Donald Trump loves a good prop, and his first press conference as president-elect featured a display that perfectly illustrated his plan to avoid conflicts of interest while in office. Trump appeared next to a table teeming with stacks of papers packed into manila folders. He explained that the papers were “just some of the many documents” he’s already signed “turning over complete and total control” of his business to his sons. Reporters asked if they could take a closer look at the documents, but Trump staffers said no. CNN zoomed in on the papers, and it appeared that they were completely blank.
Similarly, the plan Trump unveiled on Wednesday for resolving conflicts that may arise from the president controlling a vast business empire was meant to sound impressive, but upon closer inspection, ethics experts deemed it “meaningless.” Trump said he would not sell his holdings or put his assets in a blind trust, as recommended. Instead, his business will be put in a trust controlled by his two eldest sons and a longtime Trump Organization executive.
Trump attorney Sheri Dillon said at the press conference that the company will make “no new foreign deals whatsoever” during Trump’s time in office, and profits his hotels earn from foreign governments will be donated to the U.S. Treasury. Domestic deals will be approved in writing by a newly appointed independent ethics adviser. The Trump Organization will also hire a chief compliance counsel to ensure that the company is “operating at the highest level of integrity and not taking any actions that could be perceived as exploiting the office of the presidency.”
Under the new setup, Trump will have “limited information rights” about his company’s activities, and he said his sons are “not going to discuss it with me.” Communications from the Trump Organization will not reference the president or his office.
Disentangling himself from his business is no easy task, and the plan Trump presented “takes a step forward on ethics,” as the Washington Post put it. But even after delaying the reveal for a month, the Trump team didn’t provide basic information about his ethics strategy. Per the New York Times:
Mr. Trump has filed information with the federal government that indicates he is worth at least $1.5 billion, but that information has not been independently verified, and the value of the assets being transferred into the trust is not known.
Mr. Trump’s representatives also would not release the names of people who stand to benefit from any profits the trust generates, or say whether Mr. Trump would be able to reverse the transaction. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump rebuffed a renewed call to release his tax returns, which presidents have done for decades and which would show how much profit he makes from his business endeavors, including golf courses, marketing deals and commercial office space.
A trust managed by Eric and Donald Jr. is nothing like the blind trust recommended by many ethics experts, and the only guarantee that they’re not discussing business with their father is the president-elect’s word. The Trump team could not identify either of its two new ethics officers, as they haven’t been hired yet.
Anticipating complaints, Dillon explained why the Trump team ignored solutions ethics professionals have been pushing publicly since the election. She said the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which bars the president from receiving revenue from foreign governments, does not apply to a business transaction, like paying for a room in a Trump hotel at the normal rate. As for the suggestion that the president-elect should sell his business, she said that’s impossible because “whatever price was paid would be subject to criticism and scrutiny.”
Experts were not swayed by these arguments. Former Obama administration ethics attorney Norman Eisen told The Atlantic that giving foreign hotel revenue to the Treasury does not make Trump’s business activities legal.
“The Emoluments Clause doesn’t only cover some hotel revenues, as the Trump team wrongly believes, but applies to a much broader range of foreign-government benefits that Trump is collecting, and will continue to collect, from foreign governments,” Eisen said. “On January 20, that will be in direct violation of the Constitution.”
In a highly unusual press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, said Trump’s team had not consulted his office. If they had, he said, they would have learned that they help presidents and cabinet members sell and rearrange their assets all the time.
The part of Shaub’s statement that’s drawing the most attention is his pronouncement that since Trump is not fully divesting from his business, his plan “doesn’t meet the standards … that every president of the past four decades has met.” He said the trust “adds nothing to the equation” because it’s not blind, and described other aspects of the plan as “wholly inadequate.” He also had a scathing response to Dillon’s assertion that Trump “should not be expected to destroy the company he built”:
The president is now entering a world of public service. He’s going to be asking his own appointees to make sacrifices. He’s going to be asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives in conflicts around the world. So no, I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the president of the United States of America.
Yet Shaub’s message wasn’t framed as an attack on Trump, but an offer to help. “Our goal — our reason for existing — is to guard the executive branch against conflicts of interest,” he said.
Sure, Americans don’t want to slide down the slippery slope to kleptocracy, but as Shaub pointed out, Trump is hurting himself too. Ethics lawyers predict that under the plan presented by the president-elect, he’ll quickly spark a legal battle over the meaning of the Emoluments Clause, and open himself up to new controversies. “Tragically, the Trump plan to deal with his business conflicts announced today falls short in every respect,” Norm Eisen told Politico. “Mr. Trump’s ill-advised course will precipitate scandal and corruption.”
Trump said at Wednesday’s press conference that he has no intention of releasing his tax returns, and the American people don’t care about the issue. “I won, when I became president,” he said. “I don’t think they care at all.” The idea that Trump was validated for all time by his election win was a running theme, but a survey released on Tuesday suggests Americans are concerned about his business conflicts. According to a Pew poll, 57 percent of adults are very or somewhat concerned that Trump’s “relationships with organizations, businesses or foreign governments conflict with his ability to serve the country’s best interests.”
It’s true that people may not be paying attention to the status of Trump’s tax returns, or his confusing plan for how he’ll structure his business while in office. But in the next four years they may come to care about repeated accusations that Trump is using his office to enrich himself, and the haze of scandal hanging about the presidency. Having ethics lawyers hammer out a more thorough plan for avoiding conflicts of interest would let Trump prove his critics wrong, protect his presidency from unnecessary controversy, and show the American people that he’s fully committed to serving them, not his business interests.