How Donald Trump plans to avoid conflict of interest with his business empire
Former White House ethics adviser critical of U.S. president-elect's plan
U.S. president-elect Donald Trump says he is separating himself from his global business empire by transferring his assets into a trust and putting his two oldest sons in charge, an arrangement watchdogs say is inadequate to prevent potential conflicts of interest in office.
At a news conference Wednesday, Trump said he would resign from all positions overseeing hotels, golf courses and hundreds of other businesses to help ensure that he will not consciously take actions as president that would benefit him personally.
The Republican is under pressure to distance himself from his businesses before he moves into the White House on Jan. 20. Trump says that unlike other government officials, he is not required to steer clear of conflicts of interest.
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"I could actually run my business and run government at the same time. I don't like the way that looks, but I would be able to do that if I wanted to," Trump said.
Ethics experts said the arrangement proposed does not go far enough.
"Mr. Trump's ill-advised course will precipitate scandal and corruption," said Norm Eisen, a former White House ethics adviser under Democratic President Barack Obama.
Trump appears to be still involved with his business while preparing to take office, saying he had turned down a $2-billion development deal in Dubai he had been offered over the weekend.
"I didn't have to turn it down because as you know I have a no-conflict situation because I'm president," he said.
"DAMAC can confirm that the discussions took place as stated in the media briefing but the proposals were declined," a spokesman for DAMAC, the company involved, told Reuters by email.
The developer already has partnered with the Trump Organization to manage and run two golf courses in the glamorous city in the United Arab Emirates. One will open just weeks after Trump's inauguration as the 45th president of the United States.
Sheri Dillon, a lawyer for Trump, said the president-elect will not be in violation of the U.S. constitution's emoluments clause, which says, "No person holding any office or profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.
Dillon said some people have claimed that foreign leaders who pay for rooms and services at Trump's various hotels across the globe would put the president-elect in violation of the clause.
"These people are wrong. That is not what the Constitution says," she said.
She argued that "fair-value exchange," such as paying for a hotel room, does not run afoul of the constitutional ban of foreign gifts or payments to the president.
However, Dillon said any profits generated at Trump's hotels on payments by foreign governments will be donated to the U.S. Treasury.
No foreign deals
The Trump Organization will not enter into any new overseas deals while Trump is president and will only undertake domestic projects after a company ethics adviser has approved them, said Dillon, a lawyer at Morgan Lewis who focuses on tax and ethics.
Trump will only know of those deals if he hears about them through the news media, Dillon said.
Trump's daughter, Ivanka, is to have no further involvement with management authority in the group, she said. Trump has appointed her husband, Jared Kushner, to a senior advisory role in the White House.
Since Trump sold all his stocks last year, the Trump trust will hold only business assets and liquid assets such as cash, Dillon said.
Many other ethics experts, including the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, have urged Trump to completely divest or set up a blind trust for his assets. Dillon said that was not a realistic possibility and would hurt him financially.
In a blind trust, the owner does not know what the holdings are or how their assets are managed. Trump's oldest sons will be running his business, so the arrangement does not meet that standard.
Trump was aided in setting up the trust by lawyer Fred Fielding, a former White House counsel to Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Remaining debt will stay in place and will be dealt with during the ordinary course of business, Dillon said.
Ethics office wants more distance
Later Wednesday, the Office of Government Ethics, which advises incoming presidents and their administration officials but is not an enforcement agency, urged Trump to go much farther to distance himself. OGE director Walter Shaub said Trump should sell off his businesses and put the proceeds in a blind trust overseen by an independent manager.
"I don't think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the president of the United States of America," said Shaub, during a blistering 15-minute critique.
Explaining why presidential appointees, nominees and presidents themselves typically sever all business ties, Shaub said: "Their basic patriotism usually prevails as they agree to set aside their personal interest to serve their country's interests."
Shaub praised some of Trump's cabinet nominees for making a "clean break" from business entanglements, singling out former Exxon Mobil CEO, now Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, whose Senate confirmation hearing was held Wednesday as Trump was speaking in New York.
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