflicts, whenever President Trump makes a move consistent with conservative principles but also good for the family business, it runs the risk of looking like opportunism, not good policy.

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