Denying Conflict, Trump Family Tries to Resolve Potential Problems


December 24, 2016

WASHINGTON — Realizing that his presidency could face potentially crippling questions over conflicts of interest, Donald J. Trump and his family are rushing to resolve potential controversies — like shuttering foundations and terminating development deals — even as the president-elect publicly maintains that no legal conflicts exist.

December 24, 2016

WASHINGTON — Realizing that his presidency could face potentially crippling questions over conflicts of interest, Donald J. Trump and his family are rushing to resolve potential controversies — like shuttering foundations and terminating development deals — even as the president-elect publicly maintains that no legal conflicts exist.

Donald J. Trump and family in October at the opening ceremony at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

In recent days, the president-elect and his aides have said that he intends to distribute the assets of his personal charity and then shutter it. He has examined a plan to hire an outside monitor to oversee the Trump Organization and has terminated some international business projects.

“This is a process that my father and my family are taking incredibly seriously,” said Eric Trump, who will help oversee the Trump Organization, and who announced last week that he was terminating fund-raising for his own charity, the Eric Trump Foundation.

Even with the proposed steps, it is unclear how much the Trump family can or will unwind its ties to its business empire. No matter what, Mr. Trump will enter the White House with a maze of financial holdings unlike those of any other president in American history. Many ethics experts still say the only way Mr. Trump can eliminate his most serious conflicts is to liquidate his company, and then put the money into a blind trust — a move Mr. Trump has so far rejected as impractical and unreasonable.

The potential roles that his daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, may play in the administration are particularly vexatious. Both have business operations that could benefit from their government roles — even if they are not involved in the businesses on a day-to-day basis. Ms. Trump’s business is so tied to her name that any position she might take in the White House or informal role she might play as an adviser to her father could benefit her company, which she will still own.

And because Mr. Trump refuses to release his tax returns, the extent of his potential conflicts remains unknown.

“Yes, it would be hard to sell the business — there would be some personal discomfort,” said Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, a liberal nonprofit group that has mocked Mr. Trump’s efforts to “drain the swamp” of Washington special interests. “But he ran for president of the United States and won, so those considerations can’t be weighted very heavily.”

From left, Trump children Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric all have businesses or other activities that might stand to benefit from their father’s presidency.

The hurried effort to clean up some of the family’s potential conflicts stands in contrast to the public statements by Mr. Trump since his election that as president he would not be subject to conflict of interest laws and could eliminate most questions by turning his business operations over entirely to his children.

But in recent weeks, as public scrutiny of Mr. Trump’s global business operations has intensified, Mr. Trump, his family, their executives in New York and a team of outside lawyers have been working to eliminate many of these potential flash points — a task so complicated that Mr. Trump has delayed announcing the details.

The list of actions contemplated — with some already executed — is long, but the planned dissolving of the Donald J. Trump Foundation might be the most resonant, given the enormous controversies surrounding the nonprofit, which is under investigation by the New York attorney general.

Mr. Trump gave little thought to what to do with his business in the event of a victory on Election Day. But embarrassing reversals by his children highlighted concerns that access to the incoming administration could be for sale, and pressed the family to respond. A charity auction for coffee with Ivanka Trump, his daughter, was canceled, and Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., the president-elect’s sons, pulled out of another charity event that asked donors to give as much as $1 million in return for access to their father and a hunting expedition with his sons.

In interviews late last week, executives at the Trump Organization, advisers on the Trump transition team and members of Mr. Trump’s family said they were determined to move in the remaining days before the inauguration to clear as many of these potential conflicts as possible.

“I certainly can’t deny there is a greater desire to sort of clear the decks as much as possible to avoid distractions,” said Alan Garten, the general counsel at the Trump Organization, in an interview, pointing to the recent $25 million settlement of fraud claims against Mr. Trump’s for-profit educational program, Trump University.

