Donald Trump pledged Wednesday that he would leave “my great business” in order to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, prompting warnings from ethics experts that he must sell off his corporate assets if he wishes to resolve concerns about his financial interests influencing his new position of power.
In early-morning messages on Twitter, Trump left vague whether he would divest himself of his business interests or merely transfer day-to-day management to his children.
“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,” the president-elect tweeted, saying he would spell out the details in a Dec. 15 news conference.
In response, the federal government’s leading ethics agency appeared to take the unusual step of publicly urging Trump to sell his business holdings. In a series of casually worded tweets that were posted, removed and posted again, the Office of Government Ethics, the traditionally staid federal agency that often works closely with presidential transition teams, said that the “only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest.”
OGE spokesman Seth Jaffe said in a statement later Wednesday: “Like everyone else, we were excited this morning to read the President-elect’s twitter feed indicating that he wants to be free of conflicts of interest. OGE applauds that goal.” And while the agency had not obtained new information about Trump’s plan, Jaffe said, “Divestiture resolves conflicts of interest in a way that transferring control does not.”
The OGE’s messages were out of character for an ethics agency that is famously discreet, its advice delivered confidentially. The Watergate-era agency has broad responsibilities, overseeing the executive-branch ethics program, preventing conflicts of interest and working with every agency of the federal government to implement a working ethics program.
The office’s decision to go public surprised outside government-ethics experts, who nevertheless joined to say that Trump must sell his assets to be clear of conflicts.
“I think they’re trying to nudge him toward the right direction. And I think they should be doing that,” said Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush. “OGE should be worried. There’s a lot to worry about here.”
A Trump transition official declined to respond to further questions about the president-elect’s plans.
Stuart E. Eizenstat, who served as President Jimmy Carter’s domestic policy chief and helped guide his transition to the White House, said that Trump’s announcement was “an important first step showing that he recognizes the concerns of the press and the public.”
Presidents are not bound by the strict conflict-of-interest laws governing most U.S. elected officials. Most modern presidents have agreed to sell or sequester their assets in a blind trust, led by an independent manager with supreme control, to keep past business deals, investments and relationships from influencing their White House term.
Don W. Fox, a former general counsel and acting director of the agency, noted that Trump’s disclosed financial holdings were unusually complex and widespread, saying, “It is not apparent on the face of it whether he could divest from all of his businesses.”
Giving company management to three of his adult children — Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka — would leave open the potential for Trump to make presidential decisions for their benefit. The children have already played a key part in Trump’s governing preparations, serving on the transition team now selecting key appointees and sitting in on meetings with foreign heads of state.
If Trump’s family does take over management of the business, Norman Eisen, the chief White House ethics lawyer for President Obama from 2009 to 2011, said that an “ethics firewall” would need to be put in place to combat the “risk of improper preferential relationships and treatment for the Trump Organization with the United States government and foreign ones.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he was not “ready to reveal” whether the move would include Trump truly severing ties to his business or whether he would simply leave the day-to-day operations to the three children.
“It’s not the easiest thing to work out,” Priebus said. “What you see in those tweets is the person at the top that understands and is willing and showing the American people that he’s working hard on it and he’s taking it seriously.”
The weeks since Trump’s electoral victory have been marked by a series of revelations about the mixing of his private ventures and public ambitions.
Trump welcomed a group of Indian business executives to meet with him and his family at Trump Tower, where talk turned to the potential for new real estate deals. Trump and his daughter Ivanka met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during Trump’s first meeting as president-elect with a foreign head of state.
His company, the Trump Organization, has over the years sealed lucrative real estate and branding deals for business in at least 18 countries and territories around the world, including in places where the United States has sensitive diplomatic ties, such as Turkey, Azerbaijan and India.
Trump’s company is also pitching foreign diplomats on his new luxury hotel in Washington as a place to book rooms and hold meetings. But such entreaties eventually could run afoul of an “emoluments” clause in the U.S. Constitution that bars the president from accepting gifts from foreign leaders — even if he is not actively running the company.
Buffeted by entanglement worries, Trump has largely dug in, arguing “the law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” in an interview last week with the New York Times.
“In theory I could run my business perfectly, and then run the country perfectly,” Trump said. “But I would like to do something. I would like to try and formalize something, because I don’t care about my business.”
Peter Schweizer, a conservative author who raised alarms in the book “Clinton Cash” about Hillary Clinton’s possible conflicts of interest because of donations to her family’s foundation, said Trump will face an equally skeptical public, not just about his entanglements but also about those of his children.
“It’s incumbent on the president of the United States, particularly one who is seemingly committed to ‘draining the swamp,’ to remove any questions about financial transactions involving him or his family,” said Schweizer, who is also close to Trump senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who served as chairman of the Government Accountability Institute, where Schweizer is president.
Michael Toner, who served as general counsel to the Bush-Cheney transition in 2000, recalled the 10-week post-election period as a time for setting broad ethical policy — and considering specific safeguards for the incoming president — that would set the tone for the incoming administration.
At the time of the Kennedy-Johnson transition, Lyndon B. Johnson separated himself from the Texas radio stations he operated, creating a blind trust and removing himself, at least officially. After his election in 1976, Carter set up elaborate arrangements to remove himself from the family peanut business, its management and knowledge of day-to-day decisions.
Rosalind S. Helderman and Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report.