Federal ethics experts for former Democratic and Republican administrations warned Thursday that President-elect Donald Trump is creating a major conflict of interest by allowing his Virginia vineyard to seek special temporary visas for foreign workers.
Trump, who is president of the Charlottesville vineyard that applied this month for H2 visas for six foreign workers, will soon run the U.S. government, which determines whether to grant those visas.
“This is a powerful example of why Donald Trump needs to make a definitive break, not just with his operational interests but his ownership interests, by appointing an independent trustee to liquidate all that,” said Norm Eisen, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution who was chief White House ethics lawyer for President Obama from 2009 to 2011.
He called the situation “a classic conflict of interest.”
If Trump won’t divest himself of his businesses, he should make sure that none of his office’s appointees have anything to say about these decisions, said Richard Painter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School who was chief White House ethics lawyer during 2005-2007 in the George W. Bush administration.
“It’s critically important that these [types of requests] be handled by career employees in federal agencies who have civil service protections,” Painter said. “Anyone appointed by him should be required to recuse themselves. It’s not required by law, but he should do it anyway.”
Trump Vineyard Estates LLC filed a request Dec. 2 with the Labor Department for six H2 visas, which permit U.S. employers to hire foreigners for seasonal jobs such as pruning grapevines, which is what the request said. The request was posted online by the Labor Department on Wednesday and first reported by BuzzFeed News.
The workers are needed to prune the vines on the estate, the Labor application said, and they would be paid $10.72 per hour for a 40-hour, six-day week. The jobs are anticipated to last from January to June.
Trump, whose transition team and press office did not respond to requests for comment on the matter, consistently argued during the presidential campaign that the federal government should limit immigration to protect American jobs. The visas his business seeks do not allow workers to permanently reside in the United States.
About 8,800 temporary agricultural visas for 172,654 jobs were requested nationwide in federal fiscal 2016, Labor Department reports show.
The Trump vineyard applied for 19 temporary visas for foreign workers in 2014, 2015 and this year, before the most recent request, according to federal records. In addition, he has sought to hire 513 foreign workers since 2013 for some of his other businesses, including for his Palm Beach home, Mar-a-Lago Club.
Kerry Woolard, the Trump Winery’s senior manager who signed the Labor request, did not respond to a request for comment.
Although Trump, during a campaign event in May said of the winery, “I own it 100 percent, no mortgage, no debt,” the winery’s website says it is a registered trade name of Eric Trump Wine Manufacturing LLC and is “not owned, managed or affiliated with Donald J. Trump, The Trump Organization or any of their affiliates.”
Eric Trump, the son of the president-elect, is part of his father’s transition team and has been sitting in on meetings that his father has held with high-level technology leaders and others.
The winery, however, is on land owned by Trump Vineyard Estates LLC. Trump reported in his campaign’s federally required financial disclosure statement in May 2016 that he was president of that entity.
An earlier version of this story included incorrect information about the number of H2A visas requested from all employers. Those 8,800 applications sought visas for 172,654 jobs. This story has been updated.