A bipartisan group of ethics experts, former elected officials and activists have written to President-elect Donald Trump warning him that if he leaves his private business under the control of his adult children, he will not fully rid himself of dangerous conflicts of interest that could hurt his credibility around the world.
The group includes experts who have been vocal on the subject in recent weeks and several former Republican officeholders who endorsed Hillary Clinton in the campaign. But the letter's signatories also include two conservative allies of Trump senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon — Peter Schweizer, the author of the book “Clinton Cash,” which outlined possible conflicts of interest posed to Clinton because of donations to her husband's charitable foundation, as well as John Pudner, who went to high school with Bannon in Richmond and now runs the advocacy group Take Back Our Country. Bannon was the chairman of the Government Accountability Institute, where Schweizer serves as president.
Trump has tweeted that he will remove himself from business operations of his company, pledging to disclose more details of his plans on Dec. 15. But he has signaled operational control of the Trump Organization will probably be turned over to his children and has given no indication that he plans to give up his ownership stake. He will, for instance, retain an executive producing credit on the reality show “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
“If taken, this approach will still leave you and your immediate family as the financial beneficiaries of the business, with your family managing them and the business enterprises entangled with your presidency. This will not solve the real or apparent conflict of interest problems you face as president,” the group said.
The group urged Trump to place his assets in a blind trust that will be managed by an independent person with whom he has no family relationship and empower the trustee to divest his business interests and reinvest them without input from Trump.
Spokesmen for Trump did not immediately respond to the letter.
The signatories include two former Republican governors, Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey and Arne H. Carlson of Minnesota, as well as four former Republican members of Congress. Each had endorsed Clinton during the campaign. The effort to draft the letter and gather signatures was led by Norm Eisen, who served as ethics counsel to President Obama, and Richard Painter, who served in that role for President George W. Bush. They note that issues of ethics and conflicts of interest have not before been seen as partisan matters and that Clinton would have faced similar calls if elected with regards to the Clinton Foundation.
“We believe you need to act now to ensure that as president you will not have conflicts of interests or the appearance of such conflicts. It must be clear to all that any domestic and foreign policy decisions you make are not being influenced by your business arrangements and family relationships or by your investment holdings, and that the policy decisions of foreign governments with respect to the United States are not unduly influenced by a desire to curry favor with you and your family in your business enterprises,” the group said.
Trump's business holds real estate and licensing deals in countries around the world. Trump has insisted he no longer cares about his business but has otherwise brushed off concerns of conflict of interest.
On CNN Friday, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway compared the time Trump might spend away from the presidency in his producing role on “The Celebrity Apprentice” to Obama's golf hobby. “Were we so concerned about the hours and hours and hours spent on the golf course of the current president?” she asked. “Presidents have a right to do things in their spare time or their leisure time. I mean, nobody objects to that. . . . Work is his work and work his hobby,” she said.
She indicated he is considering staying involved with business activities like “The Celebrity Apprentice” if allowed by law.
“The fact is that he is conferring with all types of experts to tell him what he is allowed to do and not do as the president of the United States, and if this is one of the approved activities, then perhaps he'll consider staying on,” she said.