Five ways Trump could address his business conflicts

Five ways Trump could address his business conflicts
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President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpUS, South Korea can bury the trade barrier hatchet this week OPINION: Trump's right — GOP health bill is mean, mean, mean Pelosi on criticism of leadership: 'This is such a small item, it isn't about me' MORE is pledging to take steps to separate himself from his business in order to focus on running the country.

Federal law exempts presidents from conflict-of-interest rules that apply to other government employees, but Trump has come under intense pressure to follow the longstanding tradition of presidents walling themselves off from their financial dealings.

Critics warn his apparent plan to let his adult children take control isn’t enough to erase the ethical entanglements created by his global empire.

Here are five ways Trump could eliminate the conflicts completely or lower the risk surrounding them, according to legal experts.

Sell all holdings, place in blind trust

Most ethics experts say the only surefire way for Trump to remove the possibility of conflicts is to divest himself of his business holdings.

For the past five decades, presidents have used blind trusts to complete the process. Trump would have to liquidate his portfolio, including a host of buildings worldwide, and then appoint an independent trustee to manage his assets.

The Office of Government Ethics made clear its stance on the issue earlier this week, where in a string of seemingly sarcastic tweets, it hailed Trump for doing just that.

“Bravo! Only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest,” read one tweet.

But Trump has made no promise to divest, and has suggested he is not considering that option. Trump’s business arrangements are vastly more complex than that of any previous White House occupant. And Trump himself has said the unloading his assets, including buildings worldwide bearing his name, would be difficult.

“Suggestions that President-elect Donald Trump put his business holdings in a ‘blind trust’ to avoid potential conflicts of interest are unrealistic and unfair,” David Rivkin and Lee Casey, two Republican ethics lawyers, recently wrote in The Washington Post.

Bar foreign governments from utilizing Trump properties

There are smaller steps Trump could take to address some of the biggest conflicts posed by his business empire.

One of the trickiest problems facing Trump is the murky relationship he is about to enter into with foreign governments. Before the election, Trump could encourage foreign governments and officials to use his properties. But as president, he could be in violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause.

That clause, aimed at curbing corruption, states that “no person holding any office of profit or trust under them shall, without the consent of the congress, accept of any present, emolument, office or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”

In other words, Trump can’t do private business with foreign governments while conducting government business as president.

The issue is popping up even before Trump takes office, as foreign diplomats have pumped funds into his new luxury hotel in downtown Washington for events.

Even if Trump steps away from operating his business, experts warn he will still face these issues so long as he keeps an ownership stake in its operations.

“The problem does not go away if he still owns the company that gets the money,” said Richard Painter, who served as chief ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush. 

Taking his name off buildings and preventing future licensing deals

One of the most significant ways Trump has built his brand and wealth is not by building his own properties, but by lending his name to developments in exchange for a hefty fee.

For example, there were 17 buildings with Trump’s name on them in New York City as of 2015. But only five of those buildings were actually owned by Trump, according to Forbes.

But ethics experts warn that the idea of the president of the United States licensing his own name for personal profit to private businesses presents such an apparent conflict that the practice should come to a halt.

“Obama would have been impeached in two weeks if he had started this while in the White House.  Trump needs to stop it for the next four years,” Painter said.

Trump could even go a step further and remove his name from existing properties, although that’s a tricky proposition given that his name is apparently appealing enough to businesses that they are willing to rent it for millions of dollars.

Still, properties might have an interest in losing the Trump name for security reasons, as it could make them an enticing target for a terrorist organization.

Keep businesses at arm's length

New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin made a novel recommendation to Trump: hire an independent “corporate monitor” to track possible business conflicts.

It’s a middle-ground solution. It would allow Trump to show he’s taking his conflict problem seriously without selling his companies or placing them in a blind trust.

Under Sorkin’s plan, the “monitor” would have unfettered access to Trump’s businesses and provide public reports on any troublesome situations that arise. He even floated a candidate: Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who oversaw the 9/11 victims compensation fund and monitored executive compensation under TARP.

The Economist proposed a restructuring of the Trump Organization in order to take key decisions out of the hands of him and his family.

The changes include appointing an independent board and CEO, disclosing its accounts and refraining from new purchases and foreign investments.

But skeptics dismiss those types of arrangements as toothless.

“Every prior president going back to [Lyndon] Johnson put their holdings in a blind trust and I don’t see a lot of sense in finding a cute way around this,” said Dean Baker, co-founder of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“He knows what assets he holds, and it’s hard to see how he’ll put that out of his head,” Baker added.

Give up D.C. hotel

Even if he doesn’t sell off all his properties, Trump may still have to part with one of his crown jewels: his newly opened hotel in Washington.

The Trump International Hotel is located inside the government-owned Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Ave., less than a mile from the White House.

The General Services Administration (GSA) awarded the Trump Organization a 60-year lease to redevelop the property into a hotel. But a clause in the contract says no “elected official of the government of the United States” can benefit from the lease.

Steven Schooner, a government procurement expert, said Trump would be in violation of the lease the minute he takes office. He says the government should “immediately end the hotel lease relationship.”

“The lease — in which Donald Trump would, in effect, be both landlord and tenant — now presents unprecedented and intolerable conflicts of interest,” he wrote this week in Government Executive.

It’s not yet clear if such a separation will take place. The GSA said in a statement this week it “plans to coordinate with the president-elect’s team to address any issues that may be related to the Old Post Office building.”