This Week in Conflicts: Trump’s Approach to Taxes, Federal Financial Disclosures and the Democrats Prepare for Ethics Reform


Donald Trump on his first day as President (Image Credit: Executive Office of the President of the United States)

This week, the latest edition of the Trump, Inc. podcast takes a look at how President Donald Trump approaches taxes, Forbes takes a look at what the president’s financial disclosures include, what they don’t and why that’s a problem, and the Democrats talk about possible ethics reform.

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Prescott Valley Event Center in Prescott Valley, Arizona. (Image Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Trump’s Approach to Taxes

In the latest edition of Trump, Inc., WNYC Studios and ProPublica look at patterns that exist in how President Trump approaches taxes.

The news organizations focus on three areas:

  • President Trump’s history of ignoring norms, like releasing his tax returns
  • How the president’s family has a history of breaking tax rules, something a New York Times investigation explained in depth
  • President Trump’s ability to change tax rules to benefit himself and his wealthy peers

The podcast also includes an interview with tax expert Jenny Johnson Ware who explains why, because of certain things happening right now, “it’s a great time,” to be aggressive as a taxpayer.

Skyscraper on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, near Rockefeller Center. (Image Credit: Fletcher6, Wikimedia Commons)

Trump and Disclosure Rules

In a recent news story, Forbes explains what President Trump is required to disclose under federal ethics laws, what he is not and why all of this matters.

One property the news organization focuses on is 1290 Avenue of the Americas, a skyscraper in New York City that President Trump partially owns.

“The federal filing meant to reveal the president’s potential conflicts of interest, his 92-page annual financial disclosure report, makes no mention of the building’s $950 million mortgage or the fact that Trump’s 30% stake in the property puts him on the hook for 30% of that partly Chinese-financed debt,” the article reads.

While President Trump is a partial owner of the building it is partly financed by the Chinese government, a potential conflict as the president continues to go back and forth with China on tariffs and trade.

What the article points out is that President Trump is not breaking the law by not sharing this information.

“Federal ethics laws require public servants to list everything from credit card balances to boat loans—but not the debt held by their businesses, even if their lender is a foreign power,” according to Forbes. “In fact, a close reading of the rules shows a long list of financial arrangements and entanglements that can be kept secret. Government officials can partner with foreign investors, take in money from foreign governments and apparently stash money in their family members’ names, all without ever having to tell the public.”

The Sunlight Foundation’s Tracking Trump’s Conflict of Interest database is built from information found in the financial disclosures. As Forbes points out, the information on the disclosures does not paint the full picture. That’s why we need your help. If you know anything about particular businesses connected to President Trump please contact us so we can work together to bring transparency to these potential conflicts of interests.

Official portrait of Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. (Image Credit: U.S. Department of Commerce)

Wilbur Ross Meetings

Another Forbes article discusses Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

According to the article, Ross “put himself at risk of violating a criminal conflict-of-interest law by discussing business matters with Chevron executives — while his wife apparently owned a stake in the company worth more than $250,000.”

Forbes reported on a meeting between Ross and Chevron’s then-CEO John Watson in July but government agencies refused to disclose what was discussed during the meeting. Now, after a legal battle, a detailed version of Ross’ calendar has been released and it shows that the

July meeting was focused on oil and gas developments, tax reform and trade issues.

As Forbes explains, “federal law prohibits officials from taking certain actions that affect financial interests held by them or their spouses. Conflicted officials can weigh in on broad issues that impact the whole economy, but not more specific matters that will directly, and predictably, impact companies in which they are investors.”

In some cases, officials can get waivers to allow them to get around the rules but the Commerce Department has not answered questions about whether Ross got a waiver.

Poling Place Sign in California. (Image Credit: Tom Arthur from Orange, CA, United States.)

Democrats Get Ready for Ethics Reform

As the midterm election gets closer, so do races in the House and Senate. At stake is which party will have majority control. The Republicans think they have it but so do the Democrats. Who wins could determine what the lawmakers tackle next.

As a recent article in Time Magazine explains, “Democrats have begun touting an ethics reform package that will top their legislative agenda if they take over the House of Representatives.”

Approximately 100 advocacy groups support the legislation, which is still being written. It is part of a campaign called “A Declaration for American Democracy.” According to Time, the legislation is expected to incorporate proposals for campaign finance reform, voting rights and ethics and accountability. It also is expected to include a provision that President Trump must release his tax returns.

Democrats need to flip 23 seats to have control of the House.

More conflicts of interest in the news

About this Project

Sunlight’s “Tracking Trump’s Conflicts of Interest” project provides a free, searchable database detailing President Donald J. Trump’s known business dealings and personal interests that may conflict with his public duties as President of the United States. The project also documents news coverage of these potential conflicts. Read our reporting to stay current on related news, explore our database, and learn more about the project. As we continue to learn about the First Family’s business holdings, the database will be updated. To help with those updates, get involved by contacting us here. You can also contact us if you’re familiar with any of the conflicts we’re tracking.

Lynn Walsh is an Emmy award-winning freelance journalist who has worked in investigative, data and TV journalism at the national level as well as locally in California, Ohio, Texas and Florida. She produces content focused on government accountability, public access to information and freedom of expression issues. She’s also helping to rebuild trust between newsrooms and the public through the Trusting News project.