Trump Announces Plans to Surrender Control of His Business, But Declines Divestiture

President-elect Donald Trump and family members arrive for his press conference Wednesday. President-elect Donald Trump and family members arrive for his press conference Wednesday. Evan Vucci/AP

President-elect Donald Trump formally announced on Wednesday his plan to hand over control of his real estate business to two of his sons, but his decision not to fully divest from the company left many critical of his resolution.

At a press conference in New York, Trump said he would turn over “complete and total control” of the entire Trump Organization to his adult sons Eric and Don Jr. Trump emphasized he could have jointly run his business and the country if he so chose, as the president and vice-president are largely exempt from federal conflict of interest laws. He explained, however, that the he did not “like the way that looks” and the American people do not want presidents “getting tangled up in minutia” so he was electing to voluntarily surrender control of the company.

Trump spoke next to reams of paper he said represented the forms he signed to give control of the organization, including hundreds of entities, to his sons and Alan Weisselberg, another executive at the company. The president-elect hired the law firm Morgan, Lewis and Bockius to review his plan to make it clear he is “not exploiting the office of the presidency for personal gain,” according to Sheri Dillon, one of the firm’s partners Trump had address the media.

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Don Jr., Eric and Weisselberg will manage the trust that contains the Trump Organization “without any involvement whatsoever” from the president-elect, Dillon said. The company will not engage in any foreign deals for the duration of the Trump presidency and all domestic agreements will go through a “vigorous vetting process.” More than 30 deals have been nixed since his election, Dillon said. Trump himself, she said, would only find out about the operations of the company when he reads about them or sees them on television.

A to-be-named individual “respected” in the field of government ethics will be given a management position in the Trump Organization, which will also add a chief compliance counsel. Dillon provided a series of reasons why Trump would not divest or form a blind trust, saying it would not settle conflicts, raise questions of pay-for-play, unfairly diminish the value of the company’s assets and fail to effectively shield the president-elect from the knowledge he already has about the business.

Dillon also said the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits government employees from benefiting from foreign nations, did not apply to Trump’s business because paying for a service such as hotel accommodations does not qualify as a gift. Still, Trump vowed to deposit all profits from foreign government workers into the U.S. Treasury.

The president-elect said he will turn over control of the business before he is sworn into office. For now, however, he appears to remain involved; Trump bragged during the press conference of just days ago personally rejecting a $2 billion offer to develop properties in the United Arab Emirates. Several reports have also found Trump discussed his business dealings while speaking with foreign leaders since his election.

After initially praising Trump for divesting from his company (even though he has not done so), the Office of Government Ethics has since said in a letter to Congress “transferring operational control of a company to one’s children” does not constitute a blind trust, nor does it satisfy federal ethics laws. While statute exempts the president from those requirements, OGE Director Walter Shaub reiterated in the letter his agency’s position the president should conduct himself “as if he were bound by the financial conflict of interest laws.” OGE declined to comment on Trump’s press conference.

Trump critics were quick to pounce on the president-elect’s business arrangements as insufficient. Norm Eisen, former chief ethics counsel for President Obama, and Richard Painter, former chief ethics counsel for President George W. Bush, said in a joint statement to ThinkProgress that Trump’s plan “falls short in every respect.”

“Mr. Trump did not make a clean break with his business ownership interests as his predecessors for four decades have done” and “did not establish a blind trust or the equivalent as bipartisan experts and OGE called for,” Eisen and Painter said. “Mr. Trump’s ill-advised course will precipitate scandal and corruption.”

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, said Trump's press conference made for "decent sound bites" but fell short of actually solving the problem.

“Firewalls work in businesses, not in families," Brian said. "Trump claims he’ll only learn about his businesses from the newspapers, but it’s hard to believe that family dinner conversations will be restricted to the weather."

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Trump had done the opposite of what ethics experts recommended.

“In nine days, President-elect Trump risks violating the United States Constitution and threatening the credibility of our democracy by refusing to follow in the footsteps of every modern American president,” Cummings said.

Cummings added Congress would have to hold Trump accountable by obtaining corporate and legal documents, as well as his tax returns, to determine the extent of his “global entanglements.” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the oversight committee’s chairman, said this week he would “not shy away from diving in and having a look” at Trump’s potential conflicts. He added he was hoping to arrange a meeting with Don McGahn, who will be Trump’s White House counsel.

“I am not here to protect or be a cheerleader for the president,” Chaffetz said. 

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