Actually, Nelson Rockefeller's Fortune Was Scrutinized Too

Updated: Jan 11, 2017 12:51 PM ET

In a press conference on Wednesday, President-elect Trump brought attorney Sheri Dillon forward to speak to the point of how he will avoid potential conflicts of interest between his business interests and his role as President of the United States.

His business empire is "not dissimilar to the fortunes of Nelson Rockefeller when he became Vice President," she noted, "but at that time no one was so concerned."

In fact, though Rockefeller's wealth did not ultimately prove an obstacle for his service as Vice President under Gerald Ford, TIME's archives show that plenty of people were concerned that his fortunes might pose a problem.

Rockefeller's arrival in the office of Vice President came about in an unusual way, after Gerald Ford became President following Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974. That circumstance left the vice presidency open, and Ford selected Rockefeller, a former New York Governor, to fill the job. Because of those circumstances, Rockefeller had to testify before the Senate before he could be confirmed as VP. As TIME reported, the influence of his money was a major concern among the Senators present:

No outsider really knows, but according to some estimates, the personal holdings and trusts of the Rockefellers may total as much as $1.3 billion.

This fortune both awed and worried some Senators. They were not altogether reassured by Rockefeller's promise to put his personal securities and holdings into "blind trusts" that would prevent his knowing which securities he owned at any one time. Nor were the Senators convinced by Rockefeller's protestations that accounts of his economic influence were a "myth." The witness pointed out that the Rockefellers own no more than 2.06% of any oil company and a scant 2.54% of the so-called family bank, the Chase Manhattan, 3rd largest in the world (its chairman: David Rockefeller). Rocky insisted that he had so little pull at Chase that he had to borrow money at 12% interest. "I've got to tell you," said Rockefeller in his husky voice, "I don't wield economic power."

...For all its earnestness, it was a rather disingenuous statement. The Rockefeller economic power is measured not only in stockholdings but also in terms of contacts, prestige and ability to raise capital. Nor did the witness point out that his family has contributed an estimated $25 million to his various political campaigns.

The Senator who was most irritated by Rockefeller's claim of powerlessness was West Virginia Democrat Robert C. Byrd, who grew up in an impoverished mining town during the Depression. "Can't we at least agree," Byrd demanded, "that the influence is there, that it is a tremendous influence, that it is more influence than any President or Vice President ever had?"

"Could I get you to add the word 'potential' influence?" Rockefeller asked.

"Very well, very well," said the exasperated Senator.

"Because..."

"Mr. Rockefeller," Byrd broke in, "you can answer my question with one word, yes or no, and I'll be satisfied. Can you separate the interests of big business from the national interest when they differ?"

"Yes, sir," Rockefeller boomed. "No problem."

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In particular, gifts that Rockefeller had given over the years were seen as coming "perilously close to violating New York State's conflict -of-interest laws," as TIME put it in October of 1974.

Rockefeller was eventually given the Congressional O.K.—though his wealth was the primary concern among those who did not support the confirmation. He became Ford's Vice-President, a position he served in until two years before his 1979 death.

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