President-elect Donald Trump on Friday announced the members of the executive committee of his transition team as the incoming administration prepares to fill key government posts. The list was packed with eyebrow-raising figures, like Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who accepted a campaign contribution from Trump’s foundation before declining to pursue a lawsuit against one of his businesses, and Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon, who owns the alt-right Breitbart website.
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To many, the four names that really stood out were those of Trump’s oldest children, Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric, and his son-in-law, Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner. It’s not just that four family members are on the team — odd enough by most standards — but that Trump’s three children, according to Trump attorney Michael Cohen, are going to run Trump’s business empire in what’s being referred to as a “blind trust” during his time in office.
"This is potentially very problematic as Trump has already said that his children will be running his business efforts in his stead,” said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“It raises a serious question of conflict of interest and just what, exactly, they are there to represent. He has said there will be no conflict, because he will be running the country and they'll be looking after his fortune; however, their appointment to the transition team significantly muddies those waters."
Since at least the era of Lyndon Johnson, most presidents have placed their financial interests in the care of an outside expert charged with managing them to the benefit of the president, but doing so with no input from the president or communication about decisions affecting the handling of the assets. (President Obama was an exception, because at the time he came into office, his assets were already in vehicles outside his personal control: mutual funds and government bonds.)
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The object is to remove even the appearance of a conflict of interest: If the president doesn’t know how his or her assets are being managed or invested, there can be no accusation that policy decisions are based on personal financial interests.
It was always going to be problematic for Trump to claim that his assets were going into a blind trust, if only because it would be hard for him to claim to be blind to the existence of a global string of hotels and golf courses with his name on them.
Putting his children in charge of them made it even more problematic, because it eliminated the traditional arm’s-length relationship that is supposed to exist between the chief executive and the trustee.
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Placing Trump’s children on the executive committee of his transition team, however, adds a whole new dimension to the problem. The team’s task is to identify candidates for high-ranking positions throughout the federal government, including many with responsibilities in the policymaking, regulatory and law enforcement areas.
That raises the distinct possibility that the people eventually chosen for top positions in the government could feel that they owe their positions, in full or in part, to the good graces of the Trump children. And those children, as the heads of a large company, will inevitably have multiple interests before the federal government.
For good-government advocacy groups, this will surely be seen as a bad omen.