The Exasperating Difficulty of Trying to Understand Trump’s Finances

Using the standard disclosure forms, it's difficult to investigate even simple questions about the president's assets.

President Donald Trump boards Air Force One
Jonathan Ernst

On December 6th, then-President-elect Donald Trump was angry at the airplane manufacturer Boeing. The company, he felt, was overcharging for its newest version of Air Force One, leading him to tweet, “Cancel order!” Some were quick to point out that the situation seemed to present a conflict of interest: According to the disclosure forms he filed with the Federal Election Commission in May 2016, Trump owned stock in Boeing and had a personal financial stake in the company’s performance (although why he would publicly disparage a company in which he owned stock was anybody’s guess). In response, Trump’s spokesman at the time, Jason Miller, informed reporters that Trump had sold not only his stock in Boeing but also all of his other stocks that June, although neither Trump nor Miller provided any proof.

On June 16, the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) published Trump’s latest disclosure paperwork, offering the first glimpse into his finances since he took office—and the first chance to hold Miller’s statement to the level of scrutiny an official spokesperson for any president-elect warrants. Alongside pages that show, for example, that Mar-a-Lago, which Trump calls his “Winter White House” and has visited numerous times this year, saw a $7 million uptick in revenue, the document’s “Other Assets” section lists his stock and bond holdings. Did this section perhaps provide an opportunity to verify Miller’s claim?

Kind of. Parsing the paperwork generates an answer—it seems that Trump has sold his stocks—but not a complete one, and in the end serves as a demonstration of the inadequacy of Trump’s current disclosures as a way of actually understanding his finances.

The section of the financial-disclosure paperwork listing the president’s stocks doesn’t exactly show what he currently owns. Rather, it shows all of the assets that were either worth at least $1,000 when the form was filed or that generated at least $200 in income during the reporting period the form represents—in this case, the previous 12 months. Counting listings for the same company in multiple brokerage accounts as separate holdings, Trump’s forms list 249 assets that meet these criteria. This includes Boeing, located halfway down page 38.

But that doesn’t mean he still owns stock in Boeing. The forms list the value of Trump’s Boeing stock as “None (or less than $1,001)” with income of between $5,001 and $15,000, which means Trump currently owns less than $1,001 in Boeing stock, but earned between $5,001 and $15,000 from stock in the company (perhaps from its appreciation, or perhaps from selling it) over the previous 12 months. That’s compared with a value of $50,001 to $100,000 and income of $1,001 to $2,500 on his 2016 report.

Based on those figures, it’s reasonable to conclude that Trump sold off his stock in Boeing since he filed his previous disclosure forms in May 2016. Indeed, most of his stocks in publicly-held companies are now listed as being held at values of less than $1,001, which suggests that he no longer owns them (although it’s possible he still has some stocks, just in much smaller amounts).

Assuming he did sell his stocks, when did he sell them, and to whom? That’s impossible to determine based on the financial-disclosure forms. Theoretically, that information should be listed in Part 7 of the paperwork, labeled “Transactions.” However, there are several caveats that, in Trump’s case, appear to have enabled him to leave the section entirely blank.

To begin with, an official doesn’t have to report “transactions that occurred when you were not an employee of the United States Government.” This means that, for seven of the 12 months the forms document, Trump was not obligated to disclose any of his stock transactions. In other words, if Trump did sell his stocks before taking office, there’s no way, using only the disclosures Trump is required to file, of confirming when or to whom.

For transactions that do happen while an official is in office, the OGE requires that he or she document purchases or sales of more than $1,000. But there are exceptions to that requirement as well. As an FAQ on the OGE’s website explains, even if the sum total of the sales is greater than $1,000, all that matters is the size of the individual transactions. As such, a person who wanted to maintain secrecy could buy or sell large quantities of stock without having to disclose the transactions as long as each was below the threshold. On top of that, there are exceptions for “transactions that occurred solely by and between you, your spouse, or your dependent children” or assets held in a trust that could easily provide ways around disclosure requirements. That means Trump could theoretically have transferred stocks to his wife, one of his younger children, or a trust in order to avoid having to report the transactions.

