President-elect Donald Trump promised this week both that he would relinquish control over his business empire and that “no new deals” would occur while he serves in the White House, but ethics experts say it’s still not enough for Trump to adequately avoid a conflict of interest.
After canceling a highly anticipated press conference on the subject set for Thursday, Trump announced in a series of tweets early this week that “even though I am not mandated by law to do so,” he would leave his businesses prior to inauguration.
“Two of my children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage them,” he wrote. “No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office.”
Still, a total divestiture from his business is viewed as the only solution by ethics experts, who have said anything less is inconsequential.
“The acid test for President-elect Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest is: Will he sell the family business?” Robert Weissman, the president of the advocacy group Public Citizen, said in a statement. “Last night’s tweets suggest that he will not divest, which means that nothing of consequence has changed.”
Weissman wrote that Trump would continue to have conflicts of interests stemming from his business operations, including those overseas, no matter who is running the Trump Organization so long as he still has a stake in it, adding that Trump would be able to financially benefit from policies as wide-ranging as consumer protection, taxes, labor rights, and bankruptcy.
“Candidate Trump promised to root out corruption, cronyism and insider dealmaking,” he wrote. “President-elect Trump is making a mockery of those promises, starting with his refusal to end his own conflicts of interest, as serious as any in the history of the American presidency.”
- Andrew Kelly/Reuters
In a piece for The Washington Post, Richard Painter and Norman Eisen of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington shared much of Weissman’s sentiment.
The pair took a dive into the two pieces of news from Trump’s tweets: that he would make “no new deals” and that his sons Eric and Donald Jr. would have a major stake in running the company.
“What no ‘new deals’ seems to mean is that Trump and his family will do no brand-new major projects,” the pair wrote. “But Trump has given no indication that he will end any existing projects. On the contrary, he has suggested that his businesses all over the United States and the world will clearly continue, which means there will be many ‘new deals.'”
They called the concept “questionable” and added that it “certainly” didn’t do enough to address concerns about Trump’s conflicts.
“Continuance of the current Trump empire means that it will be rife with opportunities for quid pro quos and other illegalities,” Painter and Eisen wrote. “Most immediately, if those businesses continue to receive foreign government payments, Trump will be in violation of the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution from his first day as president.”
According to a late-November Washington Post story, at least 111 separate Trump companies have conducted business in 18 countries across South America, the Middle East, and Asia. Pointing specifically to a Trump Towers project in Istanbul, something Trump at one point said could present “a little conflict of interest,” The Post wrote that “policy and ethics experts are scrambling to assess the potential dangers of public rule by a leader with a vast web of private business deals.”
The biggest legal risk Trump faces as a result of his business ties is a passage in the Constitution known as the Emoluments Clause, to which Painter and Eisen referred. It forbids government officials from receiving gifts from foreign governments.
As The Post reported, a payment from a foreign official or state-owned company to a Trump hotel or other company bearing his name may violate the clause. So could favorable legislation or treatment overseas from a government aimed at benefiting a Trump property.
Writing about Trump’s sons, Painter and Eisen said putting children of officials in charge of businesses is “a typical conduit for corruption all over the world.”
At various points along the campaign trail, Trump said his business would be controlled by his children in what he said was a “blind trust,” even though that constitutes an independent manager who is not someone as closely tied to the holder as his or her children.
“If Trump maintains an ownership interest in the businesses, and his kids are running them, that is an invitation for scandal,” Painter and Eisen wrote. “This is why, as we have argued before, Trump must follow the example set by the past four decades of presidents and construct a true blind trust or equivalent.”
Painter and Eisen continued: “Trump doesn’t just need to ‘leave’ operations of his businesses in the hands of his sons. He also must sell his interests by transferring his ownership to an independent trustee, who will sell them and reinvest the assets elsewhere in places unbeknown to the president. Or he could sell and then transfer the proceeds to the trustee, or make some other similar arrangement.”
Trump’s ability to separate his business ties from the presidency has been questioned extensively in recent weeks.
During an interview with staff members of The New York Times late last month, Trump claimed “the president can’t have a conflict of interest” when pressed about his business ties.
“The law’s totally on my side. The president can’t have a conflict of interest,” he said, according to tweets from reporters inside the meeting. “My company’s so unimportant to me relative to what I’m doing.”
“I’d assumed that you’d have to set up some type of trust or whatever, and you don’t,” the president-elect later said. “I would like to do something.”
Asked whether he would sell his holdings, Trump said it would be a “really hard thing to do, because I have real estate.”