Donald Trump is struggling to tamp down mounting questions about potential conflicts of interest between his vast business fortune and his incoming presidential administration, as the president-elect refuses to specify any dramatic steps to wall off his real estate and branding empire.
The concerns were exacerbated in recent days by media reports revealing that after his stunning win in this month’s presidential election, Trump continued to meet with foreign business partners, while his new Washington hotel was soliciting business from foreign diplomats.
The reports represent an early test to a key piece of Trump’s campaign agenda — his promises to “drain the swamp” of Washington and usher in a government that works for regular people.
The president-elect’s team has insisted that steps were being taken to adhere to ethics rules — and to avoid even the perception that he was cashing in on the highest office in the land.
Asked Monday on Fox News about whether the president-elect’s team would “have to work out where the business starts and the presidency starts,” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said there are “experts behind the scenes doing that. The adult children, who already help him run his business and obviously will be the stewards of that business in their father’s absence, are on top of that.”
But it remains unclear when the leadership transition at the Trump Organization will occur between Trump and his adult children, or how the children will wall off their father from the business, given that they and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner also are expected to be close advisers to Trump in the White House.
Trump spokesman Jason Miller told reporters on a Monday morning conference call that “we do have counsel that’s actively involved, and we’re comfortable with where everything is.”
But Miller did not respond to emailed follow-up questions about what criteria were being used to avoid potential overlaps between Trump’s business and official dealings, or who specifically was doing the monitoring.
The uncertainty comes as Democrats are calling for a review of Trump’s “financial arrangements” for potential conflicts of interest before he’s sworn in as president, and even some conservatives are urging him to take more drastic steps than merely handing over the business to his family.
The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page opined last week that Trump’s “best option is to liquidate his stake in the company.” The editorial board questioned earlier plans for what some Trump lawyers called a “blind trust,” pointing out that “by law, blind trusts are overseen by an independent manager, not family members,” and noting that such arrangements are better suited for “liquid assets like bonds and stocks, not buildings or a branding empire. Mr. Trump will know how any given decision will affect, say, the old post office property in Washington, D.C. that he’s leasing from the federal government (another conflict).”
Asked about the editorial on Sunday on NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said, “We’re going to make sure that no matter what decisions are made, that they’re going to be run through counsel. And as you know, there’s a White House Counsel’s office that will be there, that will be issuing opinions and these matters will all be dealt with, they’ll all be dealt with accordingly.”
But Peter Schweizer, the conservative author who drove attention to overlaps between Hillary Clinton’s State Department and her family’s personal and charitable finances, on Saturday suggested that unless Trump fully divested, he could be susceptible to similar conflicts.
Schweizer in an interview on CNN said, “It’s only a question of time” before the Trump Organization is approached by a foreign government or its allies with “sweetheart deals for the Trumps in hoping to curry favor.”
“And if they take those offers, it’s hugely problematic. It’s not only a conflict of interest, it’s the appearance of a conflict of interest. And then you’ve got major problems around U.S. foreign policy towards that country,” said Schweizer, pointing out that in many countries “those large real estate deals that they engage in are inherently political.”
The Argentine government on Monday pushed back on a report that Trump used an official phone call with Argentine President Mauricio Macri to discuss a business project in the South American country.
“That issue was not part of the conversation between president Mauricio Macri and president-elect Donald Trump,” said presidential spokesperson Ivan Pavlovsky. “The subject both leaders talked about was the institutional relationship, and they briefly mentioned the personal relationship they have had for years.”
But adding to the intrigue around the call, The Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, on Monday printed an interview with Macri in which he revealed that during the call he also talked to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, who plays a major role in running the Trump Organization.
“We promised to establish the best bilateral relations ever. I hope that our good relations with the United States, seen under U.S. President Barack Obama, will continue and expand further under Trump,” Macri said in the interview, which was conducted on Nov. 18. “In the call, I also talked with his daughter. I have known her since her infant days.”
It’s not clear what the two of them discussed. A Trump aide did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Schweizer suggested the specter of conflicts would continue to loom over Trump unless and until he moved “to sell his ownership stake in the companies,” and also announced “that they are not going to have any government contracts.”
Schweizer’s warnings are particularly notable because of his ties to Trump’s team.
Trump’s incoming White House senior counselor Steve Bannon founded Schweizer’s nonprofit Government Accountability Institute, which produced Clinton Cash. The nonprofit was funded by Rebekah Mercer, who sat on its board and also sits on the Trump transition team’s 16-member executive committee.
Schweizer said Trump owed it to the voters who supported him to consider implementing “bright line” ethics rules. He acknowledged “to divest yourself from real estate holdings is not an easy thing, but I think it would be a very powerful thing to do and would send a great signal to the American people who are clamoring for somebody to clean up Washington, DC.”
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