During President-elect Donald Trump’s press conference, the Russia connections and attacks on the free press stole the headlines. There has and will be a lot of coverage of these issues, and rightfully so. In order to add value to the conversation, I’m going to turn my attention to the announcement regarding what Trump will do with his business. It’s important to remember, for both the benefit of himself and the American people, that Trump needs to distance himself from business decisions to avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest.
Yes, he is exempt from being prosecuted for these. That does not mean conflicts don’t exist and won’t cast a dark shadow over everything he tries to do in his administration. Most presidents realize this and take the advice of the Office of Government Ethics to avoid their administrations getting derailed by scandal.
Here’s a quick summary of some of what Trump’s attorney has proposed:
- Trump turns the business over to his sons
- He steps away from management of the business
- An ethics officer is appointed to examine deals
- He gives hotel profits generated by foreign government payments to the U.S. Treasury
- Trump’s business will not enter into new foreign deals
The problem is none of these measures eliminate the pathways for potential corruption or influence in the same way that appointing a trustee to sell and place the assets of the business in a blind trust would. This could mean the interest of the Trump business empire could come ahead of the business of the American people.
So, it’s not surprising there is a lengthy list of important experts in ethics speaking out against this proposal.
Office of Government Ethics: Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, the organization charged with helping ensure ethics in the executive branch of the U.S. government, spoke out against the proposed structure for Trump’s business at the Brookings Institute. “You don’t hear about ethics when things are going well. You’ve been hearing a lot about ethics lately,” he told the crowd. You can read his full remarks here.
Norm Eisen (ethics advisor for Obama) and Richard Painter (ethics advisor for George W. Bush): The two appeared on PBS NewsHour to weigh in. (Spoiler: They agree with the head of OGE.)
Trevor Potter: President of the Campaign Legal Center, former Republican member of the Federal Election Commission, and former attorney for the McCain 2008 presidential run (but you may remember him as the attorney who advised Stephen Colbert in his quest to open his super PAC) penned an editorial for The Washington Post.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told Bloomberg she’s more concerned than ever and announced plans to propose legislation to address the issue.
I reject that there is no way to divest his business. Every other president has done this and this should be a nonpartisan issue. To an extent, Trump is right, though. There is no way to divest if you are still holding on to the business.
He needs to do what others in his cabinet are doing — step away from the business completely and divest in the interest of public service. Trump should also release his tax returns, especially in light of the allegations involving Russia.
There are many Americans who make much steeper sacrifices in service to our country so asking him to divest a business does not seem like a huge thing to ask in my opinion, or that of any other ethics expert, Democrat or Republican, who has examined this issue.
Tillerson hearing: I’ve read recently that Rex Tillerson is a nice guy and his experience as the head of Exxon makes him very knowledgeable about foreign affairs. I think it is honorable he would like to step away from business to serve his country. Still, like Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), I have several concerns about what message the appointment of an oil executive to the position of secretary of state would send to the rest of the world. There are some countries who believe the U.S. only cares about human rights when it is convenient and that we care more about oil than people. I’m concerned this could reinforce that image.
I think this clip between Senator Rubio and Tillerson is important to watch:
Delegitimizing the press: The exchanges during yesterday’s press conference, especially between CNN’s Jim Acosta and the President-elect, are extremely concerning. There’s a lot of division among journalists about whether Buzzfeed made the right call in releasing the raw report detailing Trump’s supposed Russian ties, with many journalists worried the unchecked information in the dossier overshadows the fine reporting of CNN which has not been disputed.
Chuck Todd interviewed Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith:
On a side note, it was nice to see Fox’s Shep Smith defend CNN.
Final Note: On Sunday, Meryl Streep recommended supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, which runs safety trainings for journalists and advocates for journalists. Please consider learning more about their work and supporting them.