THE MORNING PLUM:
Donald Trump uncorked a barrage of tweets this morning that is already getting rewarded with the sort of screaming headlines he was plainly angling for: Trump is leaving his businesses in order to focus on running the country!
In the tweets, however, Trump announced nothing that will meaningfully reduce the likelihood of conflicts of interest involving his presidency and global business empire, and nothing that makes corruption or scandal less likely, ethics experts told me this morning.
Here’s the full Twitter announcement from Trump:
I will be holding a major news conference in New York City with my children on December 15 to discuss the fact that 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!
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. Hence, legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations. The Presidency is a far more important task!
Trump certainly could announce a lot more at this Dec. 15 news conference that would achieve meaningful separation from his global empire that would reduce the likelihood of conflicts or corruption. But a lot of unanswered questions remain, and the devil resides in them.
Norm Eisen, who was special counsel for ethics under President Obama during his first term, told me this morning that Trump has to specify whether he will actually divest himself of his holdings. Eisen emailed:
The president elect said he will exit his “business operations.” That’s not enough. Although it is important that he have no involvement in operations, in order to avoid conflicts, he must also exit business ownership through using a blind trust or equivalent. Otherwise he will have an interest in his businesses that will sometimes conflict with the public interest, and constantly raise questions. For example, unless he divests ownership, he will have an interest in the foreign government payments and benefits that flow to his businesses daily. That creates such a serious conflict of interest that the framers of the constitution prohibited it for the president in the emoluments clause. Far smaller potential conflicts led every president for four decades to do a blind trust or the equivalent, and so should Trump.
Trump appeared to hint in his tweets that he might be transferring ownership of his business empire to his family. But Eisen pointed out that this alone would not be sufficient, in part because some family members already have an active role in the presidential transition:
If his family is going to be involved in his businesses, as he has made clear will be the case from the start, his plan must include an ethics firewall so neither he nor anybody else in his administration is talking to his kids about business. He should start by having the kids step away from the transition, not to mention from participating in his own meetings with foreign leaders. Without an ethics firewall that is set up at once and continues into the administration, scandal is sure to follow.
There are also questions as to whether even that would be enough. Even if his family has assumed control, and his family members have extricated themselves from the transition, and a firewall prevents him from talking to them about the business, Trump’s actions as president could still impact his family’s fortunes. And of course, he would remain fully cognizant of what his family’s holdings are.
“Even if he sold his interest to his family or gave it to them, and completely renounced his own interest, he still naturally has an incentive to have things go well for his family,” Noah Bookbinder, the executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told me. “As long as those interests remain, there will be questions about what his motivations and incentives are and whether he’s truly acting in the interests of the American people.”
“Even if he didn’t have the business interests and his children did,” Bookbinder continued, “there would be a lot of incentive for companies and countries to try to influence him by giving financial benefits to his children or companies in the form of discounts or special deals that they wouldn’t receive otherwise.”
It’s worth reiterating that this story isn’t just about Trump. It’s also about congressional Republicans. Because we don’t even have a full picture of Trump’s business holdings, we won’t be in a position to adequately evaluate whether conflicts — or corruption — are taking place. Congressional Republicans could take steps right now to at least try to force more transparency from Trump, making conflicts — and corruption — less likely later. They could demand a full accounting of what the Trump empire’s interests entail or try to compel release of Trump’s tax returns. Another idea: They could create an oversight process that reviews deals that Trump’s family or businesses strike with foreign governments or companies connected to them to evaluate whether such deals might impact Trump’s policy choices.
The failure to take action to rein in the possibility of Trump conflicts or corruption will be on congressional Republicans. “We’re still in a situation where we don’t even know the scope of his and his family’s businesses interests,” Bookbinder says. “Unless he sells the companies and puts the proceeds into a blind trust, it’s up to Congress to do real oversight, get the full picture, and demand that he take meaningful steps to avoid conflicts.”
Trump’s tweets claim that he recognizes it is “visually important” to have no apparent conflicts. But his latest announcement — at least given what we know now — doesn’t even accomplish that, since the steps he’s announced do nothing to inspire confidence that the possibility of conflicts or corruption will be removed.
