As Donald Trump transitions from the boardroom to the White House, his daily role in his company has drawn scrutiny from ethics experts and government watchdogs who say he has put his company in a position to profit from the presidency — and possibly violate the U.S. Constitution.
“Almost every action he takes as president presents some sort of conflict of interest,” said Stuart Gilman, a former attorney for the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, which advises federal officials on possible ethical violations.
A key issue involves the “emoluments” clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Contained in Article I, the clause is meant to shield the nation against corrupting foreign influences. It essentially bars federal officials from doing business with foreign governments without congressional approval.
According to news reports, Trump since winning the election has:
- Used a meeting with a British official to discuss his opposition to the placement of wind farms in Scotland, noting that the large steel wind mills would obstruct the views of his golf resort in Aberdeenshire.
- Invited foreign diplomats to a reception at his newly opened hotel in Washington, D.C., to encourage them to use the hotel when dignitaries from their countries visit.
- Met with Indian real estate executives to discuss a luxury apartment building in Mumbai that will feature the Trump name. The executives told The Economic Times they also discussed expanding the partnership to other parts of India.
The Washington Post recently found that “at least 111 Trump companies have done business in 18 countries and territories across South America, Asia and the Middle East,” setting the stage for an array of potential conflicts for the president-elect and his organization.
‘Law’s totally on my side’
In an interview last Tuesday with The New York Times, Trump said his company’s “brand is certainly a hotter brand than it was before,” but said he was less concerned about running the Trump Organization, and more concerned with running the country.
“In theory I could run my business perfectly, and then run the country perfectly,” Trump said. “The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
That is true, to an extent.
The law doesn’t say the president can’t have a conflict of interest, and United States Codes and Congress have excluded the president and vice president from conflict-of-interest laws, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service.
But that doesn’t address the emoluments clause or other potential issues.
Experts said Trump’s assurances don’t go far enough.
Richard Painter, who served as White House ethics counsel under President George W. Bush, said even hotel fares collected from foreign diplomats staying at Trump hotels could be construed as fees or payments from a foreign state, and discussions about private business interests with foreign leaders could be considered a form of bribery.
“When you have a conversation about windmills coming up the same time you’re discussing U.S. government business — not a good idea,” Painter said. “At some point, someone is going to construe those conversations as soliciting a bribe or something. It’s not just him [Trump]. It’s everybody working for him, both on the Trump Organization side, or the U.S. government side. Anybody talking about personal business side by side with U.S. government business, is asking for trouble.”
Asked about the “ethical minefields” that Trump’s business holdings may present, Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming White House chief of staff, told CNN: “I can assure the American people that there wouldn’t be any wrongdoing or any sort of undue influence over any decision-making.”
Gilman said Trump’s simultaneous meetings with business officials and foreign leaders are problematic. “If other countries and businesses know that Trump owns this hotel, or that building, they will try to do business with them with the hope of getting favors,” Gilman said.
Gilman, who serves as senior anticorruption adviser for the United Nations Development Project, said almost every U.S. president since 1978 has placed his financial holdings to a blind trust while in office. The exception was President Barack Obama, whose lack of a large stock portfolio eliminated the need for a blind trust.
Urged to follow precedent
Gilman urged Trump to follow precedent.
Trump has said he is in the process of turning over the day-to-day affairs of his company to his adult children. But Gilman called that insufficient, saying Trump still could discuss business matters with his children and give them access to exclusive intelligence that other corporate heads can’t access.
Gilman cited a winery Trump owns in Virginia.
“Well, there are new rules coming out from the [Bureau of] Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as by the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the Department of Agriculture . . . regarding these vineyards cropping up throughout the country,” Gilman said. “Any action that he or anyone in his administration takes will affect the value of that vineyard.”
Congressional Democrats have called for more oversight of Trump’s financial dealings before he is sworn into office.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Ga.) wrote on Nov. 14 to the House Oversight Committee requesting that it examine Trump’s financial arrangements for possible conflicts of interests.
“We have never had a president like Mr. Trump in terms of his vast financial entanglements and his widespread business interests around the globe,” Cummings wrote. “Mr. Trump’s unprecedented secrecy and his extensive business dealings in foreign countries raise serious questions about how he intends to avoid conflicts of interest as president.”
Push for blind trust
Addressing Trump, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) wrote on Twitter on Nov. 21: “You rightly criticized Hillary for the Clinton Foundation. If you have contracts w/foreign govts, it’s certainly a big deal, too.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) announced last week that he will file a resolution calling on Trump to put his business interests into a blind trust before taking office.
“In the two months before President-elect Trump’s inauguration, he should provide the American people with clarity and certainty that he will in no way, shape, or form use the office of the President to advance his substantial personal fortune,” Cardin said.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for campaign finance and ethics reforms, said the group has urged Congress to pass a measure requiring Trump to place his holdings in a blind trust.
“As long as the Trump name is involved in its business activities,” Wertheimer said, “individuals, corporations and countries all over the world will assume that doing business with the Trump Organization is the way to buy influence with the president of the United States.”
With Yancey Roy