Following his election as the 45th President of the United States, President Trump made repeated claims that he would divest himself from his business assets to avoid any conflicts of interest. Despite numerous claims that conflicts of interest laws do not apply to a sitting president, in January, Trump finally revealed his plan to the world-he would transfer his business holdings to the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust, a trust set up for his own personal benefit but controlled by his son Donald and Allen Weisselberg, the CFO of the Trump Organization, who were named as Trustees. This, he claimed, would allow him to remove any doubt with regard to any potential conflict between his acts as president and his business holdings.
Earlier this month, ProPublica published a report that in February, the terms of the Trust were changed to allow the President the ability to receive principal and income from the Trust at his request subject to the approval of the Trustees. While this appeared to be an about face from Trump, the truth of the matter is the choice to use a revocable trust as a means of divestiture was never a serious transfer of his assets and the control thereof.
For starters, a revocable trust is not a traditional trust under United States trust law. Typically, trusts are irrevocable and the person contributing property to a trust loses all direct control over the property. Additionally, in many states, the donor or grantor of a trust cannot also be a beneficiary of the trust. Finally, while not impossible, most trusts cannot be amended or changed without a court order.
A revocable trust has none of these restrictions. The grantor of the trust reserves the right to revoke the trust at any time. In most instances, a grantor of a revocable trust is also the main beneficiary of the trust. And while the trust agreement can put restrictions on the control and distribution of trust property, the grantor has the ability to amend the trust and remove and replace the trustees if they are not happy with how the trust is being administered.
The main restriction found in a revocable trust is that these powers typically disappear if the grantor becomes incapacitated or dies. The trust then becomes irrevocable and the grantor loses the power to revoke and amend. It is possible that the President’s trust could have included his time as president as a further triggering event to losing these powers. The certification of trust presented by the President indicates that he retained his right to revoke the trust, so it is clear he did not do that.
Revocable trusts are often used to ensure a client’s privacy, to protect a client’s assets if they become incapacitated and to reduce the time and cost of estate administration upon their death. The idea that such a trust could be used to create any sort of separation between the president and his assets ignores the fact that the rights retained by the President are not a bug, but a feature of these trusts. Revocable trusts are trusts in name alone and cannot be used to properly separate the President or any other government official from the conflicts associated with their business holdings.
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