During a combative press conference Wednesday – during which the president-elect blasted BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage” for publishing an intelligence dossier alleging a “well-developed conspiracy of co-operation” between Trump and his campaign and the government of Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin – Trump finally unveiled a plan for distancing himself from the Trump Organization while in the White House.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer began the event blasting the dossier, reportedly authored by a retired Western intelligence agent, as “salacious and flat-out false information.” Trump called it “nonsense” and “fake news” but later added, referring to himself in the third person, “If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability.”
The centerpiece of the press conference was a presentation by a Trump lawyer detailing the future of the Trump Organization. During the campaign, Trump had promised the American people that his businesses would be placed in a blind trust. He’s tweeted since the election that his companies would do “no new deals” during his presidency.
Both of these vows, America learned Wednesday, are false.
Trump framed his decision to break these promises as a triumph of principle. He insisted an exemption for the president from conflict-of-interest law entitles him, legally, to trade on his stature as leader of the free world. “I could actually run my business and run government at the same time,” Trump said.
Instead, as described by his lawyer, Trump will resign his leadership posts and hand over day-to-day operation of his businesses to his sons Don Jr. and Eric. The arrangement is far from “blind”: Trump’s sons have sat in on top-level transition meetings with their father, including the tech summit the president-elect convened at Trump Tower. Trump said of his sons and his businesses Wednesday, “They’re not going to discuss it with me.” But his lawyer detailed that Trump will continue to receive topline profit-and-loss disclosures detailing the performance of the companies.
The Trump Organization will no longer conduct “new foreign deals.” (Whether that applies to only to projects abroad or also to projects financed by foreigners is yet unclear.) But contrary to Trump’s post-election promise, new “domestic deals” will go forward. Here, his lawyer said, an ethics adviser – hired and paid by the Trumps – will vet the deals “for conflicts and ethics issues.”
To address the issue of foreign governments padding the president’s bank accounts by staying in his hotels – a potential violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution – Trump’s lawyer made the strangest announcement of the day: “President-elect Trump has decided that he is going to voluntarily donate all profits from foreign government payments made to his hotel to the United States Treasury,” she said. “This way, it is the American people who will profit.” Trump’s lawyer did not detail plans for other revenue streams that could be construed as emoluments, or gifts, from foreign governments, including profits from Trump golf courses, casinos and real estate sales or leases.
Trump’s lawyer insisted – in conflict with many of the details of the plan that she had just presented – that these actions “will sever President-elect Trump’s presidency from the Trump Organization.”
Government ethics watchdogs were not impressed.
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, dismissed as “absurd” the notion that Trump has insulated himself from conflicts of interest relating to businesses he will continue to own and that will be run by his children.
“The only way for Donald Trump to avoid massive conflicts of interest is to sell his business outside the family and place the assets in a true blind trust,” Bookbinder said in a statement. Trump’s failure to “live up to the ethical standard of past presidents,” he added, will cast a long shadow over the Trump presidency: “Every decision he will make as president will be followed by the specter of doubt – and will be questioned as to whether his decision is in the best interest of the American people or the best interest of his bottom line.”
Norm Eisen, who founded CREW and now serves as a Brookings fellow, insisted that Trump’s plan falls short “in every respect” of what is required – both in terms of presidential ethics and the Constitution. “Mr. Trump’s ill-advised course,” Eisen said, “will precipitate scandal and corruption.”