The Bait-and-Switch Presidency

Time and again, Donald Trump promises something—tax returns, a press conference, separation from his business—and then quietly reverses course.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

There were many surprising pieces of Trump-related news on Monday, from Donald Trump’s fight with the F-35 to his allies’ fight with the intelligence community over Russian hacking.

Equally or more consequential, though less surprising, was a pair of quiet statements he made later in the day. First, his transition team announced that a press conference scheduled for Thursday, in which he’d pledged to explain how he’d distance himself from his businesses, was being postponed until January, with no specific date given. Later in the evening, Trump sent a series of tweets related to the matter.

“Even though I am not mandated by law to do so, I will be leaving my busineses [sic] before January 20th so that I can focus full time on the Presidency,” he wrote. “Two of my children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage them. No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office. I will hold a press conference in the near future to discuss the business, Cabinet picks and all other topics of interest. Busy times!”

That’s an impressively compact amount of obfuscation to fit into three tweets. Trump is first begging the question when he says he is not mandated by law to do so. He is correct that there is no law that requires him to divest all of his holdings, but some ethicists—including former chief ethics officers for George W. Bush and Barack Obama—believe that he risks violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution simply by holding them.

The idea that Donald Jr. and Eric Trump will manage the company was more or less known before. The idea that the company will make “no new deals” while he is in office is so nonsensical as to be meaningless. Even if the Trump Organization makes no major acquisitions, or breaks ground on no new projects, it already has such a wide net of constantly evolving business relationships that there’s no avoiding conflicts of interest. Finally, there’s the vague promise of a press conference at some point in the future. If Trump can simply decide not to hold one on a firm date he’s previously announced, there’s little way to hold him to a nebulous one.

Which is probably just the point. The bait-and-switch is among Trump’s favorite tactics, especially as it relates to claims of transparency. As a candidate and now as president-elect, he followed a pattern: under pressure over some point, promise to do something at a future date; as that future date approaches, change plans; never follow through.

Aaron Blake rounds up a few of these in some detail. The press conference is one. Despite criticizing Hillary Clinton (rightfully) for not holding a press conference during a long stretch of the campaign, the man who was once eager to jaw with reporters hasn’t held a press conference since July 27. He’s been saying another one is imminent since the election.

The plan for how to separate himself from his businesses is another. First, he promised to put his company in a “blind trust” run by his children, a nonsensical statement that either reveals that Trump had no idea what a blind trust is or, more likely, that he was seeking to mislead. Then he promised details at Thursday’s planned news conference. But since he made that promise, congressional Republicans have signaled they’re uninterested in his conflicts of interest, making it fairly easy for him to postpone the conference until a later date, or never.

The most glaring example is Trump’s tax returns. Despite a longstanding tradition of presidential candidates releasing them, he refused to do so, citing the fact that he was being audited. The IRS confirmed that there was nothing legally blocking Trump from releasing the return, nor past year’s returns. But Trump kept saying he would release the taxes once the audit was complete. He has set no date.

This is yet another example of Trump’s savvy exploitation of the media, which is structurally incapable of really responding to this sort of feint. If the president-elect says he will hold a press conference on such and such a date to talk about X, that is clearly newsworthy, and so the press reports it, and Trump gets credit for whatever gesture toward transparency he has made. Then he quietly cancels later, and even if those cancelations are reported, they’re unlikely to have the same effect, both because a cancelation is not an exciting as an announcement and also for the same reasons that corrections are only somewhat effective.

More importantly, voters don’t seem to care. Anyone who wanted to do could have read well before the election that Trump was likely to be enmeshed in a series of intractable conflicts of interest. It didn’t matter. Both anecdotally and in survey after survey, large numbers of voters said they wanted a businessman to lead the country, and that Trump’s business experience and outsider perspective were key attractions for those who supported him.

Meanwhile, the idea that Trump could somehow extract himself from the company was always implausible. You can’t divest from your own surname. The Trump Organization doesn’t really make things, and it hardly even develops properties anymore. It’s a marketing operation: It cuts deals to use Trump’s name and reputation to market everything from condo-hotels to neckties to television shows. The company’s management is lean and heavily focused on the Trump children, who are all executive vice presidents. Remove the Trump family and there’s no Trump organization. If the person running the company isn’t named “Trump,” what’s the point?

What levers are there to force Trump to speak to the press, divest from his company, or release his tax returns? The press is at a disadvantage, and has thus far failed. Congress is another story, but Democrats are a minority and Republicans are still trying to patch up relations with the president-elect after a rocky campaign. Voters, for their part, didn’t care during the election, and in a new Morning Consult/Politico poll, respondents said that they did not expect Trump to separate himself from his businesses, and most also thought Trump’s business decisions would influence his governance. As long as enough people are happy with the switch, Trump has little incentive to give away the bait.