by Jesse Goodwin, Staff Writer
On November 30, President-elect Donald Trump announced via Twitter that he would separate himself from his business operations so as to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest between his businesses and incoming administration.
“I will be holding a major news conference in New York City with my children on December 15 to discuss the fact that I will be leaving my great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country in order to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” wrote Trump.
“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.”
The president-elect’s announcement mentioned “business operations” but not ownership, suggesting that he intends to retain a financial stake in his businesses or hand over control of them to his children. He had noted before the announcement that federal conflict-of-interest requirements will not apply to him as president. “The law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” he told the New York Times in an interview one week before the announcement.
The announcement provoked a sarcastic response from the Twitter account of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, which suggested that the president-elect should resolve conflicts of interest by divesting his businesses.
“Bravo! Only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest. Good call!” the agency tweeted. “OGE is delighted that you’ve decided to divest your businesses. Right decision!”
The agency’s tweets were deleted shortly after their posting, but later reappeared for unknown reasons.
“Like everyone else, we were excited this morning to read the President-elect’s twitter feed indicating that he wants to be free of conflicts of interest,” OGE spokesman Seth Jaffe wrote in an emailed statement. “Divestiture resolves conflicts of interest in a way that transferring control does not. We don’t know the details of their plan, but we are willing and eager to help them with it.”
In a second statement, Jaffe added: “The tweets that OGE posted today were responding only to the public statement that the President-elect made on his Twitter feed about his plans regarding conflicts of interest. OGE’s tweets were not based on any information about the President-elect’s plans beyond what was shared on his Twitter feed. OGE is non-partisan and does not endorse any individual.”
The OGE has provided confidential advice on ethical decisions to past presidents, but does not usually make its advice public.
There is growing concern among legal professionals that the president-elect’s conflicts of interest will result in ethics violations.
Norman L. Eisen, a former ethics lawyer in the Obama administration, and Richard W. Painter, an ethics lawyer in the Bush administration, agree with the OGE’s suggestion that he should end them by divesting his businesses.
“Although it is, of course, important that he have no involvement in Trump business operations, in order to avoid conflicts, he must also exit the ownership of his businesses through using a blind trust or equivalent.
Otherwise, he will have a personal financial interest in his businesses that will sometimes conflict with the public interest, and constantly raise questions,” Eisen and Painter wrote in a joint statement to the Times.