Electing to quit business
But some suggest the only way to avoid conflicts of interest would be to divest.
Donald Trump on Wednesday pledged he would leave “my great business” to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, prompting warnings from ethics experts that he must sell off his corporate assets if he wishes to resolve concerns about his financial interests influencing his new position of power.
In early-morning messages on Twitter, Trump left vague whether he would divest himself of his business interests or merely transfer day-to-day management to his children.
“While I am not mandated to do this under the law, I feel it is visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses,” the president-elect tweeted, saying he would spell out the details in a Dec. 15 news conference.
In response, the federal government’s leading ethics agency appeared to take the unusual step of publicly urging Trump to sell his business holdings. In a series of casually worded tweets that were posted, removed and posted again, the Office of Government Ethics, the traditionally staid federal agency that often works closely with presidential transition teams, said that the “only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest.”
OGE spokesman Seth Jaffe said Wednesday: “Like everyone else, we were excited this morning to read the President-elect’s Twitter feed indicating that he wants to be free of conflicts of interest. OGE applauds that goal.” And while the agency had not obtained new information about Trump’s plan, Jaffe said, “Divestiture resolves conflicts of interest in a way that transferring control does not.”
The OGE’s messages were out of character for an ethics agency that is famously discreet, its advice delivered confidentially.
The Watergate-era agency has broad responsibilities, overseeing the executive-branch ethics program, preventing conflicts of interest and working with every agency of the federal government to implement a working ethics program.
The office’s decision to go public surprised outside government-ethics experts, who nevertheless joined to say that Trump must sell his assets to be clear of conflicts.
“I think they’re trying to nudge him toward the right direction. And I think they should be doing that,” said Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush. “OGE should be worried. There’s a lot to worry about here.”
A Trump transition official declined to respond to further questions about the presidentelect’s plans.
Stuart Eizenstat, who served as President Jimmy Carter’s domestic policy chief and helped guide his transition to the White House, said that Trump’s announcement was “an important first step showing that he recognizes the concerns of the press and the public.”
Presidents are not bound by the strict conflict-of-interest laws governing most U.S. elected officials. Most modern presidents have agreed to sell or sequester their assets in a blind trust, led by an independent manager with supreme control, to keep past business deals, investments and relationships from influencing their White House term.
Don Fox, a former general counsel and acting director of the agency, noted that Trump’s disclosed financial holdings were unusually complex and widespread, saying, “It is not apparent on the face of it whether he could divest from all of his businesses.”
Giving company management to three of his adult children — Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka — would leave open the potential for Trump to make presidential decisions for their benefit.
The children have played a key part in Trump’s governing preparations, serving on the transition team now selecting key appointees and sitting in on meetings with foreign heads of state.
If Trump’s family does take over management of the business, Norman Eisen, the chief White House ethics lawyer for President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2011, said that an “ethics firewall” would need to be put in place to combat the “risk of improper preferential relationships and treatment for the Trump Organization with the United States government and foreign ones.”
Asked whether the tweets indicated plans to move the businesses to the children, Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway on Wednesday said, “It appears that way.”
“The three adult children who do already work in the corporation are expected to continue in those roles and in fact increase their responsibilities in those roles,” she said.
The weeks since Trump’s electoral victory have been marked by a series of revelations about the mixing of his private ventures and public ambitions.
Trump welcomed a group of Indian business executives to meet with him and his family at Trump Tower, where talk turned to the potential for new real estate deals. Trump and his daughter Ivanka met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during Trump’s first meeting as president-elect with a foreign head of state.
His company, the Trump Organization, has over the years sealed lucrative real estate and branding deals for business in at least 18 countries and territories around the world, including in places where the United States has sensitive diplomatic ties, such as Turkey, Azerbaijan and India.