So, did Trump sell his stocks last June? His financial-disclosure forms suggest he sold them at some point, although it’s impossible to give a definitive answer as to when. A call requesting comment from Miller went unreturned, and when asked about the stock sales, the White House referred back to Miller’s statement in December, and did not offer comment as to whether it considers Trump’s current disclosures sufficiently transparent.

Stock holdings aside, the OGE forms have other shortcomings too—shortcomings that haven’t been an issue in the past, with presidents who have been more transparent about their finances, who have sold off their assets before taking office, and who had less complicated finances in the first place. Though the paperwork lists the many companies Trump owns, that information alone isn’t nearly enough to determine the details of his assets. As has been frequently noted, the Trump Organization comprises numerous limited-liability corporations, or LLCs, which often have complicated ownership arrangements and minimal disclosure requirements. In December, The Wall Street Journal explained “how Trump’s web of LLCs obscures his business interests,” using the president’s personal planes and helicopters as examples. As the Journal demonstrated, Trump doesn’t technically own a helicopter; rather, he owns most of a company that owns most of a company that owns most of a company that owns most of a company that owns a helicopter—and that’s among the simplest of the arrangements through which he runs his real-estate empire. Many of these setups are sufficiently convoluted, and face such minimal disclosure requirements, that it’s difficult to ascertain what he owns, who his business partners are, or where he gets his funding.

Another obstacle to understanding Trump’s finances based on the forms alone is that, though the OGE provides guidelines on how to determine the value of an asset, it lacks the investigative capacity to verify what officials have disclosed. This leaves Trump to self-report how much his individual properties are worth, which can be problematic because of the fluid nature of real-estate valuation. Consider, for example, Trump International Golf Course Westchester, located in Briarcliff Manor, New York. Trump purchased the property in 1996 for nearly $8 million, and then spent $45 million renovating the course, its clubhouse, and the adjoining residential complex. When it reopened in 2001, The New York Times reported that the course was worth $30 million, the clubhouse was worth $15 million, and the Residences at Trump National Golf Club were worth $75 million. It’s no surprise, then, that, in all three of his financial disclosures, Trump reported that the property is worth “over $50 million,” generating income of around $10 million per year.

But Trump’s company assesses the property’s value differently. According to the Trump Organization, the club is worth far less than $50 million. In 2016, after Briarcliff Manor’s tax assessor valued the property at $15 million, the company sought (unsuccessfully) to reduce its property-tax burden by claiming the club was actually worth just $1.4 million—less than three percent of what Trump put on his disclosure forms. According to ABC News, the Trump Organization is appealing the tax assessor’s $15 million valuation again this year, claiming that the property is worth $7.5 million. In other words, a single property received at least five separate valuations by four separate entities, Trump himself included, that differ by tens of millions of dollars—and collectively demonstrate the futility of trying to use the figures available to understand the president’s financial situation.

One remedy for this financial murkiness would be for the OGE to heighten financial-disclosure requirements. That would likely mean significantly redefining the role of the organization, which is not an investigative body, and the paperwork, which is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to a politician’s finances. Even with the aforementioned limitations, the financial-disclosure forms largely fulfill their purpose of establishing a baseline of transparency and creating a rough public record of what a public official owns to help suss out conflicts of interest.

However, there’s another solution, one that would not only fix the shortcomings of the president’s current disclosures but also help resolve broader questions about how his businesses influence his behavior in office. First, Trump could abide by decades-old norms of transparency by releasing his tax returns, which would fill in many of the gaps in the public record of his finances. (If, as he has asserted, he has no deals with or debts to the Russian government, releasing his tax returns would help put an end to that line of inquiry as well.) Second, he could follow the advice of ethics lawyers on both sides of the political aisle and divest from his businesses, eliminating altogether the numerous conflicts of interest they create. Until he takes one of those steps, his disclosure forms will remain the primary usable record of his finances—and that’s a problem.