The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump company names ethics advisers, but critics call it an ‘impossible spot’

The still-under-construction Trump International Hotel and Tower in Vancouver, B.C., on Jan. 20. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

President Trump’s private company on Wednesday tapped a longtime Republican lawyer and a company insider to serve in two corporate oversight positions, filling key roles Trump said would ensure his business minimizes conflicts of interest during his presidency.

The Trump Organization named Bobby Burchfield, a veteran GOP lawyer who has advised both Bush presidential teams, to serve as an outside ethics adviser. George A. Sorial, a 10-year Trump company executive, will serve the internal role of chief compliance counsel.

Burchfield, a partner in the Washington office of law-firm giant King & Spalding, will have the authority to approve or push back against any of the Trump company’s new domestic deals. “Certain transactions cannot be undertaken” without his approval, the company said.

But ethics watchdogs questioned how aggressive the long-loyal executives would be in critically appraising the president’s private business interests.

“Given Bobby Burchfield’s long-standing role in Republican party efforts, he does not fit the definition of what would be considered an independent ethics adviser,” said Fred Wertheimer, founder of Washington good-government group Democracy 21.

“Every judgment that Bobby Burchfield has to make goes directly to the president’s financial interests,” Wertheimer added. “This is not credible as an independent ethics advisory position. And no one is going to be fooled by this.”

The president and his attorney said earlier this month that Trump will leave the management and leadership of his real estate and licensing company to a trust run by his sons and a longtime company executive.

But Trump will not sell off his stake or divest from his company, a decision that was widely criticized by ethics specialists because it ensures he will continue to hold a financial interest in the company’s performance.

Trump pledged earlier this month that his company will make “no new foreign deals” during his presidency. But new domestic deals will be allowed if they pass what Trump attorney Sheri Dillon called a “vigorous vetting process,” opening what some ethics advisers have called a back channel for investors to curry favor with the new president.

An early test of Trump’s ethics pledge is a glittering new foreign tower

Burchfield served as general counsel to President George H.W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 1992 and represented George W. Bush during the Florida recount in 2000. The Republican National Lawyers Association in 2015 named him Republican Lawyer of the Year.

In a statement, Burchfield said he was “honored to be asked to serve in this unique and historic role for the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust.”

Burchfield is also chairman of Crossroads GPS, the nonprofit arm of the GOP super PAC American Crossroads founded by Karl Rove.

Robert Weissman, president of the consumer rights group Public Citizen, on Wednesday said Burchfield’s experience with the super PAC, a big-money group that does not disclose its donors, “doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in his ability to police ethical standards at the Trump Organization.”

Sorial, who joined the Trump company in 2007, is an internal promotion, having most recently worked as an executive vice president and counsel overseeing the company’s real estate deals.

Donald Trump Jr. said in a statement, “It is vital to have someone in this position who understands the breadth of our organization including all aspects of our day-to-day operation.”

Trump deals that were already underway have continued, including the soft opening Wednesday of a new Trump-brand hotel and condominium tower in Vancouver, B.C.

Trump companies have also shared vast ambitions for new domestic deals during Trump's presidency. Trump Hotels chief executive Eric Danziger, who leads the company's eight hotels in five U.S. metropolitan areas, said at a Los Angeles investment summit on Tuesday that he did not "see any reason that we couldn't be in all" 26 major metropolitan areas nationwide, according to a Bloomberg report.

Ethics advisers said Burchfield’s experience is encouraging, but they voiced doubt that his authority as a part-time adviser will be strong enough to handle the unprecedented task of overseeing Trump’s financial entanglements.

“Even if Trump had divested, given the nature and extent of the domestic and global conflicts, what was called for was a full-time ethics czar,” said Norm Eisen, a chief White House ethics adviser during the Obama administration.

“But given the fact that Trump did not make a clean ownership break, the risk and complexity is only escalated,” Eisen added. Burchfield’s “client has put him in an impossible spot.”

Matea Gold contributed to this report.