As the scope of the conflicts of interest inherent in a Donald Trump presidency come more into focus, the president-elect lashed out at the press on Twitter Monday night, pointing out that voters were already aware of his vast business empire when they elected him and claiming that “only the crooked media makes this a big deal.”
Trump’s holdings include properties and branding deals in countries around the world. In the past, presidents have liquidated their personal holdings and had them reinvested in a blind trust in order to avoid even the perception that decisions made in the Oval Office might personally enrich them or their families. Trump has shown no indication that he is willing to divest himself of the Trump Organization. Instead, he says, his children will run the company.
Multiple government ethics experts have said that Trump’s plan falls far short of the kind of clean break a president needs to make in order to eliminate conflicts of interest. Indeed, many potential conflicts have already begun to arise even during the presidential transition period, including the use of for-profit business properties owned by Trump, including Trump Tower in Manhattan and a private golf club in New Jersey, for meetings related to the transfer of power.
Prior to the election it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world.Only the crooked media makes this a big deal!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 22, 2016
During his presidential campaign, Trump’s properties billed the campaign for the use of office and event space and were paid with funds donated to the campaign. Whether or not the Trump organization is now billing the transition team -- which is funded by taxpayer dollars -- is unclear. And, according to groups promoting ethics in government, that’s a problem all by itself.
Meredith McGehee, strategic advisor with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit that focuses on free and fair campaigns and elections, said that there is no precedent for this situation in modern US history.
“I think we’re in a brave new world because so much of the transition is being run out of Trump’s own facilities,” she said. “The conflicts of interest and the self-dealing potential here is much more difficult and complicated and unclear. It’s going to be very difficult to figure out what’s going on.”
(The Trump campaign has not yet responded to a request for comment on this story.)
Over the weekend, key figures in the nascent Trump administration pushed back against the idea that there would be financial conflicts in a Trump administration.
“I’m very confident that we will operate an administration that is above reproach,” Vice President-elect Mike Pence said in an appearance on Face the Nation.
“I can assure the American people that there wouldn’t be any wrongdoing or any sort of undue influence over any decision making,” said incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
But in the two weeks since his unexpected victory at the polls, Trump and his children have repeatedly said and done things that appear to be exploiting their proximity to the office of the presidency for either direct personal profit or, at least, to gain privileged access to world leaders:
-- The original version of the official presidential transition team’s website contained, on the first page, a list of various Trump-branded properties around the world. (The page has since been edited.)
-- Less than a week after the election, the Trump family was interviewed on the television program 60 Minutes. Afterward, the fashion company owned by Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, began advertising a $10,000 gold bracelet that she had worn on the program. (The company had previously used her appearance at the Republican National Convention to market the dress she wore to give her speech.)
-- The week after the election, Trump’s new hotel in Washington hosted a reception for foreign diplomats living in Washington. The purpose of the event was to encourage them to hold events at the president-elect’s property and to encourage colleagues to stay in the hotel when visiting Washington. Diplomats interviewed by the Washington Post said that they would feel obligated to patronize the president’s business.
-- Trump met with the Prime Minister of Japan, and was accompanied by Ivanka, a move criticized because it appeared to give the woman who will be helping to run Trump’s personal business special access to a world leader.
-- A week after the election, Trump and his children met with three business partners from India who are developing a Trump-branded luxury apartment complex in the city of Pune. The men reported that they had discussed future deals with the Trump family.
Some potential problems are less clear cut. On Monday, a report from a television program in Argentina began circulating that suggested Trump had pressed Argentine president Mauricio Macri about a permit for a construction project in Buenos Aires during a congratulatory phone.
Macri, through a spokesman, denied the report. But the real problem here is that Trump doesn’t even need to bring up things like the permitting issue when he speaks with foreign leaders. As long as he and his family members are known to have a financial interest in a project, there will be unspoken pressure to give them preferential treatment.
Good-government groups have repeatedly pointed out that Trump’s business entanglements may well violate the Constitution’s “emoluments” clause, which bars officials of the federal government from accepting pay for goods or services from foreign governments.
In an open letter to Trump released last week, a coalition of watchdog groups and ethics attorneys warned the president-elect, “every time any foreign government or company controlled by a foreign government does business with a Trump entity, you could be accused of accepting a payment in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, creating a constitutional crisis that could even result in threats of impeachment.”
The emoluments clause does offer an out: The Constitution only bars the acceptance of an emolument if it takes place “without the consent of the Congress.” That means that, theoretically, Congress could waive the restriction on Trump.
And in Trump’s angry tweet Monday night, the country may have seen the germ of an effort to create a special exemption for Trump. While it would be extraordinary and completely without precedent, the arguments are plain to see.
As McGehee, of the Campaign Legal Center, pointed out, “Those people who voted for Mr. Trump...they knew he was a businessman. They knew he had all these holdings. This is part of the package.”
She added, “If you talk to Trump voters...they wanted him to run the country more like a businessman.”