Donald Trump said on Tuesday that he faces no legal obligation to cut ties with his businesses even as he described how winning the presidency has made his brand “hotter” and acknowledged advancing his business interests during a conversation with a British official.
“The law’s totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” Trump said in an interview with New York Times editors and writers.
Trump said he was surprised by how little was legally required of him. “In theory I could run my business perfectly and then run the country perfectly. There’s never been a case like this,” he said. “I’d assumed that you’d have to set up some type of trust or whatever and you don’t.”
It’s true that federal conflicts of interest laws exempt the president, and he’ll have the power to change White House ethics rules. But there remains a constitutional ban on accepting payments from foreign governments, as well as anti-corruption laws against bribery and fraud. Enforcing them against the president, however, would probably have to be done through impeachment.
Impeachment seems unlikely while Republicans control Congress. But questions about Trump’s business entanglements, especially overseas, are dominating press coverage of his transition, and nothing he said on Tuesday seemed likely to abate those concerns.
Democrats are already planning to use Trump’s ethical conflicts to make life difficult for his administration. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) plans to introduce a resolution calling on Trump to convert his assets, adopt blind trusts or take other measures to comply with the part of the Constitution that prohibits payments from foreign governments, known as the Emoluments Clause.
“He should provide the American people with clarity and certainty that he will in no way, shape, or form use the office of the President to advance his substantial personal fortune,” Cardin said in a statement.
It’s not just Democrats who are voicing concerns. Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, called the president-elect’s foreign dealings “certainly a big deal” on Twitter, citing Trump’s own criticism of the Clinton Foundation.
Trump appeared to give critics more fuel during his sit-down with journalists on Tuesday.
He acknowledged a New York Times report that he encouraged British politician Nigel Farage and his entourage to prevent a wind farm from obstructing the view from Trump’s Scottish golf course. “I might have brought it up,” he said.
Norm Eisen, a former ethics lawyer for President Obama, said Trump’s raising the wind farm could have amounted to bribery if he offered any official action in return.
“I sure am curious about what was and was not said in that conversation,” Eisen said.
Trump also told the Times his new luxury hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue is “probably a more valuable asset than it was before.” The Washington Post reported in the past week that foreign diplomats are eager to patronize the hotel to curry the president-elect’s favor.
Trump said the brand, meaning “Trump,” is now “hotter.”
Trump said his companies were less important to him than being president, and he “would like to do something” about his business entanglements. But he rejected a suggestion of selling his company, saying it would be “a really hard thing to do, because I have real estate.” It wasn’t obvious why that would be a special impediment.
Instead, Trump said he is handing the operations off to his adult children, as he said he would during the campaign. But that does little to insulate the president-elect from his business concerns, legal and ethics experts have pointed out, because he would still know what assets he owned and would communicate with the people running them.
“If it were up to some people, I would never, ever see my daughter Ivanka again,” Trump said.
Ivanka Trump has reportedly joined him in conversations with leaders from Argentina and Japan. Her husband, Jared Kushner, had been under consideration for a senior role in the White House, but Trump told the Times’ Maggie Haberman that a “formal role” wasn’t likely.
Historically officials have put their assets in so-called blind trusts, over which they have no knowledge or control. Even the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page called for Trump to follow suit.
Liquidating Trump’s holdings would present unusual challenges because much of Trump’s business involves licensing his name. It would be impossible to shield Trump from knowing which buildings bear his name, and costly to unwind those licensing agreements.
Besides dealings with foreign countries, Trump’s businesses also have matters before the federal government he’s about to lead. Trump leases his Washington hotel from the General Services Administration and the National Labor Relations Board is reviewing disputes from a Las Vegas hotel that Trump co-owns. Trump has also said his tax returns are being audited by the IRS (as an excuse for breaking with the tradition of releasing them during the campaign.)
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