President-elect Donald Trump takes questions during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in New York. The news conference was his first as President-elect. (Seth Wenig/AP/CP)
NEW YORK — Breaking with presidential precedent, Donald Trump said Wednesday he will continue to profit from his global business empire after he enters the White House this month.
The Trump Organization, which will be run by the president-elect’s adult sons and a longtime company executive, will pursue new deals in the U.S. but will not enter new foreign arrangements while he is in office, his lawyer said at a news conference.
Trump will put his business assets in a trust but will hand over the management of his international real estate development, property management and licensing company based in New York, said the lawyer.
Trump and the company are taking steps to assure Americans that he is “not exploiting the office of the presidency for his personal benefit,” said Sheri Dillon of the firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius.
Yet, the arrangement, which tracks closely with plans Trump has described in recent weeks, falls short of calls by some ethics experts — and the Office of Government Ethics — for him to sell off his businesses and put the proceeds in a blind trust overseen by an independent manager.
“Firewalls work in businesses, not in families,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. “Trump’s plan doesn’t prevent his business interests from benefiting him or his family while he’s in office or interfering with his presidential duties.”
Dillon said the company will add an ethics adviser to its management team who must approve deals that could raise concerns about conflicts. And the company plans to donate money spent by foreign governments at his hotels to the U.S. Treasury, she said.
Trump himself was breezier in his comments. He said U.S. conflict-of-interest restrictions don’t apply to presidents, and “I could actually run my business and run government at the same time.”
But “I don’t like the way that looks,” he said.
“My two sons who are right here, Don and Eric, are going to be running the company. … They’re not going to discuss it with me.”
“I hope at the end of eight years, I’ll come back and say, oh, you did a good job. Otherwise, if they do a bad job, I’ll say, ‘You’re fired.”‘
The announcement, made at Trump Tower in New York during Trump’s first news conference since July, appeared to walk back a broader promise he made last month in a Fox News interview and a tweet that the company would do “no new deals” at all while he is in office.
Although presidents are not subject to the same conflict-of-interest provisions as their Cabinet members and other government employees, they have typically followed those rules as a best practice.
For example, President Jimmy Carter sold his Georgia peanut farm when he took office. Trump’s dealings are far more complex; He has struck deals involving hotels, office buildings, golf resorts and residential towers in about 20 countries.
Dillon said it was impractical for Trump to sell off the company as some have called for because it is so enmeshed with Trump himself. Trump, she said, “should not be expected to destroy the company he built.”
Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Jr. will run the company along with Allen Weisselberg, the current chief financial officer. Weisselberg began work with the Trump family when the president-elect’s father, Fred, ran the business.
The president-elect’s new hotel in the nation’s capital, not far from the White House, has been under the spotlight since he opened it late last year. There were news reports that diplomats were choosing to stay there and throw parties in an apparent attempt to curry favour.
Government ethics employees have urged Trump to take bigger steps.
Walter Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, told transition officials late last year in emails that the only effective way to ward off potential conflicts was to go through the process of “divestiture,” selling off all investments and corporate assets and then placing them in a blind trust overseen by neutral trustees approved by the agency.
In November, the agency, at Shaub’s direction, according to an internal email, tweeted that “OGE is delighted that you’ve decided to divest your businesses. Right decision!”
OGE officials did not say why they had made that assertion on social media.
Good government groups in Washington widely decried Trump’s plan as ineffective.
“His decision has created a direct path by which U.S. and foreign interests, including foreign governments, can exert influence over him through his companies or holdings,” said Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center.
Norman Eisen, who was President Barack Obama’s chief ethics counsellor when he took office in 2009, called Trump’s plan an “ill-advised course that will precipitate scandal and corruption.”
Standing aside a mound of papers prepared to separate Trump from his business, Dillon argued that he had taken significant steps at great personal sacrifice to separate himself from the business. She said he had already cancelled more than 30 deals in the works around the world.
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