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Trump Outlines Plans To Step Back From Business Empire

Jan 12, 2017
Originally published on January 12, 2017 6:34 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Going into yesterday's press conference with Donald Trump, there were all kinds of questions about the president-elect's potential conflicts of interest. This morning, there are still questions.

Trump made the official announcement that he's handing over management of his business to his adult sons and a longtime executive. But watchdogs say that does not go far enough. And the Office of Government Ethics agrees, saying the president-elect should do more.

We're going to talk through all this now with NPR's Scott Horsley. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: This press conference was scheduled for a month ago. Then the Trump camp postponed it because they said they needed more time to come up with a plan to untangle all of these complex business interests. So what's the plan?

HORSLEY: Well, the president-elect, who's always a showman, piled up big stack of manila folders at Trump Tower yesterday. And he tried to dramatize the distance he says he's putting between himself and hundreds of Trump businesses that are spread across some 20 countries around the globe.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DONALD TRUMP: These papers are just some of the many documents that I've signed turning over complete and total control to my sons.

HORSLEY: Reporters were told, with those documents, Trump is moving his investments into a trust which will be managed by his two elder sons. And Trump says he's not even going to talk to those young men about his businesses.

MARTIN: And what about Ivanka? This is the eldest daughter of Donald Trump. She's got her own complex business interests.

HORSLEY: Right. She's taking a leave of absence from her role in the Trump Organization, as well as her namesake fashion company. You know, she has two reasons to try to minimize conflicts. Ivanka not only is the daughter of the president-elect, but she's also the wife of Jared Kushner, who just took a job this week as a senior White House adviser.

MARTIN: We also heard yesterday - it was this kind of extraordinary moment where Donald Trump stepped away from the mic and introduced a woman named Sheri Dillon, who's one of his attorneys, to get into the kind of weeds of all of this. What did she lay out?

HORSLEY: Sheri Dillon says that the Trump Organization will not do any more deals in foreign countries, and any new deals that are struck here in the United States will have to be vetted by a new ethics adviser. She says Trump wants to show the American people he's working for their benefit, not the bottom line of the Trump Organization.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SHERI DILLON: He instructed us to take all steps realistically possible to make it clear that he is not exploiting the office of the presidency for his personal benefit.

HORSLEY: And Dillon stressed that Trump is doing this voluntarily. And that's true. As the president, Trump will not be subject to the same kind of conflict-of-interest laws that, for example, his Cabinet secretaries are. One law that does apply to the president, though, is the Emoluments Clause in the Constitution, which bars officials from taking gifts from foreign governments.

Some have wondered if, for example, a foreign visitor were to rent a room at Trump's new hotel here in Washington, would that amount to an illegal gift? Dillon says, no, that's an over-reading of the Constitution. The founders didn't mean to outlaw ordinary arms-length business transactions. But as a precaution, she says, Trump will donate any profits from foreign bookings at his hotels to the U.S. Treasury.

MARTIN: All right. So they laid out a lot of different moves that Donald Trump is taking. Why aren't groups like the Office of Government Ethics satisfied with all this?

HORSLEY: Because all of these assets are still in the Trump family, and Donald Trump still knows what they are. So even if he's not exercising day-to-day control over the business, critics worry he could be making decisions as president to benefit the Trump Organization and his relatives.

What's more, they say people could try to curry favor with the president by striking sweetheart deals with the family business. In the past, other presidents have avoided this problem by putting their money into a blind trust where they don't know what assets are being held. Trump's lawyer Sheri Dillon, though, acknowledged there's nothing blind about this trust Donald Trump's setting up.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DILLON: President Trump can't un-know he owns Trump Tower, and the press will make sure that any new developments at the Trump Organization are well-publicized.

HORSLEY: And so long as that's the case, the shadow of potential conflicts will hang over the Trump White House.

MARTIN: But she is right on that score, right? He can't un-know what he owns. So what do ethics watchdogs want to see instead?

HORSLEY: The consistent recommendation from a whole array of ethics groups is that Trump should sell his assets and put the proceeds into something plain vanilla, like government bonds. The challenge, of course, is that Trump has more assets than most previous presidents have. And secondly, a big part of the value of the Trump Organization is the Trump brand itself. These aren't just hotels or golf courses. They're Trump hotels and Trump golf courses. And that's part of what guests are paying for.

So if he tried to sell the assets with the Trump name and collect royalties, for example, he wouldn't really be walling himself off from the properties and potential conflicts. If he tried to sell the assets without the Trump name, his attorney Sheri Dillon says those assets would be worth a lot less.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DILLON: Selling his assets without the rights to the brand would greatly diminish the value of the assets and create a fire sale. President-elect Trump should not be expected to destroy the company he built.

HORSLEY: Now, watchdog groups aren't terribly moved by that argument. They say Trump didn't have to run for president, but since he did, he should put the public's interest ahead of his own.

MARTIN: But Trump doesn't seem to be moved by the concerns of these ethics groups. That's not what's motivating him to make these changes.

HORSLEY: No, and you saw a similar pattern, really, with pressure from ethics groups and the media that he should release his tax returns. Polls say 60 percent of the public think he should do so. But so far, Trump has shown no signs of giving in.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks so much, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.