Not Going Away

Published: January 18, 2017

By Jim Lichtman
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While President-elect Donald Trump announced that his sons will run his company but make no new foreign deals, problems already exist.


“At the Wednesday press conference where Mr. Trump described the company’s new structure,” The Wall Street Journal writes (Jan. 14), “he also said he had turned down $2 billion in property deals in Dubai to avoid any possible ethics issue. Dubai investor Hussain Sajwani confirmed he made those offers and that they were declined. But his company and the Trump Organization are still developing two golf courses in Dubai, one of which is set to open to the public by next month.

“Mr. Sajwani is among several Asian and Middle Eastern partners of the Trump Organization who have faced government investigations or been sanctioned for corruption, stock fraud or tax evasion. Such troubles among business partners could prove tricky for a Trump administration’s relationship with those governments.

“ ‘The notion that there won’t be new deals doesn’t solve the problem of all the existing deals and businesses,’ Walter Shaub, director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, said in a speech on Wednesday.

“Problems among some of the Trump Organization’s partners include a tax probe in Indonesia, a conviction for stock manipulation in Malaysia, and Mr. Sajwani’s sentence—later overturned as Egypt’s political situation shifted—for an allegedly corrupt land deal there.

“Mr. Trump,” The Journal continues, “announced this week that his business would be run by his sons and a company executive and that he would have no contact with it under terms of a private trust. Many government ethics experts called on Mr. Trump to sell his assets or put them in a federally approved blind trust overseen by the ethics office, but he has declined to do so and isn’t required to by law.

“Matthew Sanderson, who served as political-campaign attorney for John McCain, Rand Paul and Rick Perry, said ‘What you worry about is this becoming a shadow State Department.  You now have these people abroad and who knows what they are saying? They can be holding themselves out as being able to access Trump, able to speak on his behalf since they have this business relationship. You have a lot of risk that would flow through those people.’ ”

Further clouding this issue is the fact that Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub is, himself, in the hot seat for calling out Trump for not disentangling himself from his world-wide business interests before assuming office. Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz has called for director Shaub to meet in his office.

While Shaub had originally applauded Mr. Trump’s plans at divestiture of his assets in several tweets, the final plan that Trump announced was vastly different than what OGE or the public presumed Trump to be doing.

Ethicists Richard Painter and Norman Eisen addressed the issue.

“The latest front,” the two write (Jan. 16), “involves the Office of Government Ethics and its director, Walter Shaub, Jr., who has had the temerity to speak up against Trump’s plan to deal with his conflicts of interest as ‘meaningless.’

“Both of us, former ethics counsels for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively, have worked with Shaub, a career public servant who, in our experience, provided nonpartisan and wise advice. Now, Shaub is being pilloried — and may be at risk of losing his job — for doing just that, and asserting correctly that Trump’s approach ‘doesn’t meet the standards . . . that every president in the last four decades has met.’

“How does the Trump plan fall short? The president-elect asserted that the conflicts laws don’t apply to him but ignored the most fundamental one of all: the constitutional rule that presidents may not accept cash and other benefits — ‘emoluments’ — from foreign governments.

“Trump’s lawyer then offered a porous and insufficient plan to address this problem: The Trump Organization will donate profits from foreign governments’ use of his hotels. But why only hotels? What about foreign sovereign payments to buy his condos or apartments, for use of his office buildings or his golf courses, not to mention his massive foreign government bank loans, and other benefits? And why only profits, when the Justice Department has long held that the emoluments clause covers any revenue from foreign governments — not simply profits?”

This is not a partisan issue. This is an ethical issue. However, Rep. Chaffetz is now making it a political issue.

In addressing the attacks by Rep. Chaffetz and incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Eisen and Painter write, “Priebus also attacked Shaub’s competence, and so his livelihood, questioning ‘what this person at Government Ethics, what sort of standing he has any more in giving these opinions.’

Eisen and Painter point out, “the director is a dedicated and talented ethicist who has served Democratic and Republican presidents alike with distinction and without controversy for many years. He has already approved 54 percent [emphasis added] of the Trump nominees who have submitted their paperwork to OGE, compared with just 29 percent at this point in the Obama transition eight years ago. If the White House chief of staff had made these kinds of threats against the head of OGE when we were serving in the White House, we would have resigned immediately.”

Painter and Eisen then offer a more practical approach to the issue.

“How about Chaffetz instead publicly affirm the need for the agency and invite Shaub to have a public conversation about that and about Trump’s conflicts with both the majority and minority members of the committee? We are sure that Shaub would accept such an offer and explain to the committee and the public why his concerns about the president-elect’s plan are well founded.”

As the Republican nominee, Mr. Trump has known about this issue for months. If he does not step in and take the advice of ethics experts, this issue will continue to hang over his entire administration, and, if and when it turns legal – as with the emoluments clause – it won’t be the fault of the media, partisan Democrats or anyone else. The cause will rest squarely on Mr. Trump.


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