President-elect Donald Trump is peddling the notion that he can let his sons run his businesses but make no “new” deals after he is inaugurated. On Wednesday, he held a meeting of tech giant chief executives in which three of his adult children and his son-in-law participated.
Ethics experts were flabbergasted. “Donald Trump’s children aren’t just family, they are tasked with running his business completely separate from his running the government. What we’ve seen so far is not an administration avoiding the appearance of conflicts of interest but one actively courting it,” said Jordan Libowitz of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. He continued, “The president-elect of the United States just brought in the heads of many of America’s largest companies to meet with him and the executives of his personal business. He is relying on the senior leadership of his business to help him pick Cabinet officials.” Libowitz added, “There is no explicable reason for his children to be so involved with the running of the government if their focus on the health of Trump’s business interests is what is supposed to allow him to avoid conflicts.” He reiterated what virtually every ethics expert has said: “If he is serious about a separation of government and personal business, he needs to sell the business outside of his family and place the assets in a blind trust.”
Trump seems to be intentionally and publicly blurring the line between his own finances and government business. “The first principle of avoiding corruption and illegality and wrongdoing is to maintain bright lines,” ethics expert Norman Eisen of the Brookings Institution told me in a phone interview. “His mixing of family business with the business of the U.S. is unprecedented.” He observed, “This is what we see in oligarchies, like with China’s princelings. We don’t expect princelings to be roaming the halls of the White House.”
The Trump transition ethics code expressly states, “I will disqualify myself from involvement in any particular transition matter which to my knowledge may directly conflict with a financial interest of mine, my spouse, minor child, partner, client or other individual or organization with which I have a business or close personal relationship. Where there is no such direct conflict, but there may be an appearance of a conflict, I will address this issue for resolution to the [President Elect Transition Team] General Counsel. I currently have no knowledge of any such conflicts.” We do not know if Trump’s adult children or son-in-law signed the document, but if they have it would seem Ivanka already violated it in sitting in the meeting with Japan’s prime minister. Reports have also surfaced that Trump’s sons are involved in vetting nominees. The separation between business and government seems to be, just as we imagined, nonexistent.
If any of the Trump children or Jared Kushner engage in any matters on the Trump Organization’s behalf with any of the tech companies in the room (or others they have interacted with during the transition) that too could be a violation — at the very least, the appearance of a conflict of interest. Can the four of them seriously claim that neither they personally nor on behalf of any Trump business have dealings with the companies (e.g., IBM, Apple, Microsoft, Google) or the governments (and their owned entities) whose representatives the princelings may have met with? Their mere presence in the room conveys to business execs and the entire world that Trump’s sons, who will run his business, are among his closest advisers. The Trump transition team did not respond to our inquiry asking if any of the children or Kushner signed the code of ethics document.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and several other Democrats held a press event on Trump’s ethical problems. They publicly implored Republicans to step up to the plate. So far we see no evidence that Republicans plan on doing so in the short term.
As Eisen put it, this all “augurs very ill” for the Trump presidency. “I’m disappointed as an American,” he said. “At the rate this is going [Trump] won’t make it through the first year without a major scandal — multiple scandals.” Meanwhile, Republicans whistle past the ethical graveyard.