Ethics Expert: Trump's Efforts To Address Conflicts Are 'Baby Steps'

Jan 2, 2017
Originally published on January 2, 2017 5:47 pm

As Donald Trump prepares to become president, he's promising to explain how he'll deal with the many conflicts of interest posed by his businesses and charitable foundation, even as he insists they pose "no big deal."

But short of selling his properties and putting the proceeds in a blind trust, it's not clear that Trump can completely resolve the controversies over his many businesses.

"There's a uniform consensus among everyone who does government ethics for a living ... those who are still in government and those who have left government, that Donald Trump must divest," says Norm Eisen, former ethics adviser to President Obama, and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "He's got to sell his holdings, through using a blind trust or the equivalent of it, as every president has done for 40 years."

Since his election, Trump has settled some outstanding legal disputes, including lawsuits over Trump University and unionization drives at hotels in Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.

Trump's efforts to put these issues behind him suggest he recognizes that he and his family face serious conflicts of interest, Eisen says.

"That being said, [Trump's actions] are not enough. They are baby steps, when what we need is a giant leap," Eisen says.

Trump says he will hold a press conference soon to explain his plans for his extensive network of businesses, but hasn't said when it will take place.

An earlier press conference to address the issue was canceled in December. His transition team cited the complexity of Trump's businesses and said he needed more time to decide what to do.

But Trump himself suggested to reporters in Palm Beach last week that addressing the conflicts was a simple matter and said his businesses are "no big deal."

"When I ran, people knew I have a very big business. So, I mean, they elected me at least partially for that reason. So I think that's going to work out very easily. It's actually a very simple situation," he said.

One issue that Trump appears eager to put behind him involves his charity, the Trump Foundation.

Trump has been accused of using money from the charity, most of which was donated by other people, to pay expenses related to his businesses. The foundation has acknowledged "self-dealing" on its tax returns, although it's unclear what specific violations took place.

Trump announced on Christmas Eve that he would shutter the foundation, a move that makes sense, says former IRS official Philip Hackney, associate professor of law at Louisiana State University.

"It begins to eliminate a minor conflict. I really think the Trump Organization is a much more significant conflict than the Trump Foundation was ever close to being," Hackney says.

But the New York Attorney-General's office, which is investigating the charity, quickly scotched the idea of shutting it down prematurely.

Closing the foundation too soon could complicate the investigation, Eisen says.

"We don't want any information to disappear into the ether when the charity closes. That's a particular problem for Donald Trump because he has a propensity for secrecy," he says.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the U.S., there are still a lot of questions about how Donald Trump will handle his charitable foundation and private business as President. Trump has settled some of the legal problems he faces, such as the lawsuits over Trump University, but there are a number of issues the president-elect still has to deal with.

In a moment, we'll hear about one potential conflict with Trump's business interests in Indonesia. But first, here's NPR's Jim Zarroli.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Last week, Trump brushed aside questions about the conflicts of interest his various businesses pose. Standing alongside boxing promoter Don King in Palm Beach, he told reporters it was no big deal what he does with his companies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: When I ran, people know I have a very big business. So I mean they didn't elect - they elected me I guess partially for that reason.

ZARROLI: But there are signs Trump is taking these issues seriously. He settled a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over unionizing two hotels. After saying he'd never do so, Trump also settled a suit by disgruntled customers of Trump University. Norm Eisen, former ethics adviser to President Obama, says these are positive moves.

NORM EISEN: All of these are steps forward, and I think we should do everything we can to try to encourage him to go the rest of the way.

ZARROLI: Among the unresolved questions Trump faces is what will happen to his family charity. Trump has been accused of using funds from the Trump Foundation to make illegal political contributions and pay off expenses tied to his businesses. Former IRS official Philip Hackney says Trump probably needs to shut down the foundation.

PHILIP HACKNEY: It's kind of a legal nightmare to try and handle that organization. From my perspective, it makes a lot of legal sense to just close this thing down. I think politically, too, it makes it easier as well.

ZARROLI: In fact, on Christmas Eve, Trump announced he does want to shutter the foundation, but the New York attorney general says it has to stay open until its investigation is complete. Norm Eisen says that makes sense.

EISEN: We don't want any information to disappear into the ether when the charity closes. That's a particular problem with Donald Trump because he has a propensity for secrecy.

ZARROLI: As he settles into his enormous new job, Trump will be under growing pressure to settle the case which is likely to result in a fine at most. But it's the businesses, not the foundation, that caused the most concern. Again, Philip Hackney...

HACKNEY: It begins to eliminate a minor conflict. I really think the Trump Organization is a much more significant conflict than the Trump Foundation ever was close to being.

ZARROLI: Trump has businesses all over the world, and every decision he makes as president could be seen as having an impact on them. Ethics experts have called on Trump to sell off the properties and place the proceeds in a blind trust to avoid conflicts. Trump has said he doesn't want to do that. For now, he's promising to say what he will do at a press conference early this month. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.