Newly released records show the trust agreement that Donald Trump used to put his adult sons in charge of his company allows him to draw money from it upon his request, illustrating the thin divide between the president and his private fortune.
The filing, first reported by ProPublica and found on Page 161 of 166 of a bundle of documents released last week by the General Services Administration, says the trust that owns hundreds of Trump businesses “shall distribute net income or principal to Donald J. Trump at his request,” or whenever his son and a longtime employee “deem appropriate.”
Trump and his attorneys have pointed to the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust as a response to widespread worries from ethics lawyers, who have said Trump’s refusal to divest ownership of his company creates the potential that he can derive personal profit from his public office.
The filing — signed Feb. 10 by the trust’s managers, Donald Trump Jr. and Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg — reveals more evidence that the trust offers little barrier against Trump making money from the hotels, golf courses, branding deals and other business interests that he has widely promoted during his presidency.
Trump has visited his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, his luxury hotel in Washington and other Trump-brand properties for nine weekends in a row.
“He’s still the beneficiary of all these assets. He is still entitled to the income and the profits of the trust if he wants them,” said Beth Shapiro Kaufman, the president of law firm Caplin & Drysdale, who reviewed the trust document. “Has he put these things out of his control and out of his personal benefit? The answer is no.”
[Trump’s closest aides hail from ranks of financial elite]
The filing summarizes Trump’s trust agreement, which has not been made public, and it is does not make clear whether the “at his request” provision is a change to the trust or simply an additional detail of the broader trust.
Trump Organization spokeswoman Amanda Miller said the trust was not changed, but did not respond to further questions. Bobby Burchfield, a veteran Republican Party attorney whom the Trump company named as its outside ethics adviser, declined to comment, saying it was not something he has been involved in.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that Trump’s trust was not changed and defended its use. “A blind trust, or any kind of trust rather, the whole entire point of setting it up is so that somebody can draw money,” Spicer said. “The idea that the president is withdrawing money at some point is exactly the purpose of why a trust is set up, regardless of an individual.”
The Trump company told ProPublica in a statement, “President Trump believed it was important to create multiple layers of approval for major actions and key business decision.” The statement also said the Trump sons and Weisselberg “are the sole decision makers for the organization.”
Trump and his attorneys announced the trust at a Jan. 11 news conference, saying he would leave the management of his private businesses to his adult sons but would retain ownership of the companies through the trust.
[Pressure builds on GSA inspector general to review Trump’s D.C. hotel lease]
Past presidents have traditionally sold their financial interests or sequestered them in “blind trusts,” overseen by independent monitors with complete control. Trump’s trust is not blind, because he knows how his assets are performing, has close relationships with both trustees, can make money off the trust’s financial interests and can revoke the trust at any time.
A separate provision says the trustees “shall not provide any report to Donald J. Trump on the holdings and sources of income of the trust,” matching Trump’s insistence that he will limit the amount of information he learns about the business’s performance.
But Trump’s son, Eric, whom the filing calls “chairman of the advisory board for the trust,” told Forbes last month he intends to update his father on the business quarterly, adding, “My father and I are very close. I talk to him a lot. We’re pretty inseparable.”
Some trust attorneys say the provision is largely meaningless, because the president still maintains power over how the trust is managed and who runs it for his benefit.
“The whole thing is total smoke and mirrors,” said Bob Lord, a tax lawyer and associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies, who advised Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Democratic presidential campaign on tax issues.
The filing was revealed last week after the GSA, which oversees federal land, told the Trumps that the company is “in full compliance” with its lease for the Trump International Hotel, which is located in a federally owned building near the White House.
[Federal agency rules Trump’s D.C. hotel lease is in ‘full compliance’]
A clause in the lease agreement bars any “elected official of the government of the United States” from deriving “any benefit” from the lease. But GSA Contracting Officer Kevin M. Terry defended the lease by saying that “during his term in office, the president will not receive any distributions from the trust that would have been generated from the hotel.”
Neither the president nor the company have to disclose when or whether he draws money from the trust, which is privately held and whose purpose “is to hold assets for the benefit of Donald J. Trump.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said in an interview with the Atlantic published Friday that he was not concerned that Trump could reap money from his presidency because “he’s already rich.”
“He’s very rich,” Chaffetz said. “I don’t think that he ran for this office to line his pockets even more. I just don’t see it like that.”
Some legal experts said the trust agreement appears to offer no resistance if Trump did seek to receive money from private business dealings while deciding the nation’s affairs.
“He’s given up absolutely no control whatsoever,” said Fred Tansill, a trust attorney in McLean, Va. “If he wants to buy a fourth yacht or a jet plane, he can go to the trustees and say, ‘I’d like you to exercise your discretion,’ and they can give him anything he wants. If they say no, he can fire them.”
“This is trust law 101,” Tansill added. “Any trust lawyer understands that he’s given up no control. . . . There’s no blindness to this trust, and it’s not subtle.”