Donald Trump used a softball interview with Fox & Friends to try to deflect media criticism of the conflicts of interest he would have as president if his children were to take over his business.
Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald wrote in a September 14 piece that Trump’s business conglomerate, the Trump Organization, is “an enterprise with deep ties to global financiers, foreign politicians and even criminals” in India, the Middle East, Russia, and Ukraine. Eichenwald noted that if “Trump moves into the White House and his family continues to receive any benefit from the company, during or even after his presidency, almost every foreign policy decision he makes will raise serious conflicts of interest and ethical quagmires.” Eichenwald found multiple Trump Organization interests and partnerships that, as he told CNN, “often go directly against the interests of American national security.”
On the September 15 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade asked Trump by phone about Eichenwald’s article and whether “you and your family [will] permanently sever any connections to the Trump Organization while you're in office.” Trump said, “Well I will sever connections and I'll have my children and my executives run the company, and I won’t discuss it with them.” Later Kilmeade asked Trump if he would “hesitate” if “sanctions went on a country that would hurt your company or your hotels,” and Trump answered, “I would absolutely get out in some form” from those countries. The hosts did not question Trump’s claim -- perhaps unsurprisingly, given the show’s cozy history with Trump and Fox’s role as a place where Trump has taken refuge to avoid challenging interviews.
Handing over his business to his children or putting it in some kind of blind trust, which he has previously suggested, would not be sufficient. As Eichenwald explained, “The Trump Organization cannot be placed into a blind trust, an arrangement used by many politicians to prevent them from knowing their financial interests; the Trump family is already aware of who their overseas partners are and could easily learn about any new ones.” Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, told Media Matters that “turning [the organization] over to his son -- and say his son is going to manage it, or his daughter -- … doesn’t solve the problem” because Trump “knows what’s there” and “which foreign governments and which organizations, which business consortiums he’s dependent on.”
There are two ways media can react to Trump’s pledge. The right way, as demonstrated by CNN’s Chris Cuomo, is to note that what Trump is offering is not actually a solution: Cuomo explained, “When you put something in a blind trust, it's because you don't know what's in the trust. [Trump] would know exactly what's in the trust because it's his company.” The wrong way is exemplified by a Politico piece, misleadingly headlined “Trump vows to sever business ties as president,” which reported that “Trump reiterated that he would ‘absolutely sever’ ties and would have ‘nothing to do with my company’ as president” and that Trump “has previously indicated that he would place the businesses in a blind trust run by his children and executives.” NBC’s Benjy Sarlin reacted to the Politico article on Twitter, pointing out that “The next sentence” after “Trump vows to sever business ties as president” was that "he’ll put his children in charge, essentially refuting the headline.”
Trump has previously had success shaping media coverage to his benefit. In May, he used a press conference on his alleged donations to veterans groups to hijack cable news discussion and largely avoid coverage of an update regarding the lawsuit against Trump University. The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel noted that Trump has released “less policy detail than any candidate for president in my lifetime,” but because he “never fail[s] to offer enough detail to fit in a headline or cable news chyron,” he’s been able to “get credit — and the headline, and the chyron — for what other candidates would consider less than a bare minimum.” And as Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson noted earlier this year, “Trump can mainline his latest hot take into the mainstream media, basically any time of night or day” through his use of Twitter.
Media has previously been manipulated by Trump to ignore legitimate issues with his candidacy and his history, and the risk is that he will succeed in doing so again with his “solution” to his potential business conflicts of interest. If media fail to press Trump about how he will truly avoid those conflicts, they would be guilty of a double standard given how they covered the Clinton Foundation. Even though no one has found any wrongdoing by the foundation, media outlets have hyped allegations of some kind of pay for play, claiming activities at the State Department during Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s tenure looked “unseemly” and made for bad “optics.” Multiple columnists and editorials have demanded that the foundation be shut down or at least that the Clintons cut ties to the organization in order to prevent even the appearance of impropriety. It would be inconsistent for media to not make similar demands or be as similarly critical of the Trump Organization, a private business that enriches Trump personally, unlike the Clinton Foundation, a charity that has been praised by charity watchdogs.
Trump’s insufficient promise in response to the Newsweek article is a bet he’s making that he can downplay the story, convincing the media to take his pledge at face value and move on. They shouldn’t take the bait.