How Trump can avoid the ethical tarpit

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BY TOM FITTON

Over the years, Judicial Watch has called out many White House conflicts of interest. We fought in court against President Bill Clinton’s taking money to pay his legal bills through a legal-defense fund. During the George W. Bush administration, we questioned the propriety of his father, President George H.W. Bush, working for Carlyle Group, an investment company that was, in effect, a major defense contractor. We also investigated and sued over the connections between another defense contractor, Halliburton, and Vice President Dick Cheney, the company’s former C.E.O. We highlighted in 2014 how Bill Clinton was getting unusually large six-figure speaking fees from foreign governments while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.

Soon, Donald J. Trump could face some very serious conflict of interest problems of his own. He acknowledged as much recently when he tweeted out plans for a “major news conference” on Thursday, since postponed, to explain how he intended to leave behind his “great business in total to fully focus on running the country.”

In a tweet on Monday, he promised without elaborating that “no new deals will be done” by his business while he is president. This sounds interesting. Americans should expect that the new president will take reasonable steps to separate his public office from his personal business.

But it would be unfair to insist that Mr. Trump destroy his business to become president. This would create a dangerous precedent that would, in effect, deter those who had succeeded in their private lives from bringing their substantial skills to the public arena.

Mr. Trump said recently that he intended to allow his family to take the helm after he assumes office. “I’ve built a very great company and it’s a big company and it’s all over the world,” Mr. Trump said, adding, “I don’t care about my company. It doesn’t matter. My kids run it.” But of course it does matter; otherwise, he would liquidate his businesses, put the proceeds in a blind trust, send the kids out to find new jobs, and be done with the issue.

Given the potential for conflicts, it makes sense for the American people to demand assurances that the public interest won’t be harmed by the continued operation of Trump Inc. So, what to do?

First, let’s not pretend that the Trump children will not be conflicted in running the company for their father. That is why Mr. Trump should formalize his complete separation from his company and stop working on any aspect of his business. He should draw no pay. And, difficult as it may be, he should vow not to discuss any aspect of the Trump business empire with his children — or any other Trump executive.

Mr. Trump and those at the company’s helm should commit to full transparency by making public any contracts with any federal agency, foreign government or foreign corporation. Our nation’s enemies, and some of our friends, will seek to either curry favor with or damage America through the Trump businesses. By providing full transparency, Mr. Trump and his family can show that they take seriously that, as Mr. Trump has tweeted, it is “visually important, as president, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses.”

It would be in the company’s best interest to set up an internal watchdog to help develop procedures that could help avoid conflicts.

Judicial Watch has already analyzed a number of current foreign entanglements that will require Mr. Trump and his family to demonstrate thorough transparency:

In China, a frequent Trump target on the campaign trail, the government-controlled Bank of China is part of a group that lent a Trump-affiliated office building in Manhattan $950 million. In India, Trump business partners are building luxury apartment complexes. Three Indian developers flew to New York recently and met with the president-elect. And in Germany, troubled Deutsche Bank has been involved in $3.5 billion in loans to Trump entities since 1998.

These connections would create more than enough controversy for most administrations. So it would be a good practice for the Trump progeny to avoid any new foreign entanglements. The Constitution’s Emoluments Clause bars the president from earning any compensation from a foreign government. Mr. Trump ought to consider a partial disinvestment from his company by either selling outright or rejecting the proceeds of any stakes with foreign government partners.

He should refuse any third party contributions to his personal foundation.

Above all, the Trump administration should be completely transparent on any government dealings with the Trump empire.

His refusal to release his tax returns is another issue that will dog him. The law doesn’t require Mr. Trump to release them, and he has been advised by his lawyer not to do so while he is under audit. It would obviously be good transparency and good politics to make them public. But critics should take seriously how the release of the confidential tax information could damage the company and the family.

In the best of circumstances, the Trump family business and questions about conflicts will be a burden to his presidency. There is no off-the-shelf ethics plan that would cover every possible conflict.

Judicial Watch, and the left’s planned Judicial Watch imitators, will monitor this issue. If he mishandles his devolvement from his business, he may tarnish his presidency. It would be ironic if Mr. Trump’s business success put his political and business legacy at risk.

Tom Fitton is president of Judicial Watch, a conservative nonprofit that promotes government transparency and accountability.  The NY Times originally published this editorial, which was then sent en masse to the American media.

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