Trump’s stake in the Dakota access pipeline builder: a conflict of interest?

The pipeline is one of a long list of potential conflicts of interest for the president-elect. 

James MacPherson/AP
An opponent of the Dakota Access oil pipeline passes out flowers at the main protest camp near Cannon Ball, N.D., Tuesday.

With the Dakota Access pipeline project on hold and environmentalists lobbying big banks to pull their financing, one investor with a stake in the outcome is poised to take over command of the Oval Office.

President-elect Donald Trump’s May financial disclosure filing lists investments of between $15,001 to $50,000 in Energy Transfer Partners, the Dallas-based builder of the pipeline – down from between $500,000 and $1 million the previous year. The disclosure also indicates that Mr. Trump owns between $100,000 to $250,000 in Phillips 66, an energy company that would control 25 percent of the pipeline upon its completion, as the Guardian reported in October.

Energy Transfer Partners, for its part, showed Trump’s bid for president plenty of love, with chief executive Kelcy Warren donating $3,000 to his campaign, more than $100,000 to a committee supporting his candidacy, and more than $66,000 to the Republican National Committee after his candidacy was announced, according to the Guardian.

The company has sunk some $4.8 billion into the pipeline’s continued construction, a decision that the Obama administration has effectively punted to the Trump White House, and last week, Ms. Warren told NBC News that she was “100 percent sure the pipeline will be approved by a Trump administration,” while denying any contact with the campaign.

The sums of money at stake is probably just a fraction of the president-elect’s overall wealth. But his unusually long and diverse list of investments, along with his bucking of financial-transparency traditions for presidential candidates, breaks the mold on an issue that many see as fundamental to the integrity of public office. Many legal scholars say it could feed doubts about conflicts of interest – and bring legal and political problems – during his presidency, in the absence of new transparency around his investments.

“We haven’t really had a president with the web of business interests that President-elect Trump has,” says Andrew Rudalevige, professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

With a fortune tied up in real estate assets located in countries around the world and buoyed by loans from foreign banks – including the Bank of China – Trump’s potential conflicts of interest are “qualitatively different from past presidents,” and complicate conventional good-faith measures taken by presidents to separate their governance from their investments, Dr. Rudalevige tells The Christian Science Monitor.

Federal law doesn’t require a president to divest in certain assets, the way it does of other officials in the executive branch. But presidents in the modern era have usually sold their assets and placed them in a “blind trust,” in which an independent trustee reinvests and manages the ensuing portfolio until the president leaves office. President Obama was an exception, placing most of his investments in index funds and Treasury bonds, whose values hinge on the overall performance of the US economy.

Trump has said he plans to take the blind-trust route – except his version wouldn’t be very blind at all, say experts, as his children would be the ones in charge of his assets.

Nothing Trump has said indicates he’s interested in setting up a truly blind trust where neither he, nor his family members, nor his close associates would know what’s going on,” Notre Dame University law professor and tax specialist Lloyd Mayer told the Guardian in October.

Potential legal complications exist, too. The emoluments clause of the US Constitution, which prohibits payments and gifts to the president “of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state”, tends to be broadly interpreted by the Justice Department, notes Fortune. Lawyers in the White House’s office of counsel usually take a fine-toothed comb to an incoming president’s finances for possible violations. If Trump’s outstanding loans from China’s state bank were to be refinanced or forgiven during his presidency, they might very well come under intense scrutiny by regulators.

The president-elect could take some easy steps to alleviate doubts, says Rudalevige.

“The key is to be transparent, starting with financial disclosures that are more extensive than what we’ve seen. You can assure people that you’re being careful and thoughtful.”

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