DONALD TRUMP used part of his news conference Wednesday to detail how he would separate his wide-ranging business dealings from his duties as president. As he pointed out several times, the president-elect pledged to do substantially more than what the law demands. But what the law demands— nothing, at least according to one interpretation — is substantially less than what he should do. Against that standard, his ethics package contains some laudable protections but falls short in two crucial ways.
Drawing the right ethical lines was never going to be easy. Ethics watchdogs have insisted that Mr. Trump sell off his holdings and put them into a blind trust, the standard practice other wealthy U.S. government officers have followed. But Mr. Trump and his advisers pointed out Wednesday that attempting to liquidate his illiquid assets — hotels, golf courses, other real estate — would present unique conflict-of-interest problems. The process would take months or years, with every transaction under question: Who is buying, for what reason, at what price, in what manner? This is not the same as selling stocks.
Mr. Trump instead proposed relinquishing all business operations and curtailing what his company, the Trump Organization, could do. Though he will continue to hold Trump Organization assets, he will place them in a trust before his inauguration. His counselors promise that the trust will be run “without any involvement whatsoever by President-elect Trump,” that he will have access to nothing but general profit-and-loss information and that the Trump Organization will hire an ethics officer who will have to sign off on any actions that could raise conflict-of-interest concerns. The company will not be allowed to conduct any new foreign business deals, and profits that Mr. Trump’s hotels earn from foreign governments will be donated to the U.S. treasury. Each one of these is a good step.
But Mr. Trump did not promise to hand his business to independent executives. Instead, his two adult sons will take over. It is hard to imagine the business can be run in a truly blind way when its day-to-day management will remain in the president-elect’s immediate family. Will those hoping to ingratiate themselves with the president really not see business dealings with his sons as a route toward influence? The appearance alone will be a major problem.
Mr. Trump also slighted the crucial need for openness. He again refused to release his tax returns, let alone more detailed accounts of his business holdings. Mr. Trump, but not the public, will know exactly what exposure he already has in various places.
At the least, the Trump Organization’s future ethics adviser should release public reports and submit himself or herself to scrutiny. This will help reassure taxpayers that the adviser is a guardian of integrity and not a rubber stamp.
Mr. Trump’s ethics plan is more serious than some observers expected, but it remains incomplete.
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