Elect­ing to quit business

But some sug­gest the only way to avoid con­flicts of in­ter­est would be to divest.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Drew Har­well and Tom Ham­burger

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.

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