Faced with dire warnings from government ethics experts, but indifference from Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, President-elect Donald Trump appears set to remove himself from the management of his real estate and branding arrangements around the world, but to retain his ownership stake in the Trump Organization.
Trump advisers say that he is likely to turn over management of his business to his two adult sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, according to The New York Times. In a somewhat unexpected development, Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who plays a major role in the organization as well as operating her own eponymous clothing and jewelry brand, will also step away from management, and is considering a move to Washington.
Trump had telegraphed this move last week with a series of tweets in which he promised that he would take himself “completely out of business operations” of his company. “I feel it is visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses.”
The problem is that what appears to be happening is only “visual.” As an effort to eliminate what ethics experts have characterized as a massive web of conflicts of interest, Trump’s decision to cede his management responsibilities while maintaining his ownership stake amounts to a half-measure at best.
While the president and vice president of the U.S. are not subject to the same conflict of interest restrictions that apply to members of Congress and the executive branch of government (“The law's totally on my side, meaning, the president can't have a conflict of interest,” Trump said in an interview with The Times editorial board last month) many experts warn that if Trump continues to benefit financially from his business, he will leave himself open to charges of self-dealing.
He may also run afoul of the “emoluments clause” of the Constitution, which bars government officials from receiving payments for services to foreign governments and entities connected to them.
As just one example, the new Trump International Hotel, just blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, has already begun soliciting the business of foreign diplomats living in and visiting the city. Diplomats interviewed by the Washington Post last month said explicitly that they expected their countries to patronize Trump’s property because of his status as president.
That presents two problems. First, the moment the Trump organization accepts payment from a foreign government for a hotel room or event space, Trump will face accusations of violating the emoluments clause.
Second, when foreign countries or companies with business before the federal government patronize Trump businesses, all decisions made by Trump and his appointees will be viewed through the lens of potential corruption. The same will apply whenever a foreign government makes a decision that benefits one of the numerous Trump-branded properties around the world.
It seems almost inevitable that, once he takes office, Trump will face a broad array of legal challenges related to his business interests.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, this week, in announcing the return of its founder, retired Ambassador Norman Eisen, to its board of directors, suggested he decided to come back, in part, as a response to the arrival of “a new administration with potentially unprecedented conflict of interest and transparency issues.”
“Now more than ever, it is imperative to fight for open and ethical government,” Eisen said.
However, his Republican allies in Congress appear ready to give the new president a long leash.
In an interview with CNBC Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan said he was content to let Trump handle his conflicts “however he wants to.”
He added, “This is not what I’m concerned about in Congress. I have every bit of confidence he’s going to get himself right with moving from being the business guy that he is to the president he’s going to become.”