Never before has a billionaire with so many diverse business entanglements directly affected by White House policy taken the presidency, and the potential conflicts of interest facing Donald Trump are so unprecedented that U.S. ethics laws weren’t even written to account for them.
President-elect Trump could hold sway over regulators’ investigations into banks that have lent his businesses hundreds of millions of dollars. He’ll be directing relations with foreign governments, such as Saudi Arabia’s, whose rulers have bought everything from real estate to a yacht from him as he struggled to pay off debts.
Watchdogs are already scoffing at Trump’s plans to turn his sprawling global empire over to his adult children – whom he also named to his transition team on Friday. Short of selling his businesses, they say, he won’t be able to reassure the American people that he’s not acting in his own interests.
“If he doesn’t address this problem, every single decision he makes will be questioned as a conflict of interest,” said Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause. “President-elect Trump campaigned against corruption, and America deserves his making good on that promise and cleaning up government.”
Trump’s empire includes over 500 entities, with hotels, real estate and branding deals scattered across five continents. As president, he’ll be able to steer policies affecting the Trump Organization ranging from lowering corporate taxes to establishing better relations with a country where the Trump brand is expanding.
His lawyer, Michael Cohen, confirmed Thursday that Trump plans to turn the family business over to his adult children Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric through what Cohen called a “blind trust.”
“That’s not a blind trust, that’s a seeing trust,” said Norm Eisen, former ethics czar under President Barack Obama. “This is as intricate a government ethics problem as has ever existed, and I hope he’ll be getting a bunch of experts into a room to figure out how to deal with this.”
A representative for the Trump Organization told POLITICO “there should be a statement to provide later [Thursday]” on next steps for the company.
Trump’s transition web site, greatagain.gov, illustrates the difficulty in separating the future president from the brand that bears his name. His biography extols the “prestigious addresses” and “premier golf clubs” the mogul currently owns. “In New York City and around the world, the Trump signature is synonymous with the most prestigious addresses in the world,” it says.
“There’s no indication he feels any urgency or even any desire to address these business conflicts,” said Meredith McGehee, policy chief at Issue One and strategic adviser at Campaign Legal Center.
Still, Trump isn’t legally bound to divest himself from his businesses. It’s against the law to use public office for personal financial gain, but the president and vice president are exempt from the web of conflict-of-interest laws and regulations requiring executive-branch officials to recuse themselves on certain issues and divest from certain holdings — an exemption based on the idea that the president deals with so many policies that conflicts are bound to arise. And while the executive branch is guided by the Office of Government Ethics, Trump will appoint its director.
Previous wealthy presidents — from John F. Kennedy to the Bush family — placed their assets in a blind trust. But their wealth mostly came from domestic sources, and, in the case of the younger Bush, JFK and FDR, was largely inherited, making it easier for the president to distance himself from assets that were already tied up in trusts.
Trump still hasn’t released his tax returns, and the Trump businesses are privately owned. So a skeptical public will have little information about whether certain decisions affect the Trump Organization’s finances. McGehee said she would advise Trump to “appoint an ethics czar, right now, from the get go, whose job would be to recommend a series of policies that are meant to restore public faith. He ran, obviously, against Washington. So if he’s going to take the reins of power … [he should] have an ethics czar.”
McGehee and others say installing Trump’s adult children as caretakers doesn’t eliminate conflict questions, since he’d still know what his interests were, and he’d presumably still be in contact with his children. What’s more, foreign governments and lenders could seek favor with the president through sweetheart deals with his kids.
“Once you don’t sell the businesses — and Trump has given no indication that he’s going to do so — I don’t think he can separate himself. The idea that he’s going to have his family run the businesses and that will address his conflict-of-interest problems is a joke,” Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said.
The potential conflicts of interest are “unprecedented,” several ethics lawyers said.
The closest parallel might be Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York.
During his three terms as mayor, there was no obvious link between Bloomberg’s municipal decision making and the bottom line of his global data analytics firm.
For a President Trump, however, even incremental federal changes to taxes, immigration, labor or financial regulation could deliver a direct benefit to his real estate holdings.
In any case, Wertheimer said, Bloomberg only “had the ability to affect the policies of New York City. He didn’t have the ability to affect the policies of the United States of America.”
The biggest check on potential conflicts, according to ethics lawyers, is a clause of the Constitution that bans U.S. government officials, including the president, from accepting gifts or money from foreign governments without the consent of Congress.
If a deal between the Trump Organization and a foreign government is “extra sweet because a beneficial owner happens to be the president of the United States,” that’s a potential violation of the Constitution, Wertheimer said.
Richard Painter, former ethics counsel for George W. Bush, agreed, noting the clause applies to businesses controlled by foreign governments.
“My recommendation would be to unwind all business relationships with foreign governments and companies controlled by foreign governments, including the Bank of China,” Painter said.
Lorraine Woellert contributed to this report.
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