President-elect Donald J. Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that he would soon leave his “great business in total” to focus on the presidency, a response to growing worries over the businessman-in-chief’s conflicts of interest around the globe.
Shortly after, the official Twitter account of the Office of Government Ethics, the traditionally staid federal agency that often works closely with presidential transition teams, issued a rapid-fire series of tweets celebrating that Trump had committed to fully divesting his company stake — though Trump has publicly said no such thing.
The back-to-back tweetstorms raised more questions than they answered: whether Trump’s move would focus on severing his ownership ties, or simply his management responsibilities; and whether the OGE was releasing new information or simply the victim of a hacker, prankster or official gone rogue.
The OGE’s messages were deeply out of character for a federal ethics agency that is famously quiet and unadventurous. Among the nine tweets: “@realDonaldTrump Bravo! Only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest . Good call!” The tweets were first posted Wednesday morning, then deleted within an hour. They then reappeared at 1 p.m., for unknown reasons.
In a 1:30 p.m. statement from the OGE’s email account, attributed to OGE spokesman Seth Jaffe, the agency said, “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, which is consistent with an opinion OGE issued in 1983. Divestiture resolves conflicts of interest in a way that transferring control does not. We don’t know the details of their plan, but we are willing and eager to help them with it.”
A second statement at 3:30 p.m. added, “The tweets that OGE posted today were responding only to the public statement that the President-elect made on his Twitter feed about his plans regarding conflicts of interest. OGE’s tweets were not based on any information about the President-elect’s plans beyond what was shared on his Twitter feed. OGE is non-partisan and does not endorse any individual.”
Phone messages left with a dozen agency executives and representatives seeking verification or more details were not returned.
OGE lawyers have been influential in past presidents’ decision making, but their advice has almost always been kept confidential. If nothing else, the OGE’s tweets have publicly revealed federal-ethics officials’ preference for the president-elect to completely divest — a form of lobbying that is potentially unprecedented for the agency.
The messages surprised many who had worked with the agency in the past: Brett Kappel, a Washington campaign-finance lawyer who has worked with OGE, said the agency “never tweets about an individual federal official’s ethics issues unless they are announcing the conclusion of an enforcement action.”
.@realDonaldTrump this divestiture does what handing over control could never have done.
— U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016
The tweets followed Trump’s morning announcement, which appeared to echo his long insistence that he would cede the company’s management to his children, a way of putting distance between his private interests and public power.
But it remained unclear whether the new arrangement would include a full sale of Trump’s stake in the company. Ethics advisers said a management hand-off to his children would not resolve worries that the business could still influence his decisions in the Oval Office.
“I will be holding a major news conference in New York City with my children on December 15 to discuss the fact that I will be leaving my great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country in order to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Trump tweeted.
“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. Hence, legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations. The Presidency is a far more important task!”
Presidents are not bound by the strict conflict-of-interest laws governing most U.S. elected officials. But most modern presidents have agreed to sell or sequester their assets in a blind trust, led by an independent manager with supreme control, in order to keep past business deals, investments and relationships from influencing their White House term.
Giving company management to his adult children — Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka — would still 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.
Trump spokespeople did not immediately return requests for more details on the move. But Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, said the move did not appear to offer enough of a division to keep entanglement worries at bay.
“That’s business operations, not ownership. The problem is, we need to resolve the conflicts of interest that arise from his ownership. And we’re hearing nothing about how that’s getting resolved,” Painter said.
“Even if he does not operate the businesses, you’re going to have lots of people working for the business running around the world trying to cut deals,” Painter added. “And it’s critical that none of those people discuss U.S. business in a way that could be interpreted, or misinterpreted, of offering quid pro quo … or soliciting a bribe on the part of the president.”
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 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 his kids.
“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.”
Others in the president-elect’s orbit have shared little more on his plan. Asked Wednesday if he would take over the business, Eric Trump said, while walking through Trump Tower, “You’ll hear it soon enough.”
Asked how the new arrangement would be set up, Anthony Scaramucci, a member of the transition team’s executive committee, said, “I don’t want to steal Mr. Trump’s or the children’s thunder on that, so let’s wait for Dec. 15.” He added, “At age 70, after having this phenomenal life and building this phenomenal business in this great tower, he’s going to be a hundred percent focused on working for the American people and for the United States.”
The weeks since Trump’s electoral victory have been marked by a series of entanglements between 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, who will likely play a key part in running the company, met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during Trump’s first meeting as president-elect with a foreign government leader.
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 across the world, including in places where the U.S. 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.
Don Trump Jr. traveled to Turkey this week as part of a vacation with a friend, according to a Trump Organization statement Wednesday. Turkey is now under close scrutiny by U.S. diplomats following a series of government crackdowns. Trump’s company has made millions of dollars there by licensing the name to Trump Towers Istanbul.
Before that statement, Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported that it was Eric Trump, not his brother, who traveled to the country to hunt wild deer at the invitation of a Turkish businessman. The Trump Organization said Don Jr.’s travel was not a business trip but declined to provide other details.
