At his presser today, Donald Trump confirmed the very worst fears of ethics experts, announcing a new arrangement for his business holdings that is designed to garner nice headlines but is unlikely to do much to reduce the possibility of conflicts of interest and, possibly, full blown corruption.
Trump did nothing to address the central ethical problem he faces: He will not divest himself of his holdings, only transferring control of them to his two sons. The Post sums up the arrangement:
Trump will shift his assets into a trust managed by his sons and give up management of his private company….
The announcement included a pledge from a Trump lawyer that the company would make “no new foreign deals whatsoever” during Trump’s presidency, and that any new domestic deals would undergo vigorous review, including approval by an independent ethics adviser.
But Trump’s commitment will not resolve what federal officials and ethics advisors say is his most key conflict: His continuing ownership of his business, the Trump Organization. That will ensure Trump will still have a vested financial interest in a global private company when he takes office next week.
Sheri Dillon, a tax advisor at Morgan Lewis, said Trump has sought to completely isolate himself from the business and “will only know of a deal if he sees it in the paper or on TV.” But he will not sell the business or his stake, adding, “President-elect Trump should not be expected to destroy the company he built.”
Take two key provisions here, the idea for a new ethics adviser that would sign off on new deals, and the pledge to “isolate” himself from the business to the degree that he won’t know about any new deals unless he reads about them in the media. The problem is obvious: Even if Trump takes these steps, and even if he does transfer his holdings into a trust managed by his sons, he still knows what his business holdings are, regardless of whether he knows about any “new” deals or whether any such new deals pass muster with his ethics adviser.
That means that much of the potential for conflicts remains in place: Trump will be making regulatory decisions impacting businesses (such as banks) that are entangled with his own. He will be setting American policy in countries where he retains holdings. Trump’s businesses could even directly benefit from Trump policies. Only full divestment would have sufficed to ward off potential conflicts in these areas.
“The Trump plan falls short in every respect,” Norm Eisen, the former ethics watchdog in the Obama administration, emailed me. “Trump did not make a clean break with his business ownership interests as his predecessors for four decades have done.”
“Trump’s ill-advised course will precipitate scandal and corruption,” Eisen added.
Making things even worse, nor did Trump make any vows of increased transparency into his holdings. Trump once again rebuffed calls to release his tax returns, which might have helped create such transparency, and didn’t announce any additional steps to provide it in any other way. This means another core problem remains: Because we aren’t privy to the full scope and range of those holdings, we simply cannot know whether such conflicts — or corruption — are taking place in any given situation.
“As long as president-elect Trump maintains ownership of his businesses, he will know when tax or regulatory or policy changes benefit his bottom line,” Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told me today. “He will also know when policy decisions will benefit him by benefiting other companies whose interests are tied up with his, or benefiting foreign countries whose interests affect his businesses.”
“Even worse, because we don’t know the scope of his interests, we won’t even know it when there’s such a situation where such a conflict is possible or happening,” Bookbinder added.
We appear to be entering into truly uncharted territory. The vast extent of Trump’s global holdings, combined with their opacity, create both a level of potential for conflicts, and an inability for us to track those conflicts, that render all efforts to predict the consequences utterly hopeless.
It is hard to say what will happen now. The role of the press in trying to keep track of those conflicts will be crucial. But on that front, too, what we saw at today’s presser was cause for alarm. Trump tore into CNN as “fake news” for publishing a careful if provocative and envelope-pushing story on unverified claims that Russian intelligence gathered compromising information on him. Trump ferociously attacked Buzzfeed for publishing a dossier of those claims, pointedly noting that Buzzfeed would “suffer the consequences.”
That would be worrisome enough on its own. But combine it with Trump’s unprecedented dishonesty and his refusal to revise his claims when they are widely called out as false, and it all starts to smack of an effort to stamp out the very possibility of shared agreement on the legitimate institutional role of the news media or even on reality itself. It’s easy to imagine that, if and when a news organization uncovers potential conflicts, Trump will simply deny the reality of what’s been uncovered (“fake news”) and begin threatening “consequences” towards that organization.
One thing that remains clear: Congressional Republicans are not going to step up and try to mitigate this situation. Republicans are not going to take any of the steps they could be taking to try to prod Trump into showing more transparency about his holdings, which would make conflicts and corruption less likely. It’s hard to see that changing, unless, perhaps, intensified media scrutiny shakes loose enough scandalous stories to make the lack of congressional action untenable. That will also require public pressure — of the sort that forced Republicans to reverse recently on their plan to gut an independent ethics oversight office, but probably a lot more.
Right now, serious pessimism appears to be a reasonable default setting. I could be entirely wrong about this — maybe Trump really will surprise us. If not, our institutions are going to be tested in unforeseen ways, and it will be on us — through vigilance, organizing, and political action — to make sure they are up to the task.