by Countable | 11.22.16
President-Elect Donald Trump will be the richest president in U.S. history (by far) when he’s inaugurated on January 20. With an estimated $3.7 billion net worth, according to Forbes, and real estate holdings and a brand that spans the globe, some are raising questions about how Trump will avoid conflicts of interest as president.
So Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) has introduced legislation that would subject Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to the same rules that apply to all other executive branch workers to avoid conflicts of interest. The bill would require all presidents and vice presidents to either put their assets into a certified blind trust or disclose any decisions they make that could affect their personal wealth to the Office of Government Ethics (OGE). In the latter case, OGE would often require the president or vice president to recuse themselves from those actions or from interacting with certain people or businesses "with whom they have a ‘covered relationship,’" according to U.S. Code.
Read more about the Presidential Accountability Act and tell your reps what you think below.
A certified blind trust is the standard method the U.S. government uses to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest between an executive branch employee’s work and his or her finances. Basically, it means that the individual passes over control of all of their assets (and, in many cases, those of their spouse and/or children) to an independent trustee who takes full control of their assets. The trustee then sells off the assets that the executive branch employee (or, in the case of this bill, the president, vice president and possibly their families) and acquires new assets that the person knows nothing about. While the president or other executive branch employee will get updates on how much their assets are worth, what is actually in the fund will be kept secret to avoid conflicts of interest.
There are two key things to know here (and we’re going to use Trump as an example to make things clearer). The independent trustee cannot be someone that Trump is related to or has a business relationship with and must be approved by OGE. And, because what’s in the trust has to be kept secret, it would be illegal for that independent trustee to publish tax returns for Trump’s blind trust once it has been created.
What would that mean for Trump? Well, as Forbes puts it: "This means the New York billionaire would have to sell prized properties like Manhattan’s Trump Tower or Palm Beach’s Mar-a-Lago, and give control of his company to a virtual stranger instead of his children."
Trump has not set up a blind trust and has instead elected to allow his children to take over his business interests while he serves as president. Trump has said that their work for his businesses won’t conflict with his work as president, but some have raised concerns (including the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board that his children are already too involved in his pre-White House work.
Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, were photographed attending a meeting between the president-elect and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week, raising questions about the line between the Trump business (represented by Ivanka) and the Trump White House. U.S. officials also raised concerns about Ivanka Trump and Kushner attending the meeting, given that neither has security clearance. An anonymous source close to the Trump family told the New York Times that Trump is simply used to having his daughter in meetings, but would have to adjust going forward.
Earlier in the week, Trump and three of his children met with some of his business partners from India at Trump Tower, according to the Huffington Post, despite his pledge to hand the business over to his children.
Reince Priebus, who will be Trump’s Chief of Staff, told CNN last Sunday that concerns about Trump mixing business with government work are "ridiculous," adding that the administration’s lawyer would ensure that Trump is complying with all ethics laws. (Though current law exempts presidents and vice presidents from having to put their assets into a certified blind trust or report potential conflicts to OGE).
"Obviously we will comply with all of those laws and we will have our White House counsel review all of these things. We will have every 'i' dotted and every 't' crossed, and I can assure the American people that there wouldn't be any wrongdoing or any sort of undue influence over any decision-making," Priebus told CNN.
Although, again, not required by law for presidents, many recent holders of the White House have used blind trusts to avoid the appearance of a conflict, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Mitt Romney also had a blind trust set up when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, that he maintained during his 2012 presidential bid, though that trust was run by his personal lawyer, raising questions about just how "blind" it really was.
But President Obama and the first lady "bucked the trend when they decided against using blind trusts," according to Forbes. Though the magazine notes that “their mix of bank accounts, treasury notes, index funds and college savings was unlikely to pose a direct conflict of interest.” Unlike Trump, the Obamas didn’t enter the White House with business holdings around the world.
Regardless of whether this law passes, all presidents and vice presidents are required to disclose information about their finances, including companies that they own and any major assets they hold. Should Congress take that one step further and require Trump, Pence and future presidents and vice presidents to move their assets into certified blind trusts or report their activities to OGE? Tell your reps what you think.
— Sarah Mimms
Photo by Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons
Written by Countable