At his first press conference since July, President-elect Donald Trump fielded only a handful of questions that didn’t have to do with “golden showers” or Russian intrigue. But when it came to the daunting issue of his massive conflicts of interest from his business empire, Trump had some answers. Or, at least, his lawyer did.
Sheri Dillon, an attorney at Morgan Lewis, which is representing Trump as he tries to avoid violating the emoluments clause of the constitution (which prohibits the president from accepting gifts or benefits from foreign governments), took the podium and laid out Trump’s disentanglement plan.
“President-elect Trump wants the American public to rest assured that all of his efforts are directed to pursuing the people’s business and not his own,” Dillon told reporters.
According to Dillon, Trump will pass his company over to his two adult sons, while shutting himself off from any communication with his company. On top of that, an “ethics adviser,” would be on hand within the company to sign off on any deals that the Trump Organization might pursue. To underline his seriousness, Trump informed the media that he had rejected a $2 billion deal in Dubai last week, because of the possible conflict of interest this would present. Also on hand was a stack of manila envelopes and documents that purported to prove the transition of power from the president-elect to his two large sons. The media, however, was not allowed to inspect the documents. As for selling his company, Dillon explained that this was unfeasible, and as for a blind trust, that was also out of hand — no one outside the family could be trusted to take Trump’s position.
Kate Belinski, an attorney who represents and advises numerous members of Congress and executive-branch officials with respect to their obligations under the Ethics in Government Act, was deeply skeptical of Dillon’s explanations.
“The Clintons put all of their assets into a double blind trust when Bill Clinton took office, and so that was a pretty significant amount of assets. Jimmy Carter sold his peanut farm business, other presidents have put their assets into blind trusts,” Belinski told the Voice. “The whole notion of not divesting his interests and trying to come up with these tortured rationales for why none of these divestiture vehicles — it’s way too tortured. He certainly could divest himself, every other person divested themselves.”
According to Belinski, Dillon rightly stated that Trump’s situation was complicated, and that the president is exempted from conflict-of-interest laws that apply to his cabinet, but fell far short of abiding by the Emoluments Clause. Randall Eliason, a professor at George Washington University’s law school and a former U.S. Attorney, was surprised by how casually Dillon brushed off any legal arguments that could say Trump was in violation of the clause.
“What struck me about it was that she was so definitive. The whole issue with the emoluments clause is that no one is that certain about it. We’ve never had a president with this sort of extensive international holdings, so all of this is unprecedented,” Eliason said. “If he doesn’t sell his company, then I don’t think it matters if someone is managing the properties, because that means that a government can still try to benefit him through benefiting his business somehow.”
Dillon explained that Trump would be giving all the profits from diplomats staying in his D.C. hotel directly to the Treasury, but that type of arrangement would need to be approved by Congress. Even so, foreign governments could still be doing favors for Trump abroad in order to win favor from the president.
“The government overseas could give him a sweetheart deal, a tax break, shut down an investigation, give him extremely favorable loans. There’s a variety of things foreign governments can do regarding his businesses that would still benefit him,” said Eliason.
Without a more robust divestment plan in place, it appears that Trump is still on the wrong side of the Constitution.
“As long as he’s not selling his business, he’s both in violation of the Constitution and basic conflict-of-interest norms, and it’s going to call into question so many different policy positions,” said Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University and expert on constitutional law. “His plan was internally incoherent as well. His lawyer said he was stepping away from his businesses, and then he made two claims that show he’s not. He says that just this last weekend he turned down a deal. That’s a contradiction on its face. If you’re not involved, you can’t turn anything down.”
Belinski believes that maybe Trump should have thought this through a little bit more. “If you’re a business person, and you’re too tied up that for the good of the country, you cannot divest yourself from your business interests, perhaps you shouldn’t be running for office.”