President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on the promise to “drain the swamp” — to reduce the influence of lobbyists, wealthy donors, and special-interest groups. But this also should mean that public officials will not serve their own financial interests.
Despite Trump’s announced plan to transfer management of the Trump Organization to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric, the federal Office of Government Ethics is right that considerable questions persist about whether he’s doing enough to ensure he will not act for private profit. Trump heads a vast business empire, so how will he specifically avoid decisions — consciously or unconsciously — that promote his business interests over the public’s interest?
Potential conflicts can be averted by acting in conformity with traditional understandings and federal law — including statutes, regulations and the constitutional provision called the Emoluments Clause. These sound technical, but they boil down to some basic principles, chief among them being that public officials must act in the public’s interest, and avoid situations in which they would be tempted to do otherwise.
How can Trump allay the public’s concerns? It’s virtually impossible to give a complete answer without knowing the details of his privately held businesses: What are their assets? How do they make money? To whom do they owe money? With whom do they do business?
It’s clear where he can begin.
Trump should accept the authority of the federal Office of Government Ethics to oversee conflict-of-interest regulation for the executive branch. He should fully disclose his business interests, and then have his lawyers and accountants work with the office on a plan to avoid profiting from his decisions as president. That’s what presidents before him have done.
Trump is not the first wealthy businessman to achieve high public office and then work with the government’s ethics office to figure out how to avoid conflicts of interest.
It can be done.
I was a member of New York City’s Conflicts of Interest Board when Mayor Michael Bloomberg was elected in 2001. The billionaire businessman and some of his appointees entered city government from the private sector with significant business holdings and dealings. They devised plans to avoid conflicts of interest that met the board’s approval. The officials managed the task, because the plans were tailored to each particular financial situation. The plans included selling some assets and ending some business relationships as well as putting some assets into blind trusts.
Notably, the members of the new mayoral administration did not try to wriggle out of the rules. They understood that serving in public office ethically is as important as serving effectively.
In Trump’s case, satisfying the Office of Government Ethics will take some work, given the likely complexity of his businesses. But this will be no more complicated than questions his administration will face every day on subjects ranging from warfare to health care.
Avoiding conflicts — or even the appearance of a conflict — also may require some financial sacrifice. If Trump has to sell some of his business assets, he may not get full value. But any sacrifice will pale in comparison to that made by our military, police officers and other public servants.
Until now, Trump has asserted that, as president, he may ignore conflict-of-interest regulation that governs others in the executive branch. No previous president has taken that position, and for good reason.
Powerful public officials who make the most important decisions can do the most harm when they act to serve narrow private interests. And no one is more powerful than the president. Also, the president sets an example not only for federal officials and employees but also for public servants at all levels of government. If the leader of the free world doesn’t have to worry about conflicts of interest, why should anyone else?
Trump’s promise of honest government may be hard to fully achieve. And he won’t have a fighting chance without accepting the government’s ethics regulations and working with its ethics office to develop a plan to follow the law, whether or not he believes he must.
Bruce A. Green is the Louis Stein professor at Fordham University Law School. He teaches and writes on legal ethics and criminal law.