ABC News(NEW YORK) — The fate of Donald Trump’s fleet of businesses — which ignited critics who say he’ll be potentially subject to conflicts of interest — is up in the air less than two months before the inauguration, but the real estate mogul indicated today that he will be stepping aside.
It remains to be seen, however, how effectively he will be able to distance himself and how he will be able to create a true firewall between his team and his children, should they take the reins as previously indicated.
In a series of tweets this morning, Trump said that “legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations.”
“I will be leaving my great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country,” he wrote in one of the tweets.
“While I am not mandated to do this under the law, I feel it is visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses,” he continued.
Trump wrote that he will be “holding a major news conference… with my children” to discuss the plans in mid-December.
The Office of Government Ethics applauded Trump’s plan to divest himself of business ties in a series of gushing tweets, though spokesman Seth Jaffe told ABC News that they “don’t know the details of their plan but we are willing and eager to help them with it.”
Trump said repeatedly on the campaign trail that his children will be left in charge of the family business, but he also said he will consider putting his holdings in a blind trust, where a business owner removes himself from operations and puts an independent individual or body in charge in order to prevent conflicts of interest. However, it’s not clear what his current thinking is on how he plans to proceed in separating himself from the business.
In the Jan. 14 Republican primary debate, Trump said he would put his business in a blind trust.
“I would put it in a blind trust. Well, I don’t know if it’s a blind trust if Ivanka, Don and Eric run it,” Trump said at the sixth primary debate. “If that’s a blind trust, I don’t know. But I would probably have my children run it with my executives and I wouldn’t ever be involved because I wouldn’t care about anything but our country, anything.”
The statements appear to be at odds with each other — if his children take charge of the business, they may communicate with him about dealings, which could influence policy or vice versa. If there is any communication or influence, the trust is no longer “blind.”
When Donald Trump Jr. was asked about the matter on “Good Morning America” in September, the eldest Trump son appeared unmoved.
“A blind trust is not a blind trust if it’s being run by his children,” ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos told Trump Jr.
“It is because he’ll have nothing to do with it, George. He said that,” he responded.
The Vast Trump Empire
The Trump brand is global, with the real estate mogul’s company, the Trump Organization, holding properties around the United States as well as in several countries.
While the full extent of the president-elect’s business ties are not clear, a financial disclosure form filed in July 2015 lists him as being associated with hundreds of LLCs and corporations.
The form lists the approximate value of the companies, ranging from less than $201 to more than $50 million. Incomes are listed in ranges in most cases as well.
The Trump Organization has two golf courses in Dubai, two courses and matching hotels in Scotland, a course and matching hotel in Ireland, two hotels in Canada, two buildings in India, and buildings in the Philippines, Uruguay, Brazil, Panama and South Africa.
The Trump name is also attached to 12 golf courses in seven states across the U.S., his realty company has listings in four states, and hotels in six states as well as their latest hotel in Washington D.C., which opened during the campaign.
However, Trump became the first presidential candidate in decades to not release his tax returns, so the president-elect’s precise income, assets and liabilities remain unknown. Trump has said his taxes are under audit.
What Divestiture Would Entail
During an interview with The New York Times after the election, Trump said “the law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest… Despite that, I don’t want there to be a conflict of interest anyway.”
Trump’s assessment of the law is not entirely wrong: the president is exempt from prosecution under certain federal statutes that bar conflicts of interest, but laws against bribery, nepotism, and using public office for personal financial gain could still apply to him.
Paul Rothstein, a professor at Georgetown University Law School, said that Trump and all presidents are not bound by conflicts of interest laws that apply to other government officials.
“He is exempt from such laws because the thought apparently was that if the people trust a person enough to elect him President, he can be trusted with this,” Rothstein told ABC News.
“He is bound by the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which says he cannot get financial benefit from foreign powers–and I can see that coming into play with some of his foreign investments,” Rothstein said.
While Congress could launch investigations into perceived improprieties and launch impeachment proceedings if the situation is grave enough, there is no body specifically tasked with keeping watch of any misdeeds.
“Public opinion is the only policeman when it comes to conflicts of interest,” said Matthew Sanderson, a Republican lawyer with the law firm Caplin & Drysdale.
Sanderson said that if Trump opts to put the Trump Organization into a blind trust, the process could last up to a year.
“He can sell some of his assets off to third parties and then sell the remaining core business to his children. He would place the proceeds of these sales into a trust and then appoint an independent individual as a trustee to be a steward over the funds, which is the component that makes the trust ‘blind’ and prevents conflicts of interest that could otherwise drag down his presidency,” Sanderson told ABC.
There are several further steps that would have to be taken, Sanderson said, including issuing orders to stop anyone in the White House from treating his former business holdings differently than any others, and enacting a “‘firewall’ policy that would prohibit him and his White House staff from discussing business matters with anyone running his former businesses and then keep his children out of any formal [or] informal adviser positions, since they would be running the business.”
The Office of Government Ethics applauded Trump’s plan to divest himself of his business ties in a series of gushing tweets.
“Divestiture resolves conflicts of interest in a way that transferring control does not,” OGE spokesman Seth Jaffe said. “We don’t know the details of their plan, but we are willing and eager to help them with it.”
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