President-Elect Donald Trump announced on Wednesday that he will give control of his business empire to two of his adult sons, and put other assets in a trust, in a bid to ward off criticism about possible conflicts of interest when he enters the Oval Office as President later this month.
In his first formal news conference since July, Mr. Trump said current laws don’t require him to make any changes at all in his business organization, but that he will do it to ensure against ethics questions.
Trump told reporters that he had just rejected a $2 billion deal in Dubai in recent days.
“I didn’t have to turn it down, because as you know, I have a no-conflict situation because I am President,” Mr. Trump said.
On that point, Mr. Trump is correct, as the Congress specifically exempted the President and Vice President from some of those conflict of interest restrictions.
“I could actually run my business and run government at the same time,” Mr. Trump said.
“I don’t like the way that looks, but I would be able to do that if I wanted,” the President-Elect added.
Under the plan set out today, sons Donald Jr. and Eric will run the Trump Organization, along with a top official of that company; the Trump Organization would not be allowed to do any new deals overseas, while domestic actions would need an ethics review.
As for Trump’s daughter Ivanka, she said on Wednesday that she would be taking a leave of absence from the Trump Organization as well.
At Mr. Trump’s news conference, Trump lawyer Shari Dillon laid out the basics of the changes, saying the plan is for the President-Elect to give up control of the Trump Organization by Inauguration Day, and then isolate himself from the business operations.
The lawyer told reporters that the company will do no new foreign deals while Mr. Trump is in office – but can pursue domestic ones, and says that the Trump Organization will appoint an ethics adviser to its management team who must approve deals that could raise any concerns about conflicts.
Asked why Mr. Trump was not divesting his assets, Dillon said “President-elect Trump should not be expected to destroy the company that he built,” as she rejected what she described as a “fire sale.”
One other plan announced by Trump’s lawyers is that when it comes to foreign governments spending money on his hotels – that money will be donated by Trump hotels to the U.S. Treasury.
As one might expect, the Trump move did not pass muster with some ethics groups in Washington.
“The American public must now demand complete transparency of the Trump Organization and President-elect Trump’s finances,” said the group Common Cause.
“By refusing to divest, Trump is breaking decades of precedent, just as he did with his refusal to release his tax returns,” said Noah Bookbinder, the head of the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“Today was his first test as president. He failed,” Bookbinder said in a statement.
Democrats in Congress swiftly mocked Trump’s announcement as well.
“Trump is not truly divesting,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), who said “full divestment would be selling his businesses and putting the proceeds in a blind trust.”
Other groups though had praise for the Trump move.
“While there is no off-the-shelf ethics plan for a matter as complex and unprecedented as this, Mr. Trump seems to be on the right track,” said Tom Fitton, the head of the watchdog group Judicial Watch.