Conflict Of Interest Possibilities Attract Watchful Eyes To Trump's Dealings
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President-elect Donald Trump shifted positions on several issues yesterday. But in a talk with The New York Times, he avoided placing many limits on his opportunity to profit while in office.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The president-elect, who has worldwide business interests, admits that he, quote, "might have requested a business favor from visiting British politicians." His staff had previously denied that.
INSKEEP: His staff also denied that Trump sought a business favor when talking with Argentina's president, but his daughter Ivanka - a vice president of his company - joined that call.
GREENE: Ivanka Trump also joined Trump's meeting with Japan's prime minister.
INSKEEP: Two ethics lawyers - one Democrat, one Republican - now want Trump to do as other presidents have done. He can put his assets in a blind trust, where they will be sold. Richard Painter was President Bush's top ethics lawyer, Norman Eisen was President Obama's. They say federal ethics laws do not apply to the president but other laws do.
Richard Painter, can we be specific here? What is the problem if Donald Trump has real estate interests in various countries and continues tending to them even as he's talking to foreign leaders?
RICHARD PAINTER: Well, the problem is that when you mix discussion of official United States government business with discussion of your personal business, you can tread dangerously close to the bribery statutes. And those statutes obviously apply to the president, along with everyone else. And that is not where you want to go.
INSKEEP: Is it - is the danger that someone in the Philippines or in Argentina or in Britain or name your country will do a business favor for the new president hoping that it might influence U.S. policy?
PAINTER: Here is where you get into the danger zone, when the government official starts talking about U.S. government business and then also talking about what personal business favors they might want. And when the conversation goes down that road, it does risk crossing the line into solicitation of a bribe. And people need to be very careful about these types of conversations, whether it's I don't like those windmills close to my golf courses or whatever it is. Those conversations should never take place at the same time as we're discussing United States government business and what the - someone else might want from the U.S. government.
INSKEEP: Norman Eisen, let's spin that out. The New York Times has one of the reports of this kind of activity. A participant in a meeting that included the president-elect said on the record the president-elect asked a British politician and his entourage to help lobby against the construction of wind turbines - windmills that would disrupt the view near one of Donald Trump's golf courses in Scotland. What's wrong with that?
NORMAN EISEN: Well, once you get into this dialogue of asking for a quid, how long will it be before the other side offers a quo? As soon as he takes office, there's also going to be a constitutional issue under the Emoluments Clause or the no-foreign-gifts-or-bribe clause of the Constitution, which...
INSKEEP: What's it say?
EISEN: Well, it says that presidents and other federal officials are not allowed to accept presents from foreign sovereigns. There's already reports, for example, that the Trump Hotel here in Washington, D.C. is inviting representatives of foreign embassies to come and do deals with them to the extent they include presents, which is customary as part of these deals. That is a violation of the Constitution. And now we're not only on criminal territory, we're actually moving towards impeachment territory if a president violates the Constitution.
Why would we even want to be talking about this? Mr. Trump ought to do the right thing and set up a true blind trust and build a big beautiful ethics wall where Mr. Trump and his managers agree not to talk business in meetings with foreign leaders.
INSKEEP: Well, let me understand this because the Trump campaign has said, don't worry about it, Trump's kids are going to run his businesses. Isn't that good enough?
EISEN: It is far from good enough. Every president has utilized the blind trust or its equivalent to reassure the American people that those presidents' actions are motivated by the public interest, not their own personal special interests. So it's not good enough.
PAINTER: And imagine where we'd be today if President Franklin Roosevelt had owned apartment buildings in Frankfurt and Berlin. You know, some of us might be speaking German. I mean, it is very important.
INSKEEP: Oh, you're saying (laughter) - you're saying what if the American president during World War II had had a financial stake in the future of Germany? Wouldn't be good.
PAINTER: Well, yes, as many prominent American businessmen did. And those people who did often supported the America First movement and didn't want us to stand up to Hitler. Are we going to be in a situation where we swap out the security of Israel so we can get a casino or a hotel in Abu Dhabi? I mean, this - the scenarios go on and on.
INSKEEP: Let's talk about enforcement. You noted that the Ethics in Government Act doesn't apply to the president. It has been voluntarily subscribed to by previous presidents. But let's talk about actual violations of law. If the president were to commit a constitutional offense as you described, that would be up to Congress to impeach and remove him, is that right?
INSKEEP: What are the odds of that with a Republican Congress?
PAINTER: I would not put it beyond Republicans to turn on a Republican president if there is a violation of the Emoluments Clause. And furthermore, it's not just Mr. Trump, it's the people working for him, The White House, elsewhere in the administration. And then if he holds on to the Trump Organization, people working over there. And that's where you can find the corruption.
And this is what happened with Watergate. I don't believe President Nixon ordered a break-in, but people working for him were doing it. And then that dragged the president in. And then you have the cover-up. And before you know it, the president's gone.
INSKEEP: Why wouldn't the president-elect respond to your concerns the same way that he responded to demands for his tax returns, just by declining to comply?
EISEN: Well, he'll have an interval of goodwill. He'll have a honeymoon period. And he may very well choose to decline. But just wait for that first scandal, that first impropriety to hit. The political pressure will become so intense that he's going to be forced to do something.
And he has shown some sensitivity to public opinion. And one would hope that the publicity would lead him to say, OK, I'm going to do the right thing. He did commit to draining the swamp. Why not start with your own bathtub?
INSKEEP: Norman Eisen was the top ethics adviser to President Obama. Richard Painter was the top ethics adviser to President George W. Bush. Thanks to you both.
PAINTER: Thank you.
EISEN: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.