President Trump announced the addition of a team of ethics lawyers to the White House Counsel’s Office Wednesday, hours after his family business announced that it was hiring a longtime Republican lawyer to ensure the Trump Organization minimizes conflicts of interest.
The double-barreled announcements drew some criticism for a president who enters office with more potential conflicts of interest than any previous chief executive, but also praise for the new compliance staff. At the White House, the team will be led by Stefan C. Passantino, an election-law expert in private practice who will have the title of deputy assistant to the president for compliance and ethics matters.
“It is a strong, experienced group of lawyers, but their client has dealt them an impossible hand,” said Norman Eisen, who served as ethics counsel to former president Barack Obama and is now part of a lawsuit accusing Trump of violating a constitutional provision barring presidents from taking payments from foreign governments.
Trump, Eisen said, “has brought a blizzard of conflicts to the White House” that seem likely to overwhelm the new team.
Among other clients, Passantino has represented former House speaker Newt Gingrich who hailed Pasantino in a White House news release, saying that “no one understands the ethics process better than Stefan.”
Earlier in the day, the Trump Organization named Bobby Burchfield, a veteran GOP lawyer who has advised both Bush presidential teams, to serve as an outside ethics adviser. George A. Sorial, a 10-year Trump company executive, will serve the internal role of chief compliance counsel, the company announced.
Burchfield, a partner in the Washington office of law firm giant King & Spalding, will have the authority to approve or push back against any of the Trump company’s new domestic deals. “Certain transactions cannot be undertaken” without his approval, the company said.
Some ethics watchdogs were skeptical.
“Given Bobby Burchfield’s long-standing role in Republican Party efforts, he does not fit the definition of what would be considered an independent ethics adviser,” said Fred Wertheimer, founder of the good-government group Democracy 21.
“Every judgment that Bobby Burchfield has to make goes directly to the president’s financial interests,” Wertheimer added. “This is not credible as an independent ethics advisory position. And no one is going to be fooled by this.”
In addition to his work with presidential candidates, Burchfield is also chairman of Crossroads GPS, the nonprofit arm of the GOP super PAC American Crossroads, founded by Karl Rove. The Republican National Lawyers Association in 2015 named him Republican Lawyer of the Year.
The president and his attorney said earlier this month that Trump will leave the management and leadership of his real estate and licensing company to a trust run by his sons and a longtime company executive.
But Trump will not sell off his stake or divest from his company, a decision that was widely criticized by ethics specialists because it ensures that he will continue to hold a financial interest in the company’s performance.
Trump pledged this month that his company will make “no new foreign deals” during his presidency. But new domestic deals will be allowed if they pass what Trump attorney Sheri Dillon called a “vigorous vetting process,” opening what some ethics advisers have called a back channel for investors to curry favor with the new president.
In addition to Passantino, the Trump White House announced that three others will join the “compliance team” serving as special assistants and associate counsels to the president. They are: Uttam Dhillon, who served as chief oversight counsel for the House Financial Services Committee; Scott Gast, who served as investigative counsel to the Office of Congressional Ethics; and James D. Schultz, a lawyer in private practice who served as general counsel of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Robert Weissman, president of the consumer rights group Public Citizen, said Wednesday that Burchfield’s experience with the super PAC, a big-money group that does not disclose its donors, “doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in his ability to police ethical standards at the Trump Organization.”
Sorial, who joined the Trump company in 2007, is an internal promotion, having most recently worked as an executive vice president and counsel overseeing the company’s real estate deals.
Trump deals that were underway have continued, including the soft opening Wednesday of a new Trump-brand hotel and condominium tower in Vancouver, B.C.
Trump companies have also shared vast ambitions for new domestic deals during Trump’s presidency. Trump Hotels chief executive Eric Danziger, who leads the company’s eight hotels in five U.S. metropolitan areas, said at a Los Angeles investment summit on Tuesday that he did not “see any reason that we couldn’t be in all” 26 major metropolitan areas nationwide, according to a Bloomberg News report.
Matea Gold contributed to this report.