Donald Trump took to Twitter to announce he is “leaving” the Trump Organization to focus on his presidency, but ethics experts say if he truly wants to avoid any conflicts of interest he needs to sell his business investments entirely.
The president-elect — who was short on details about how he planned to detach himself from his vast array of businesses — said more information would be provided at a “major news conference” on Dec. 15.
“I will be leaving my great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country in order to make America great again,” Trump tweeted early Wednesday morning. “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.”
Richard Painter, the former chief White House ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, said it doesn’t matter if Trump is running the business or not — he needs to liquidate his assests.
“He needs to sell off his interests in the business,” Painter told Global News. “If he divests he can avoid the conflicts of interest.
“If it’s not sold [Trump] still has a financial interest.”
Painter and other government ethics experts have raised concerns about a possible clash between his private interests and his duties as president.
Trump holds ownership stakes in roughly 500 companies in more than a dozen different countries. Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, warned that if Trump retains ownership of his businesses, his entire four year administration could be dogged by investigations, lawsuits and arguments over perceived improprieties.
“It’s going to be a long four years and we’d have the Democrats taking potshots at his rear end every step of the way, and the media and everyone else,” Painter added.
In an interview last week with the New York Times, Trump defended himself saying the president of the United States “can’t have a conflict of interest.”
“As far as the, you know, potential conflict of interests, though, I mean I know that from the standpoint, the law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” he told the Times last week. “And I understand why the president can’t have a conflict of interest now because everything a president does in some ways is like a conflict of interest.”
“In theory, I could run my business perfectly, and then run the country perfectly,” he added.
Trump and his attorney have previously said business operations would be handed over to his children Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka and operated as a “blind trust.” But critics say it would not be a genuine blind trust as Trump would know what’s in the trust and would know the managers, his own children.
“If anybody starts talking about U.S. government business at the same time they are talking about Trump organization business or with the same people those conversations could drift toward an implied quid pro quo,” Painter said.
There is particular concern about his real estate dealings in countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, South Korea and Philippines. Critics have said his business connections could raise suspicions he is getting preferential treatment abroad.
Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University, told Global News the president-elect needs to not only move away from running his businesses but completely separate himself financially.
“You can either sell or liquidate your assets first and then put cash into a blind trust which the trustee then handles and invests without informing,” she said. “Alternatively you can turn your assets over to a trustee who then goes through the process of disposing of them and simply informs you that you no longer financially have the same financial interests that you originally had.”
Clark said that Trump and his businesses could face legal risks under the constitution’s “emoluments clause,” a measure that bars a president from receiving gifts or payments from foreign governments.
Two possible examples include the Bank of China, which rents space in the Trump tower in Manhattan, and his luxury hotel near the White House, which foreign diplomats have already been spending money at, according to the Washington Post.
Legal scholars Steven Schooner and Daniel Gordon also pointed out in Government Executive magazine that following Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017 he will immediately be in violation of the law as the Trump hotel, located in the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington D.C, is leased to one of his organizations by the federal government.
Schooner and Gordon say the lease includes a clause that “no … elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”
The $180 million lease is managed by the government’s General Services Administration, an agency which the president appoints the head of, effectively making Trump his own landlord.
Other perceived conflicts include a meeting where Trump urged British politicians to oppose wind farms that he believed would ruin the view from one of his Scottish golf courses, and whether his holdings in the companies behind the Dakota Access Pipeline could affect ongoing Indigenous protests.
*With files from the Associated Press
© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.