Obama Ethics Czar on Trump’s Conflicts of Interest

Why Trump Is Wrong About His Conflicts of Interest

Ford: Say I’m Donald Trump, and I wake up tomorrow, and I want to do whatever it takes to avoid these conflicts. What would you suggest I do?

Eisen: I would suggest you set up, as every president has for the past four decades, a blind trust or the equivalent. Professor Richard Painter, the Bush ethics czar, and I have laid out a bipartisan plan that’s been endorsed by the Wall Street Journal and even by the New York Post. It’s a simple plan: Trump signs all the properties to an independent trustee, one who’d qualify under the blind-trust law. Even though he’s not bound by the law, this is how presidents have done it. He signs everything over and says, “Trustee, you manage.” The trustee would find a way to liquidate those assets as quickly as he could. He might do an IPO, an LBO, or private equity. Then the trustee would take the proceeds from those assets and put them behind a big, beautiful wall in the trust so Trump wouldn’t know what his own investments were. Or the trustee or Mr. Trump could put the money into T-bills or widely diversified mutual funds as President Obama did, because President Obama’s holdings were so simple.

Then the final thing you’d need to do if the Trump Organization managers, including his kids, were part of the IPO, the LBO, the private equity, then you’d need to put up another wall between Trump and his kids. They can talk about grandchildrens’ birthdays, but they can’t talk business. And everybody in the White House and the government needs to know you can’t talk business with a Trump Organization official. You could even have a do-not-fly list where if one of these people calls, you immediately get White House counsel on the line to determine if the ethical firewall has been breached.

It’s conceptually simple and practically complex, but we know it can be done. We know it’s a sacrifice for Mr. Trump. But we’re not asking his kids to do it. We thought about it, but we thought it was too unfair to make his kids walk away. So we’re not asking the kids to do that. We’re simply asking them to follow the blind trust and an ethics firewall so it’s fair to him and it’s fair to his kids, and most of all, so it’s fair to the country. That’s what has to come first.

Ford: One final question, then: Say I’m Donald Trump, I wake up tomorrow, and I decide to only do some of that, or do all of it but not strictly abide by it. Is impeachment the only remedy?

Eisen: No. On some of this stuff, it raises criminal issues. He could be investigated by the Justice Department and by the FBI. I think Mr. Comey has demonstrated he doesn’t given a damn what anybody thinks, so the FBI could look into this. Obviously Mr. Trump’s going to appoint the head of the Justice Department, but it would be looked at by others pending confirmation.

Then you could also have civil litigation. It’s possible that civil parties injured by an Emoluments Clause gift—competing business, individuals, or firms—could file litigation. State attorneys-general have some jurisdiction, depending on some of the conduct, say if some of it involves fraud. Mr. Trump is already involved in a tremendous number of open litigation cases and there’ll undoubtedly be more as long as he’s tied to these businesses. Those cases could provide a vehicle to ventilate some of these issues in substance.

And then of course there are the congressional remedies. If a few members of the Senate decide to vote with the Democrats, then you have the authority to open an investigation, to have a hearing, to issue congressional subpoenas, to get witnesses. And then, of course, the ultimate in congressional investigation is impeachment.

But why are we even talking about this? He could sign his stuff over to a true, independent trustee, not a family member, let the independent trustee liquidate, put the liquidated assets behind a big, beautiful, blind-trust wall, and set up another ethics firewall for your kids and other managers of the organization. That simple, four-step process would spare us all of this.

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