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” last week in an interview 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 those of his children as well.
“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.
“Foreign entities look at family members as a route to gaining influence and getting special favors. It’s not a question of if it’s going to happen — it’s going to happen. The best thing he could do is set up mechanisms now to avoid those pitfalls that invariably surround presidential families.”
He suggested both Trump and his adult children voluntarily submit to quarterly in-depth disclosures about their financial holdings and major Trump Organization financial transactions, even though the law does not require it.
He also proposed that Trump’s charitable foundation cease accepting donations from non-family members and that Trump’s children agree they will not accept paid speaking engagements for fees larger than those they were paid before their father was elected president.
Stuart E. Eizenstat, who served as former President Jimmy Carter’s domestic policy chief and helped guide his transition to the White House, called Trump’s announcement today “an important first step showing that he recognizes the concerns of the press and the public.”
Eizenstat recalled that Jimmy Carter put his interest in a peanut warehouse in a blind trust before inauguration day and that Carter agreed to recuse himself from discussion of Agriculture Department policy towards peanuts and limit his involvement in sugar — the latter playing a critical role in the fortunes of Coca-Cola, a leading home state industry.
Trump presents a unique challenge from an ethics perspective because of his wide ranging business interests and because his name is used so widely in pursuit of those interests around the globe. “We are navigating in uncharted waters,” Eizenstat said.
Eizenstat, who also held several major positions in the Clinton administration, said the blind trust approach might be unworkable for Trump given those wide-ranging interests, his name brand on his companies and the active involvement of his children in the business.
He spoke approvingly of the idea of an independent monitor as a possible way to reassure the public. But he said that a monitor can be cumbersome and expensive. Given those hurdles, the best way to deal with the public policy challenges of Trump’s vast business portfolio may be to simply encourage “a free and unfettered press” to investigate Trump’s holdings and potential conflicts — along with his disclosure statements.
“The power of a free press is what separates our country from non-Democratic countries and the vibrancy of the press would be the best instrument” to deal with Trump’s international holdings and the constitutional prohibition against his receiving favors from foreign leaders. In addition, Eizenstat said that Trump’s honesty and credibility in discussing his holdings is critical.
“In the end, he is going to want to be sure that he is seen by the public as a president animated by the national interest,” Eizenstat said. “I am hopeful he will meet that standard.”
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 Johnson separated himself from the Texas radio stations he operated, drawing up new ownership documents putting his wife, Lady Bird, in charge and removing himself, at least officially, from the company’s operations. After his election in 1976, Jimmy Carter set up elaborate arrangements to remove himself from the family peanut business, its management and knowledge of day to day decisions.
For decades incoming presidents and vice presidents have used the inaugural period to meet with federal ethics officials to take steps, such as setting up blind trusts, to remove themselves from their previous business activities and investments. The idea, Toner and others said, is to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
One of Trump’s most visible potential entanglements, even under a potentially new business arrangement, would be Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., the new luxury hotel he opened in the White House’s backyard.
Charging his children with running the Trump Organization also does not necessarily protect against potential contractual or constitutional violations his presidency may trigger in regards to his D.C. hotel, legal experts say. Trump remains the majority owner of the project, which the company leases from the federal government.
Trump opened the hotel this fall after spending $42 million of his own money and borrowing another $170 million to foot the cost of construction. There is a provision in the lease allowing Trump to sell or transfer his stake in the hotel to “any Trump Family Member.” Selling it to an outside entity would likely require approval by the General Services Administration.
If Trump chooses not to sell, his ownership stake could create two problems once he steps into office. A boilerplate 88-word lease measure may require that the government terminate the deal because it bars “an elected official of the Government of the United States” from having “any share or part of this Lease.”
Procurement experts Steven L. Schooner and Daniel I. Gordon have argued the GSA ought to terminate its deal with Trump because of that clause, writing in The Post a week after the election that “having the president’s adult children negotiate with the staff of the president’s appointee at GSA presents what any reasonable person would view as the appearance of a conflict of interest.”
Schooner, a George Washington University law professor, said in an email Monday that he worried GSA officials wouldn’t terminate the lease out of risk of financial penalties or “intimidation” from the incoming president.
But Steven J. Kelman, a former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Office of Management and Budget, said the passage may apply only to elected officials at the time of lease negotiations.
Even if it’s not a violation of the lease, putting his children in charge would leave them to negotiate with Trump administration officials over the deal going forward. The official who oversaw the selection of Trump for the project, Robert A. Peck, said recently that he couldn’t imagine the average federal employee feeling much empowered to negotiate with one of Trump’s children while they also advised their father in the White House, if he holds on to the property.
“It would be one thing if his kids ran the business, if his kids didn’t also want to be White House advisers,” Peck said. “But even then, the specter of some … contracting officers sitting across the table from Eric Trump. How does that feel?”
Rosalind S. Helderman, Jonathan O’Connell and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.