Ethics watchdogs call on Donald Trump to sever business ties

WASHINGTON — Ethics watchdogs are calling on President-elect Donald Trump to abandon his plans to let his children run his real-estate empire and say he should move quickly to shift his assets into a strict blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest that could imperil his administration’s integrity.

Trump’s election is new territory. The New York billionaire will be the richest person to serve in the White House and his wealth derives from a closely held enterprise run largely by him and members of his family with business interests around the globe. One of its most visible assets is the Trump brand itself.

“I know of nothing that compares to this,” said Fred Wertheimer, the president of the Democracy 21 watchdog group. “Since he has the power to affect all policies in this country, there are bound to be almost daily potential conflicts of interests between his business holdings and his decisions as president.”

Company officials say Trump’s three oldest children — Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric Trump — and other executives will run the Trump Organization in what Trump lawyer Michael Cohen has described as a “blind trust.” During a recent CNN interview, top Trump aide Rudy Giuliani said it was “unrealistic” to create a true blind trust and remove Trump’s children from the family business because doing so “would basically put his children out of work.”

The three Trump children already are serving on the executive committee of the Trump presidential team, helping make decisions about who will win top posts in their father’s administration.

“The inclusion of the kids on the transition team makes it clear that there is no real separation between their politics and their family,” said Lisa Gilbert of liberal-leaning Public Citizen, one of the watchdog groups pushing for Trump to change his policy. “It’s so inappropriate.”

Amanda Miller, the Trump Organization’s vice president of marketing, said company officials are “vetting various structures with the goal of immediate transfer of management of the Trump Organization and its portfolio of businesses to Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric Trump along with a team of highly skilled executives.”

The structure “that is ultimately selected with comply with all applicable rules and regulations,” Miller said in a statement.

Nothing in federal law prohibits Trump as president from continuing to run the Trump Organization himself, ethics experts say. The conflict-of-interest rules that bar Cabinet secretaries and other high-ranking executive branch officials from overseeing matters that boost their personal bottom lines don’t apply to the country's chief executive, leaving presidents to police themselves on ethics.

But Trump’s business conflicts promise to “be the mother of all distractions” for the new administration, said Norm Eisen, who served as President Obama’s ethics czar and now is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“He is putting his own personal financial interests above the interests of the country from the get-go,” Eisen said.

Both Eisen and Richard Painter, who oversaw White House ethics policies under President George W. Bush, argue Trump should place his assets in a true blind trust, run by an independent trustee with no ties to his family.

“It’s not a blind trust when you know what’s in it,” Painter said of Trump’s plan to let his children and executives take over the company. He said Trump also could run run afoul of the emoluments clause of the constitution if his companies conduct business with overseas companies tied to foreign governments. The clause bars federal officials from accepting gifts or payments from foreign governments.

Painter, who backed Democrat Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, said Trump should move to convert his holdings to cash and let the trustee make all future investment decisions.

“He had a great run in the real-estate business,” Painter said. “He’s made a ton of money. He now has a bigger job: President of the United States.”.

Jan Baran, a veteran Republican ethics lawyer, said Trump faces more of a political than a legal dilemma and could set up ground rules to avoid the appearance of a conflict, such as barring his children or Trump executives from lobbying him or his administration.

“I don’t think the public is going to nitpick him to death” over his handling of ethics, Baran said. “I think he can take some steps to minimize any appearances or problems. But we’ll see. It’s an unprecedented situation.”

His Democratic critics are eager to jump on any Trump missteps. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, this week called for a committee hearing into Trump's business dealings.

American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC whose top donors include financier George Soros, already has begun to file a raft of public records requests, seeking information about potential conflicts between Trump’s business interests and his incoming administration — an early signal of the intense scrutiny he will face.

“Trump’s coming into office with a whole host of conflicts of interest that we already know about it and even more that we don’t know about,” said American Bridge spokesman Kevin McAlister. “It’s our job to make sure he’s following the law.”


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