WASHINGTON – President-elect Donald Trump plans to shift his assets into a trust managed by his sons and give up management of his private company, a step that will help the businessman move closer to resolving potential conflicts of interest.
The move, announced Wednesday in Trump’s first news conference since July, will target some of his most visible ethical vulnerabilities and push back against early criticism from Congressional Democrats who say his financial entanglements could improperly steer his presidential decision-making.
The announcement included a pledge from a Trump lawyer that the company would make “no new foreign deals whatsoever” during Trump’s presidency, and that any new domestic deals would undergo vigorous review, including approval by an independent ethics adviser.
But Trump’s commitment will not resolve what federal officials and ethics advisers say is his most key conflict: His continuing ownership of his business, the Trump Organization. That will ensure Trump will still have a vested financial interest in a global private company when he takes office next week.
Sheri Dillon, a tax adviser at Morgan Lewis, said Trump has sought to completely isolate himself from the business and “will only know of a deal if he sees it in the paper or on TV.” But he will not sell the business or his stake, adding, “President-elect Trump should not be expected to destroy the company he built.”
Trump’s commitment falls short of the recommendations from the Office of Government Ethics and former chief White House ethics advisers for both parties, who say the only way for Trump to fully inoculate himself from conflicts is to fully divest his business holdings and clearly break from financial interests.
It also pales in comparison to the commitments of his cabinet picks, who make up what could become the wealthiest administration in American presidential history. Trump’s Secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson, last week filed a nine-page blueprint that would involve severing himself from ExxonMobil, the oil titan where he worked for a decade and made tens of millions of dollars as chief executive.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who Trump will name one of his most influential White House advisers, will sell off much of his New York real-estate and media fortune and resign from the family business to avoid conflicts, his lawyers said this week.
“If his son-in-law can comply, so can the president-elect, like every other president has done for the past four decades,” said Norm Eisen, a former legal and ethical adviser to the Obama White House.
“President-elect Trump has an even more compelling reason to do it because, unlike the others, he is headed into potential constitutional violations (like the emoluments clause),” Eisen added. “So he ought to take the same blind-trust strategy as his predecessors and subject himself to the law, just like his son-in-law.”
The president is exempt from conflict-of-interest laws that force virtually all other executive-branch officials to sell off their business interests, as well as recuse themselves from public decision-making that could benefit their private finances.
But the president must still abide by bribery, fraud and corruption laws that could arise from potential financial conflicts. Modern presidents have nevertheless followed a tradition of selling potentially problematic assets or sequestering them into a blind trust, overseen by an independent manager with unassailable control.
The trust agreement outlined Wednesday will not be truly “blind” due to Trump’s family relationship to its leaders: his sons and company executive Allen Weisselberg.