Donald Trump will not accept briefings on his business while serving as president, and he’s open to limits on his ability to talk business with his two adult sons slated to run the company, according to a Trump spokeswoman.
But as details emerge on Trump’s plan to separate his private interests from the public, key questions remain unanswered: Trump also wants a way to return to his business when his White House days are over, and he doesn’t want anyone outside the family owning the rights to the Trump name while he’s away, Trump’s friends, business associates and transition staff tell POLITICO.
Those are among the issues delaying Trump’s grand plan to protect his administration from conflicts of interest — even as his critics continue to pound him for failing to produce the ethics setup he’d promised would by now be a done deal. Trump’s legal team has been working on a public-private ethics firewall since the President-elect’s upset election victory, but discussions with people surrounding that process paint a picture of a man struggling to cut all ties with the business empire that made him rich and famous.
“All he cares about is his name and the business,” said a source familiar with the Trump business discussions. “Having to give it up is a bit of a pride shock.”
On the record, the Trump transition team says the delayed announcement relates solely to the complexity of separating the future president from his real estate and investment portfolio, but they were adamant that — despite friends and business associates suggesting otherwise — Trump would not want business briefings and would accept limiting contact with his sons regarding business matters.
“Under no circumstances has Mr. Trump requested nor would he participate in briefings regarding the business during his presidency,” spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in an email. “Additionally, he is not against restrictions on speaking with his family regarding the business.”
As for why Trump punted his ethics announcement to January — after initially promising to roll it out at a press conference Thursday — Hicks said the delay “ensures the legal team has ample time to implement the proper protocols so [Trump’s] sole focus will remain on the country.”
That seems at odds with Trump’s tweet earlier this week: “The media tries so hard to make my move to the White House, as it pertains to my business, so complex — when actually it isn’t!”
According to long-time Trump associates and observers, one of the big obstacles to completing an ethics plan is how difficult it will be for Trump to fully blind himself to the fate of a business operation he’s been building for his entire adult life.
“I just can’t imagine him not paying attention to it,” said the source familiar with the business discussions.
“Oh my god, it’ll be the first thing on his mind when he wakes up in the morning,” added longtime Trump biographer Timothy O’Brien, who does not have direct knowledge of Trump’s plans.
But many more issues also remain unresolved, including the licensing agreements that are the biggest part of the Trump Organization’s business. A Trump transition source said the president-elect doesn’t want to see those naming rights sold to anyone outside his family. “Why would he give up the value of his name? It’s tied to the president of the United States. It’s the leader of the free world,” the source said.
Also to be determined: exactly what role Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, will play in the new administration and how she separates herself from the family business. She wasn’t mentioned in her father’s Monday night Twitter post naming just his adult sons as leaders of the Trump Organization, and Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway on Thursday told MSNBC it was a “fair assessment” that both Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner would be the most likely members of the president-elect’s family to join the administration.
A source close to Ivanka, however, said the team hadn’t yet settled on a final plan: “They want to be smart about it,” the source said. “She wants to separate her advocacy from the commercial side.”
Another former Trump associate said part of the delay also stems from the president-elect’s brash management style and quick temper, which can make it difficult to raise uncomfortable topics tied to his livelihood. “Nobody is going to flat out just tell him he shouldn’t be involved in the business,” the source said. “He’ll just kick you out of the room. They have to find a happy medium for him.”
As the Trump team deliberates, Democrats are attacking Trump and warning that conflict-of-interest concerns will dog his only move unless he sets up a strong firewall — criticism that has only mounted since Trump on Monday announced he was postponing until January a press conference that was originally slated for Dec. 15.
“Every decision he makes affecting anyone overseas — I won’t even address the domestic — is tainted and will be and gives us the opportunity to say it’s so,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat and senior member of the House Oversight Committee, said in an interview.
Democrats say the only way for Trump to effectively guard against conflicts of interest is to liquidate his assets and put them into a blind trust run by an independent trustee with no ties to him or his family.
Beyond any reticence on Trump’s part to cut ties, some of the delays to the announcement are due to the sheer complexity of untangling a multi-billion-dollar business from the most powerful office in the world.
Inside Trump’s ranks, some parts of the business aren’t seen as the root cause of the ethical problems that his Democratic critics keep highlighting. “Golf courses are golf courses,” said the source familiar with the business discussions. The president-elect also owns little commercial property in the United States.
Trump has interests in more than 18 other countries, setting up his foreign policies for close scrutiny of potential conflicts. He faces the prospects of a large tax bill depending on how he handles a range of real estate investments. And active litigation involving his companies also continues to expose Trump to depositions, document discovery and other legal steps that could embarrass him once he’s a sitting president.
Still, some details are emerging of the potential structure of his company during his presidency.
On Twitter late Monday night, Trump revealed that his company would pursue “no new deals” during his time in the White House. He also said his two adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, are on track to be the leaders atop the Trump Organization, though Eric also is seen by many in New York as more interested in the minutiae of the business.
Trump also said he’d be leaning on his long-time company executives, and people familiar with the discussions named general counsel Alan Garten and Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer who started out working as an accountant for the president-elect’s father as among those who are likely to maintain significant authority.
In her statement to POLITICO, Hicks disputed multiple points of reporting for this article as “not accurate.” But she declined repeated requests to clarify Trump’s positions on his interest in having a path back to the company when his tenure is up and that he is against the rights to the Trump name going outside the family.
“This process is obviously of the utmost importance and therefore everyone involved is taking the time to ensure it is done properly with great attention to detail,” she said, adding that some of the issues POLITICO raised based on its reporting had “yet to be discussed.”
Many of Trump’s longtime friends are unsurprised that Trump is still sorting through how to address his business conflicts.
“That Trump is still sorting through solutions on the business front shouldn’t be that big of a surprise. “I don’t think Donald expected to win,” said Louise Sunshine, a Miami Beach-based real estate developer who worked for Trump for 15 years and remains in touch with the president-elect and his family. “I think he was as surprised as everybody else. They’re just thinking this through.”
Annie Karni contributed to this report.
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