Among other measures:

  • Both the Trump Organization and the Ivanka Trump brand — a line of jewelry, clothing, handbags and other items — are exploring options for an outside monitor to help oversee operations, block inappropriate contacts between the companies and the federal government, and provide independent voices for management decisions, executives involved in the efforts said. One option is a trustee who would run the business alongside Eric and his brother, Donald Jr. The Trump Organization has discussed turning to legal experts such as former Attorney General Michael Mukasey as potential trustees.
  • The Trump Organization, in some cases citing deficiencies in the work performed by some of its foreign partners or other clauses in contracts with them, is terminating pending or nearly completed hotels and apartment buildings in Brazil, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Argentina, while also forgoing other early-stage ventures in places such as India.
  • Ivanka Trump is looking at donating proceeds from a soon-to-be-published book, “Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success,” to charity.
  • A labor dispute with hundreds of workers at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas — which generated calls for a national boycott of Trump properties and protest rallies — was suddenly settled on Wednesday, with the hotel agreeing to provide pensions, health insurance, annual wage increases and other benefits that it previously refused to offer. Another agreement with employees at the just-opened Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington will allow them to organize a union.
  • The Trump Organization has shelved a planned 15-foot-tall sea wall at its oceanfront golf course in Ireland after the proposal provoked angry protests from environmentalists both in Ireland and in the United States.
  • Eric Trump said he no longer intends to participate in any meetings — business or policy-focused — organized by his father, as the president-elect prepares to move to the White House, and will not interact with him or anyone in his administration on government matters once he is in office.

“I’ll have no role in government,” he said, describing a division of “church and state” but saying he will still talk to his father about other things.

The turnaround on the labor union dispute demonstrates just how sudden the shift has been. In November, four days before Election Day, the Trump hotel filed a lawsuit in the United States Court of Appeals challenging a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that ordered his hotel in Las Vegas to recognize a labor union that workers voted for in late 2015 and to negotiate a new contract. A month later, company officials invited labor negotiators to Trump Tower for a three-day negotiation.

On Wednesday, the union ratified a deal that gives the 500 workers generous health care coverage, pensions, a guaranteed workweek and other protections, and set up a grievance system if they object to conditions. The lawsuit was also dropped, as were outstanding matters pending before the labor relations board, which will soon be under Mr. Trump’s control.

“It is everything the workers have been fighting for for over for a year,” said Bethany Khan, a spokeswoman for the Culinary Workers Union.

While the family may be removing some of the most obvious problems, critics say Mr. Trump will still know what properties his family owns and which policy decisions will benefit them, no matter how careful he is.

The portfolio of assets might influence his interactions with leaders in nations such as Turkey and the Philippines, where Mr. Trump has prominent marketing deals. In places where he has allowed the use of his family name and even his image, Mr. Trump will soon be confronting foreign policy decisions, such as how to confront human rights violations or fight terrorism.

The family, at least so far, has not announced how it will resolve other issues, such as the lease at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, which was issued by the federal government’s General Services Administration, an agency Mr. Trump will soon oversee.

Trump-owned hotels and golf courses across the globe could benefit from business sent to them by foreign governments or other corporate players seeking to try to influence Mr. Trump. Loans that help finance his companies and permits issued by local government or foreign entities — even on projects that are already built — could be perceived as special favors. Payments by foreign governments to his hotels — for diplomatic soirees or overnight stays — might violate the so-called emoluments clause of the Constitution, which prohibits gifts to federal employees from foreign government entities.

Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who has called for an investigation into Mr. Trump’s potential conflicts, said he was glad to see that the Trump family appeared to have acknowledged that the conflicts issues were real. But he said much more must be done.

“He is headed in the right direction, but he has to reach the right destination, which is to divest of everything like Democratic and Republican ethics experts have said he must do,” Mr. Cummings said. “The presidency is probably the most difficult job in the world. Why would you want almost every decision you make to be questioned? You have more than 111 companies operating in 18 countries. That is a minefield, and sadly it will take away from his credibility.”

Courtesy: NY Times