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Experts still see plenty of potential conflict in Trump's plan to separate himself from his empire

Donald TrumpSpencer Platt/Getty ImagesDonald Trump.

Ethics experts were voiceful in their disapproval of the plan President-elect Donald Trump unveiled during his Wednesday Trump Tower press conference to separate himself from his business empire, saying that the proposal still left the door open to massive conflicts of interest.

“Tragically, the Trump plan to deal with his business conflicts announced today falls short in every respect,” Norman Eisen, former Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform in President Barack Obama’s administration, according to the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza.

Trump’s lawyer, Sheri Dillon, helped lay out the plan during the Wednesday press conference, which featured a row of tan manila envelopes filled with papers related to the Trump transition’s attempt at addressing the conflicts-of-interest.

“All of Mr. Trump’s investments in the Trump Organisation have been, or will be, conveyed to a trust prior to” Inauguration Day next week, Dillon told reporters at the midtown Manhattan press conference.

Trump will relinquish leadership and management of the Trump Organisation to his eldest sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, in addition to another longtime organisation employee.

Dillon said conflicts of interest laws, like Section 18 US Code 208, are “simply inapplicable” to the president, and that taking steps to place the president-elect’s holdings into a blind trust, a financial arrangement in which a person gives control of his business interests to an independent arbiters to prevent conflicts of interest, would “only exacerbate” such conflicts.

“The Trump name is core to the Trump brand, and if Trump sold his assets, he would be entitled to royalties for the use of it,” she said, later adding, “Whatever price would be paid would be subject to scrutiny” regarding whether it was inflated to receive favourable treatment from the president. As she termed it, “pay to play.”

And because the Trump name is so intertwined with the brand, selling the assets without rights to the brand would “lower the value of the assets and create a fire-sale,” she said.

“You cannot have a totally blind trust with operating businesses,” she added, “Trump can’t un-know he owns Trump Tower.”

“The president-elect should not be expected to destroy the company he built,” she later said.

Dillon also claimed that the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution — oft cited by ethics experts and Democrats as the constitutional provision legal binding Trump to divest from his businesses — was being inaccurately viewed by many.

“These people are wrong, that is not what the constitution says,” she said.

Promising that Trump would donate all of the profits, although not noting all revenue, generated at his hotels from members of foreign governments to the US Treasury, Dillon said that the clause, which prohibits the president from accepting gifts from foreign governments without congressional approval, would not apply to something such as a foreign government official paying to stay at a Trump hotel.

“It’s never been interpreted to mean fair-value exchanges. … No one would have thought that paying your hotel bill ws an emolument,” she said. “Instead, it would have been thought of as a fair-value exchange, not a gift or an emolument.”

In an interview with MSNBC, Eisen said the proposal will still “precipitate an ethics and constitutional crisis from the day he’s sworn in.”

In Lizza’s post, Eisen said:

“Mr. Trump did not make a clean break with his business ownership interests as his predecessors for four decades have done; did not establish a blind trust or the equivalent as bipartisan experts and OGE called for; entrusted trust responsibility in his family and a current employee, rather than in an independent trustee; did not screen all ’emoluments … of any kind whatever,’ as required by the constitution, but only some revenues, and only from his hotels; and offered an inadequate and scantily-detailed ethics wall.

Mr. Trump’s ill-advised course will precipitate scandal and corruption. I and many others will respond strongly in defence of ethics and our constitution.”

Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the “only” option for Trump to avoid the “massive conflicts of interest” posed by his billions in holdings is to sell the business outside of his family “where he will not have any way of knowing or influencing how the assets are allocated.”

“By refusing to divest, Trump is breaking decades of precedent, just as he did with his refusal to release his tax returns,” he said in a statement.

Speaking on the potential conflicts, Trump argued, if he wanted, he could’ve run his business and served as president simultaneously.

“I have a no conflict situation because I’m president,” Trump said, echoing infamous sentiment from President Richard Nixon. “Now I didn’t know about that until about three months ago and that’s a nice thing to have. But I don’t want to take advantage of that.”

He added that his tax returns, which would help to better outline what his potential conflicts of interest are, will not be released because they are “still under audit,” which he claimed they had been since early on in the presidential cycle.

“I’m not releasing the tax returns,” he said, insisting only the media cares about the topic. “I won, I mean I became president. I don’t think [voters] care at all.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, called on Congress to obtain “all corporate and legal documents relating to the President-elect’s global entanglements and business dealings,” including his tax returns.

“In nine days, President-elect Trump risks violating the United States Constitution and threatening the credibility of our democracy by refusing to follow in the footsteps of every modern American president,” he said. “President-Elect Trump has chosen not to divest his ownership interests, not to liquidate all of his business assets, and not to place the proceeds in a truly blind trust run by an independent entity, which is the opposite of what was recommended by Republican and Democratic ethics experts.”

John Wonderlich, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, said the announcement today enforced the idea that Trump is “putting his business interests ahead of the interests of the country.”

“Trump’s plan leaves the Presidency vulnerable to self-dealing, constitutional crisis, the appearance of corruption, and other abuses of power,” he said in a statement. “Trump’s approach to governance and ethics repudiates decades of accepted norms for modern democratic accountability.”

“Trump’s trust is not blind,” he continued. “His brand will conflict with his presidency. His taxes remain secret, despite decades of precedent. The Trump Presidency will be mired in litigation, doubt, scandal, and crisis. Congress needs to act. The press corps needs public support as we all prepare for an unprecedented conflict between private interests and the office of the American President.”

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