Donald Trump isn’t legally obligated to tell Americans anything more about his finances until well into his presidency.
While he will be trying to push a major economic agenda through Congress in 2017 likely to include tax cuts and trade polices that could affect his own interests, he won’t have to publicly file a new financial disclosure form until May 2018, according to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.
Trump said this week that he would step away from his businesses and would reveal the details on Dec. 15. But unless he sells them, he or his family would keep a financial interest in them, continuing to raise questions about whether his policies affect his personal wealth and feeding demands for more details about his holdings. He already refuses to release his tax returns, unlike his predecessors.
His most recent predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, also voluntarily filed financial-disclosure forms months after taking office.
“Every other (recent) president has filed in May of their first year in office,” said Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer under Bush.
Trump has not yet said whether he’ll follow that practice or take every bit of time the law allows.
Federal law requires candidates for the presidency to annually file a financial disclosure form with the Office of Government Ethics. Trump has done that already for the first few months of 2016, revealing last May 16 in a 104-page disclosure that he holds executive positions in 564 companies.
Other presidents have sold off stocks and similar investments before taking office. Trump owns properties and active businesses that aren’t easy to quickly sell off, and his name is licensed to appear on neckties, wine bottles, skyscrapers and golf courses across the globe.
Trump will be under increasing scrutiny, whether it’s to release his tax returns or to reveal more about his businesses should he decide to keep his stake in them.
“I think the pressure is going.to intensify; it’s not going.to go away,” said Norman Eisen, the chief ethics lawyer for the Obama White House from 2009 to 2011.
The time to release detailed information about Trump’s businesses is now, Eisen said, before being compelled to do so through a lawsuit or congressional subpoena.
“When the political sledding gets really tough, he might end up being forced to release them,” said Eisen.
Congressional Democrats are already demanding hearings, and the Congressional Research Service just published a memorandum on possible conflict-of-interest rules that may apply to the incoming president.
Also, the Office of Government Ethics sent out a number of unusual tweets Wednesday commending Trump for following its recommendations by deciding to totally divest of his vast holdings, something he hasn’t publicly said he’d do.
Whenever Trump complies with the disclosure requirement, the American public will still get only a broad-brush view.
The disclosures require only broad ranges of the value of an asset and lack the details of a tax return, which gives a clearer sense of how a business has performed. For example, Trump’s May disclosure revealed he had five outstanding loans valued at more than $50 million. How much more? He’s not required to say.
Three of those loans come due between 2022 and 2024, the disclosure said, in what could be a second Trump term.
The one area where Trump might have to disclose before 2018 is financial-market transactions. In his May disclosure, he said he had personal investments worth about $61 million. This is the portion of his wealth that is also easier easiest for him to step away from.
If he neither buys nor sells any stock, Trump would simply report on the value of these holdings in the next disclosure report. But if he buys or sells stock, he’d be subject to the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act of 2012. It prevents anyone in any branch of government from using nonpublic information for profit. It’s an insider-trading prohibition for government employees. Executive, legislative and judicial branch employees must report transactions involving any stock, bond, commodity or other securities within 45 days.
But there are optics for Trump to consider, too. The May disclosure showed that he held at least $22 million in common stock of numerous Fortune 500 companies such as Apple, Chevron, Ford, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart. He instantly affects his own fortunes, for better or for worse, if he slaps penalties on Chinese imports, expands energy exploration, blocks an automaker’s move to Mexico or fights an increase in the minimum wage.
To avoid such inherent conflicts, most presidents and Cabinet members seek blind trusts, where their financial investments are sold off by independent stewards who then reinvest the proceeds without their direction or knowledge. Trump hasn’t said yet whether he’ll do the same.
Less clear is how he treats the roughly multimillions he holds under management of hedge funds. Those are high-risk, high-reward investment funds open only to the super wealthy.
As a candidate, Trump blasted hedge fund managers as paper pushers who don’t build things. But as of May he reported a stake valued between $25 million and $50 million in BlackRock’s Obsidian hedge fund. He also reported a stake valued between $1 million and $5 million in Paulson Credit Opportunities LP, a hedge fund run by John Paulson, who famously bet successfully against the U.S. housing market and became the subject of a book and 2015 hit movie called “The Big Short.”
“There has, in the modern era, never been a president-elect like him,” said Jay Soled, a tax law professor and expert at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “It does present a whole host of problems.”