In 1974, Nelson Rockefeller, a fabulously wealthy New York Republican, unexpectedly found himself on the verge of being confirmed by the Senate to the office of vice president, which had been vacated by Gerald Ford after he assumed the presidency. Senators had some concerns: Wouldn’t Rockefeller’s capacity to counsel the president on financial regulation, for example, be compromised by his family’s holdings in the Chase Manhattan Bank?
Rockefeller promised the Senate that, as a man of irreproachable integrity, he would never allow his private interests to cloud his official judgment—and in those clubby days of the Senate, such assurances counted for a lot. There was, of course, the sticky matter of the federal conflict-of-interest law, which prohibits “officers” of the United States from participating in any governmental action in which they have a financial interest, and would ostensibly limit the topics on which Rockefeller could advise the president. But after receiving a Justice Department letter affirming that the vice president and the president are exempt from that statute, the Senate felt free to confirm Rockefeller. He became vice president on December 19, 1974.
Fast forward to 2016. A fabulously wealthy New York Republican finds himself unexpectedly close to the presidency. If he were to become president, Donald Trump’s decisions could affect any one of the 268 business ventures worldwide that bear his name. The conflict-of-interest statutes explicitly exempt the president, thus giving the chief executive a free hand—legally, if not ethically—to craft policy to advance his private-sector enterprises. But the conflict-of-interest statutes are not the only federal laws that would discourage an official from manipulating or continuing to hold outside business interests. There is, in fact, another law that seems tailor-made for a President Trump.