President-elect Donald Trump’s tweets Monday night about his plans for his business are a baby step in the right direction. But it still falls far short of the giant leap he should make, following every president for the past four decades in divesting his business interests using a blind trust or the equivalent.
Late Monday, Trump’s transition announced he was delaying a previously announced news conference set for Thursday on how he would handle his businesses. He later took to Twitter to say that he plans to pass over his businesses to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric and require that they not pursue any “new deals.”
What no “new deals” seems to mean is that Trump and his family will do no brand-new major projects. But Trump has given no indication he will end existing projects. On the contrary, he has suggested his businesses across the United States and the world will clearly continue, which means there will be many “new deals.” Complex enterprises like Trump’s require constant new negotiations, transactions and terms.
So Trump’s concept of “no new deals” is questionable. And it certainly is not enough to address the concerns about Trump’s conflicts we and many others have raised in the Washington Post and elsewhere. Continuance of the current Trump empire means it will be rife with opportunities for quid pro quos and other illegalities. Most immediately, if those businesses continue to receive foreign government payments, Trump will be in violation of the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution from his first day as president.
We are also troubled by another part of Trump’s announcement: He plans to turn management of the vast Trump businesses over to two of his sons. Placing children of officials, or “princelings” as they are sometimes called, in leadership roles of businesses is a typical conduit for corruption all over the world. If Trump maintains an ownership interest in the businesses, and his kids are running them, that is an invitation for scandal.
This is why, as we have argued before, Trump must follow the example set by the past four decades of presidents and construct a true blind trust or equivalent. Trump shouldn’t just “leave” operations of his businesses in the hands of his sons. He also must sell his interests by transferring his ownership to an independent trustee, who will sell them and reinvest the assets elsewhere in places unbeknown to the president. Or he could sell and then transfer the proceeds to the trustee, or make some other similar arrangement.
Above all, Trump’s refusal to create a blind trust – and his procrastination in providing a credible plan to solve the constitutional issues his business plans pose – is not fair to the electors who must cast ballots on Dec. 19, before Trump’s “busy times” will allow him to explain his arrangements in January. He needs to assure the electors now that his businesses will not receive payments from foreign governments. That is necessary so that both Trump and the electors can do their jobs as required under the Constitution.
Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007, is vice chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics. Norman Eisen, chief White House ethics lawyer for President Obama from 2009 to 2011, is chairman of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility.