With the revelation that U.S. intelligence believes Russia intervened in the U.S. election on President-elect Donald Trump’s behalf, lawmakers should be even more concerned that we still do not know where Trump’s income comes from, who holds his debt and whether those pose, at the very least, an alarming conflict of interest. Now that Trump has won, he should be as eager as anyone to open up his finances and liquidate his businesses, most especially his foreign holdings. (The Emoluments Clause would also ban receipt here in the U.S. of monies from foreign governments, as happened when an Azerbaijan delegation rented banquet facilities from Trump’s D.C. hotel.)
A large bipartisan group of good government groups, ethics gurus and prominent lawyers sent a letter to Trump on Friday, warning him that giving up management of his businesses would not be enough:
Instead, we urge you to divest your business enterprises into a true blind trust managed by an independent trustee having no family relationship with you, or the equivalent, in accordance with the guidelines of the Ethics in Government Act. The trustee would then dispose of any business enterprises divested to the trust behind the blind trust wall and would invest the new assets without any information going to you as to the new holdings. We also urge you to divest any other investments you may hold into the blind trust or the equivalent.
The group went on to warn specifically about the egregious conflicts of interest that could arise in the national security realm:
In taking foreign policy positions, furthermore, foreign countries will not be able to tell if your positions are being taken on behalf of the United States or your business interests. This will seriously affect the ways in which other countries view the United States and our foreign policies. It will create the widespread appearance and belief that the way for countries to curry favor and gain advantageous treatment from the United States is to do business with your children and the Trump businesses. Your continued ownership of The Trump Organization also would cause you legal problems from the day you become president based on the anti-corruption Emoluments Clause of the Constitution which prevents you from accepting any presents or other financial benefits from foreign governments and their agents.
In short, Trump wants to continue to enrich himself while his sole concern for the next four years must be the welfare of the country. (“The framers included this provision in the Constitution to help ensure that the president does not have divided loyalties between the interests of the United States and the interests of a foreign country in carrying out his responsibilities.”) Given the bombshell about Russian help during the election, Trump’s effusive praise of Putin and placement of at least one pro-Putin adviser (retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn) and likely nomination of another (Rex W. Tillerson for secretary of state), the need for Trump to purge himself of his business ties and liabilities is acute.
Perhaps public pressure and private persuasion will force Trump to do the right thing. If not, Congress should take radical measures if need be to make certain he fulfills his constitutional obligations and avoids conflicts that would have been tolerated for no other president. (“Republicans and Democrats called for similar strong measures regarding the Clinton Foundation if Hillary Clinton were elected president. It is no less important for you to take the steps set forth in this letter with The Trump Organization now that you will be entering the Oval Office.”) Congress must ensure the integrity of the government and the primacy of the Constitution.
Unless and until Trump discloses his tax returns and sheds his businesses, Senate Republicans and Democrats — surely there are 51 who would refuse to let Trump’s ethical sludge pollute the government — should refuse to confirm any nominee or act on other legislative initiatives. Yes, it’s time for a constitutional face-off, if that is what it takes, to bring Trump to heel and to assure the American people he is not taking positions for his own financial gain — or worse, for the gain of foreign parties.