President-elect Donald J. Trump tweeted this morning that he would soon leave his “great business in total” to focus on the presidency, a response to growing worries over the businessman-in-chief’s conflicts of interest around the globe.
The announcement marks a turn from Trump’s months-long refusal to distance himself from his private business while holding the highest public office.
But it remained unclear whether the new arrangement would include a full sale of Trump’s stake or, as he has offered before, a ceding of company management to his children, which ethics advisers have said would not resolve worries that the business could still influence his decisions in the Oval Office.
“I will be holding a major news conference in New York City with my children on December 15 to discuss the fact that I will be leaving my great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country in order to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Trump tweeted.
“While I am not mandated to do this under the law, I feel it is visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses. Hence, legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations. The Presidency is a far more important task!”
Presidents are not bound by the strict conflict-of-interest laws governing most U.S. elected officials. But most modern presidents have agreed to sell or sequester their assets in a “blind trust,” led by an independent manager with supreme control, in order to keep past business deals, investments and relationships from influencing their White House term.
Giving company management to his children – Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka – would still leave open the potential for Trump to make presidential decisions for their benefit. The children have already played a key part in Trump’s governing preparations, serving on the transition team now selecting key appointees and sitting in on meetings with foreign heads of state.
Trump spokespeople did not immediately return requests for more details on the move. But Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, said the move did not appear to offer enough of a division to keep entanglement worries at bay.
“That’s business operations, not ownership. The problem is, we need to resolve the conflicts of interest that arise from his ownership. And we’re hearing nothing about how that’s getting resolved,” Painter said.
“Even if he does not operate the businesses, you’re going to have lots of people working for the business running around the world trying to cut deals,” Painter added. “And it’s critical that none of those people discuss U.S. business in a way that could be interpreted, or misinterpreted, of offering quid pro quo . . . or soliciting a bribe on the part of the president.”
If Trump’s family does take over management of the business, Norman Eisen, the chief White House ethics lawyer for President Obama from 2009 to 2011, said an “ethics firewall” would need to be put in place to combat the “risk of improper preferential relationships and treatment for the Trump Organization with the United States government and foreign ones.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he was not “ready to reveal” whether the move would include Trump truly severing ties to his business or whether he would simply leave the day-to-day operations to his kids.
“It’s not the easiest thing to work out,” Priebus said. “What you see in those tweets is the person at the top that understands and is willing and showing the American people that he’s working hard on it and he’s taking it seriously.”
In one confusing move, the official Twitter account of the Office of Government Ethics, which traditionally works closely with presidential transition teams, celebrated Wednesday morning that Trump had committed to fully divesting his company stake, though Trump has publicly said no such thing.
The tweets also said that OGE lawyers had told Trump the only way to fully guard against conflicts would be fully divesting his assets. OGE officials did not immediately respond to request for explanation. The tweets were deleted within an hour of their first posting.
The weeks since Trump’s electoral victory have been marked by a series of entanglements between his private ventures and public ambitions.
Trump welcomed a group of Indian business executives to meet with him and his family at Trump Tower, where talk turned to the potential for new real-estate deals. Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, who will likely play a key part in running the company, met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during Trump’s first meeting as president-elect with a foreign government leader.
His company, the Trump Organization, has over the years sealed lucrative real-estate and branding deals for business in at least 18 countries and territories across the world, including in places where the U.S. has sensitive diplomatic ties, such as Turkey, Azerbaijan and India.
Trump’s company is also pitching foreign diplomats on his new luxury hotel in Washington as a place to book rooms and hold meetings. But such entreaties eventually could run afoul of an “emoluments” clause in the U.S. Constitution that bars the president from accepting gifts from foreign leaders – even if he is not actively running the company.
Eric Trump also traveled to Turkey this week to hunt wild deer at the invitation of a Turkish businessman, according to Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. Trump’s company has made millions off licensing the name to Trump Towers Istanbul, a luxury project in a country under close scrutiny by U.S. diplomats.
Buffeted by entanglement worries, Trump has largely dug in, arguing “the law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest” last week in an interview with the New York Times.
“In theory I could run my business perfectly, and then run the country perfectly,” Trump said. “But I would like to do something. I would like to try and formalize something, because I don’t care about my business.”
Peter Schweizer, a conservative author who raised alarms in the book “Clinton Cash” about Hillary Clinton’s possible conflicts of interest because of donations to her family’s foundation, said Trump will face an equally skeptical public, not just about his entanglements but those of his children as well.
“It’s incumbent on the president of the United States, particularly one who is seemingly committed to ‘draining the swamp,’ to remove any questions about financial transactions involving him or his family,” said Schweizer, who is also close to Trump senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who served as chairman of the Government Accountability Institute, where Schweizer is president.
“Foreign entities look at family members as a route to gaining influence and getting special favors. It’s not a question of if it’s going to happen – it’s going to happen. The best thing he could do is set up mechanisms now to avoid those pitfalls that invariably surround presidential families.”
He suggested both Trump and his adult children voluntarily submit to quarterly in-depth disclosures about their financial holdings and major Trump Organization financial transactions, even though the law does not require it.
He also proposed that Trump’s charitable foundation cease accepting donations from non-family members and that Trump’s children agree they will not accept paid speaking engagements for fees larger than those they were paid before their father was elected president.
Michael Toner, who served as general counsel to the Bush-Cheney transition in 2000, recalled the 10-week post-election period as a time for setting broad ethical policy – and considering specific safeguards for the incoming president – that would set the tone for the incoming administration.
At the time of the Kennedy-Johnson transition, Lyndon Johnson separated himself from the Texas radio stations he operated, drawing up new ownership documents putting his wife, Lady Bird, in charge and removing himself, at least officially, from the company’s operations. After his election in 1976, Jimmy Carter set up elaborate arrangements to remove himself from the family peanut business, its management and knowledge of day to day decisions.
For decades incoming presidents and vice presidents have used the inaugural period to meet with federal ethics officials to take steps, such as setting up blind trusts, to remove themselves from their previous business activities and investments. The idea, Toner and others said, is to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
One of Trump’s most visible potential entanglements, even under a potentially new business arrangement, would be Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., the new luxury hotel he opened in the White House’s backyard.
Charging his children with running the Trump Organization also does not necessarily protect against potential contractual or constitutional violations his presidency may trigger in regards to his D.C. hotel, legal experts say. Trump remains the majority owner of the project, which the company leases from the federal government.
Trump opened the hotel this fall after spending $42 million of his own money and borrowing another $170 million to foot the cost of construction. There is a provision in the lease allowing Trump to sell or transfer his stake in the hotel to “any Trump Family Member.” Selling it to an outside entity would likely require approval by the General Services Administration.
If Trump chooses not to sell, his ownership stake could create two problems once he steps into office. A boilerplate 88-word lease measure may require that the government terminate the deal because it bars “an elected official of the Government of the United States” from having “any share or part of this Lease.”
Procurement experts Steven L. Schooner and Daniel I. Gordon have argued the GSA ought to terminate its deal with Trump because of that clause, writing in The Washington Post a week after the election that “having the president’s adult children negotiate with the staff of the president’s appointee at GSA presents what any reasonable person would view as the appearance of a conflict of interest.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Drew Harwell