Good-government types were already crying foul over Donald Trump's intention to put his children in charge of his business during his presidency. And now that those same children are on Trump's transition team, these groups are even more concerned about conflicts of interest.
Trump loyalist Rudolph W. Giuliani seemed to acknowledge in a CNN interview Sunday that it wasn't an ideal set-up. But then he offered a remarkable defense. "He would basically put his children out of work if — and they'd have to go start a whole new business, and that would set up the whole — set up new problems," Giuliani said on "State of the Union."
Giuliani added: "It's kind of unrealistic to say you're going to take the business away from the three people who are running it and give it to some independent person. And remember, they can't work in the government because of the government rule against nepotism. So you would be putting them out of work."
Giuliani's argument basically boils down to this: Trump's kids wouldn't have anything to do if they can't run his business while he's the president because they wouldn't have a multibillion-dollar empire to run and couldn't join his administration. What's more, any new businesses they started also could pose conflicts of interest.
If this is the best excuse the Trump campaign has for this set-up — which it labels a "blind trust" but which doesn't meet the traditional definition — it may want to keep looking. The idea that his kids couldn't find something to involve themselves with during his presidency seems ... odd. And even if somehow they couldn't, they are clearly financially okay. What's more, the argument that any new businesses they started might pose problems makes sense in theory, but at least those businesses wouldn't be tied to the president himself, as the Trump Organization is.
As Giuliani noted in the interview, there is no law requiring Trump to put his interests in a blind trust as president, although that generally has been the practice.
The Washington Post's Drew Harwell explained the uneasy nature of Trump's situation last week:
But Trump has refused to make such a pledge, saying only that he would give companies to his children and executives to run. Attorneys said that would put little distance between a President Trump and the businesses he spent a lifetime grooming and profiting from.
"Now we are faced with the possibility that a son or daughter of the president will turn up in Moscow or Uzbekistan or somewhere else negotiating a deal on a new property that will bear the name of the president, and the full knowledge that the president really is an owner of the company," Trevor Potter, a former Federal Election Commission chairman and general counsel for George H.W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said in September. "That presents problems of a dimension we have never seen before. "
Watchdogs I spoke to Friday said they believed Trump's inclusion of his three oldest children — Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric Trump — on his transition team further exacerbated the potential conflicts by giving each of them an official voice in who will oversee the policies that could affect the Trump fortune.
"The fact that they have been included as part of the transition team just shows how inappropriate their role in bridging the gap between him as a businessman and politician is," said Meredith McGehee, a strategic adviser at the Campaign Legal Center. "It’s a clear demonstration that there is no firewall between the two."
The blind-trust issue has kind of flown beneath the radar during Trump's brief time as president-elect. There are plenty of other things to monitor and chew over, including who will serve as his top aides — Reince Priebus and Stephen K. Bannon were named Sunday as chief of staff and chief strategist, respectively — and what actual policies he might pursue, given how they tended to shift during the campaign. He wasn't asked about the issue of his children running his business during a "60 Minutes" interview that aired Sunday.
But the financial-interests issue is a powder keg for Trump — and will remain one throughout his presidency. His wealth and foreign entanglements are simply unprecedented in the pantheon of U.S. presidents, and the fact that those closest to him would remain in charge of them during his presidency makes this a source of uncertainly and probably a constant controversy over the next four years.
It may be particularly difficult for Trump to simply hand over his empire to an independent third party — and deprive his children of their roles — but it's without question one of the most significant decisions he'll be faced with over the next two months.