President-elect Donald J Trump on Wednesday said he would take steps to separate himself from his vast, global business empire in the hopes of preventing the appearance of a conflict of interest
as he becomes president.
But Trump’s announcement, delivered in a series of early-morning posts on Twitter, drew an immediate rebuke from legal and ethics experts in Washington, who said that a close reading of the actual words in the posts suggests that Trump is not planning to take sufficient steps to eliminate the conflicts.
The president-elect provided few details, but promised to hold a “major news conference” with his adult children in two weeks to reveal legal documents that will remove him from what he called the “business operations” of his company. He vowed to leave the Trump Organization “in total” to focus on running the country from the White House.
The emphasis on “business operations,” not on ownership, hinted that Trump is not ruling out retaining a financial stake in the Trump Organization or putting his children in control of the company. Ethics experts said such moves would leave Trump vulnerable to accusations that his official actions are motivated by personal financial interests.
“Although it is of course important that he have no involvement in Trump business operations, in order to avoid conflicts he must also exit the ownership of his businesses through using a blind trust or equivalent,” Norman Eisen, who served as a White House
ethics lawyer in the Obama administration, and Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer in the Bush administration, said in a joint statement to The New York Times
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a liberal nonprofit group that promotes ethics in government, said: “Unless his solution is to sell the business outside the family and put the proceeds in a blind trust, he’s not really doing anything to solve the problem. Just because you say something on Twitter doesn’t make it so.”
It remains unclear what the president-elect’s plan will look like, but simply removing Mr. Trump from operational, day-to-day control of business decisions still could allow him to benefit financially from payments made to his companies by foreign governments, which may be prohibited by the so-called emoluments clause of the Constitution, Mr. Eisen said.
And Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts said nothing about whether his children — who serve as advisers on his presidential transition committee — would continue to have roles in his administration.
If the business is run by his children, they must be entirely separated from government operations, Mr. Eisen and Mr. Painter said. That means they could not participate in meetings with world leaders, like the prime minister of Japan, as Ivanka Trump did this month.
“Without an ethics firewall that is set up at once and continues into the administration, scandal is sure to follow,” their statement said.
Aides to Mr. Trump did not immediately respond to requests for more detail. Reince Priebus, who will be the White House
chief of staff, said on the MSNBC program “Morning Joe” that he was not ready to provide any more information about the legal discussions.
“You should know that he’s got the best people in the world working on it,” Mr. Priebus said, adding that the American people were aware of Mr. Trump’s business entanglements when they elected him. “We are working on making sure that all those conflicts are taken care of.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Trump stressed the importance of the appearances he needs to maintain as president, saying he believed it was “visually important” to avoid conflicts between his role as the head of government and his businesses.
Mr. Trump insisted — as he has before — that he is not legally required to take any steps to divest himself of his financial ties. In an interview with The Times last week, Mr. Trump said that “the law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” He also said in the interview that “I would like to try and formalize something, because I don’t care about my business.”
It is unclear whether Mr. Trump is willing to sell all or part of his business interests to achieve a more substantial separation from his assets. Such a move could be costly for Mr. Trump and his family. In the interview, Mr. Trump said doing so would be very complicated.
“That’s a very hard thing to do, you know what, because I have real estate. I have real estate all over the world, which now people are understanding,” he told reporters and editors at The Times. “It’s a great company with great assets. I think that, you know, selling real estate isn’t like selling stock. Selling real estate is much different, it’s in a much different world.”
Every president in the past four decades, Mr. Eisen and Mr. Painter noted, has taken personal holdings they had before being elected and put them into a “blind trust” in which the assets were controlled by an independent party.
If he was willing to sell assets, one option that remains available to Mr. Trump is to seek a “certificate of divestiture” from the Office of Government Ethics, which would allow him to sell his real estate holdings and other businesses with an enormous tax advantage. This system was set up to allow wealthy Americans to take jobs in the government and avoid a conflict of interest
without a large financial impact. The provision allows incoming government officials to defer paying capital gains on any earnings on the investment. This could generate an enormous windfall for Mr. Trump, given his vast real estate holdings.
Henry Paulson, after he was nominated by President George W. Bush to serve as secretary of Treasury, left a job at Goldman Sachs and took advantage of this provision, avoiding conflicts he would otherwise have had by selling an estimated $500 million in Goldman stock.
But if Mr. Trump wants to do this, the money generated from the liquidation of his assets will have to be invested in “permitted property,” which is limited to Treasury bonds or diversified mutual funds.
That money would have to then be turned over to an independent party to manage, Mr. Eisen said, via a blind trust — steps that are unlikely, as Mr. Trump and his family would no longer have their real estate ventures, which for decades have been a critical part of their family’s identity.
© 2016 The New York Times News Service