Again, perhaps Trump will surprise us on Dec. 15. But why would anyone give him the benefit of the doubt at this point?
* CIA CHIEF WARNS TRUMP ON IRAN: In an interview with the BBC, CIA chief John Brennan tells President Trump that shredding the Iran nuclear on Day One would be lunacy:
“I think it would be disastrous,” Mr Brennan told the BBC….He said such a move would risk strengthening hardliners in Iran and risk other states pursuing nuclear programs in response to a renewed Iranian effort. “I think it would be the height of folly if the next administration were to tear up that agreement,” he said.
Unfortunately, Trump’s pick to head the CIA has already said he’s eagerly looking forward to scrapping it. A lot will turn on whose counsel Trump truly values.
* A BIG TEST FOR PELOSI TODAY: Today Nancy Pelosi hopes to get reelected as the leader of the 194-strong House Dem caucus, in the face of stiff challenge from Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio. The Post comments:
Anything less than 130 votes would be a disappointment for Pelosi….The closer Ryan gets to between 60 and 80 votes, the more direct the signal to Pelosi that the rank-and-file is ready for her to develop a transition-of-power plan.
With Dems now facing a GOP bent on gutting Medicare and Obamacare, Pelosi wants one more shot at rerunning her comeback strategy of 2005, when she helped keep Dems united to defeat George W. Bush’s Social Security privatization scheme.
* REPUBLICANS ADMIT OBAMACARE REPEAL WILL TAKE TIME: Kelsey Snell reports that Republicans are gearing up for a very long slog in repealing Obamacare, because they want time to “transition” beneficiaries to its replacement:
Top Republicans said it will take time to move people who use Obamacare programs such as state and federal exchanges into the new health-care system they have promised to create. That process is further complicated by the fact that Republicans have never released a comprehensive proposal for how they would replace the system.
They were unable to come up with a consensus replacement for over six years. At least now it may become inescapably clear that they don’t actually want to replace it.
* ELIZABETH WARREN RIPS TRUMP TREASURY PICK: Trump has chosen financier Steven Mnuchin as his Treasury Secretary, and Elizabeth Warren opens fire:
“Steve Mnuchin is the Forrest Gump of the financial crisis — he managed to participate in all the worst practices on Wall Street,” Warren said. “He spent two decades at Goldman Sachs helping the bank peddle the same kind of mortgage products that blew up the economy and sucked down billions in taxpayer bailout money.”…Warren said it was “the latest sign that Donald Trump has no intention of draining the swamp and every intention of running Washington to benefit himself and his rich buddies.”
Maybe this is what Trump meant when he vowed to take on the elites — he’s going to take them on board with his administration.
* TRUMP STOCKING CABINET WITH ‘WEALTHY DONORS’: The New York Times comments on Trump’s choice of Mnuchin as Treasury Sec:
Having a Treasury secretary with broad experience as a financier is likely to sustain the view that a Trump administration will look favorably on Wall Street…Mr. Mnuchin was the latest in a string of wealthy donors whom Mr. Trump has selected for top posts in his cabinet, including Mr. Ross; Todd Ricketts, a Republican megadonor and an owner of the Chicago Cubs, who is expected to be the deputy commerce secretary; and Betsy DeVos, a school choice activist and Republican fund-raiser, who he announced would be his education secretary.
Way to Drain The Swamp!
* AND TRUMP CABINET IS ‘MOST CONSERVATIVE SINCE REAGAN’: Politico examines the policy predilections of all of Trump’s cabinet choices so far, and concludes, in the words of one expert, that it’s “the most conservative since Reagan”:
Add them all up, and the president-elect is well on his way to building a conservative dream team that has Republicans cheering….conservative activists and think tanks say his early picks have inspired confidence that his administration will take action on their long-standing priorities, including repealing Obamacare and reining in regulations.
Trump is likely to defer a great deal to them, too — he will likely govern very much in line with the wish list of the most conservative Republicans in Congress.