Congressional Democrats continued their push to shine a spotlight on President-elect Donald Trump’s potential conflicts of interest, holding a forum on Wednesday to allow legal experts to explain their gripes with Trump’s business ownership.
Former legal advisors to both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush took issue with the plans Trump has so far spelled out in handling his real estate holdings, saying he could be in violation of the Constitution the day he takes office. Republican lawmakers were invited to join the forum but declined to do so.
Trump’s business dealings have come back into the spotlight following his postponement of a scheduled Dec. 15 press conference to announce exactly how he planned to transfer business operations to his children. Additionally, the Office of Government Ethics said in a letter to Congress this week that Trump would not be in compliance with its guidance for presidential behavior simply by giving his children operational control of his business while maintaining his ownership stake in the company, as he has said he would do. That letter was followed by a report from House Democrats who said a top executive at the General Services Administration told them Trump would have to sell his stake in his hotel in Washington, D.C., to avoid violating his lease with the federal government. (GSA disputed that characterization in a press release.)
Without selling off his assets and completely divesting from the company, former Bush Associate Counsel Richard Painter said he was not sure the “chief justice could even show up to give him the oath.”
Painter -- who has been critical of Trump since before the election -- said simply giving his sons managerial control of the company would not satisfy any constitutional concerns. If the president-elect gave them full ownership, Painter said it “might satisfy some of the legal issues, but the appearances would still reek to high heaven.”
The legal experts repeatedly pointed to what is known as the “Emolument Clause,” which states no U.S. government official can profit off a foreign state. Norm Eisen, a former special assistant and special counsel to Obama, said that applies to any benefit, including receiving a permit or trademark from a foreign government.
“The framers were terrified of the exact situation we are heading toward,” Eisen said.
Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, said even a blind trust would not be sufficient, as there would be nothing blind about his non-liquid assets.
“He knows what he owns,” Gillers said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, lamented the forum was not bipartisan. For his part, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the committee’s chairman, has called the dogged pursuit of the ethics issue by his colleagues across the aisle “a little ridiculous,” though he has vowed to hold Trump accountable after he is sworn in.
“This is bigger than the president-elect,” Cummings said. This is our democracy and the laws that go with it.”
On Wednesday, Trump transition officials said the president-elect will in January address how he will structure his business during his presidency. They said the GSA lease will be part of that discussion, but declined to offer further details. Presidents and vice-presidents are exempted from the conflicts of interest statutes that apply to all other federal employees, though OGE has advised since 1983 that presidents should conduct themselves as if those laws apply to them.