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2 Ethics Lawyers Plan To Listen Closely To Trump's News Conference


The day has finally come - after postponing it once, Donald Trump will hold his first press conference today since winning the election. In fact, it'll be his first since July. Reporters are certain to ask about the allegations of incriminating evidence held by the Russian government, but those unsubstantiated claims are not the only potential conflict of interest likely to come up. So it seems like a good moment to check in again with two former White House ethics lawyers. Richard Painter served under President George W. Bush, and Norman Eisen, who worked for President Obama. Gentlemen, welcome back to the program.

NORMAN EISEN: Good morning, Rachel.

RICHARD PAINTER: Good morning.

MARTIN: Good morning. So we don't want to go into too much detail about the allegations that are being raised by this dossier. They are entirely unsubstantiated at this point, but they are out there. And Donald Trump himself is responding to them. Are you concerned about Mr. Trump's ties to Russia?

EISEN: Rachel, we're very concerned. And after Sen. Reid alerted the country at the end of October to the fact that these allegations existed, professor Painter and I wrote in our usual bipartisan fashion in Politico magazine that the tax returns that Mr. Trump has refused to release could have critical information about his ties to Russia. You know, it's very confusing because Mr. Trump says, well, I have no ties to Russia, I do no business there. And yet, his son has stated Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets, and we see a lot of money pouring in for - from Russia. The taxes have a tremendous amount of information about partnerships, about gifts, about other business dealings. And importantly to these unsubstantiated allegations, they may have business expenses which could help us substantiate some of these shocking claims that are circulating.

MARTIN: And, of course, still no word from the Trump camp as to whether or not those returns will be released. But this press conference is going to take place - we think - at this point, and there will be all kinds of questions about how Donald Trump plans to unravel this kind of spider web of potential conflicts of interest. What do you - Richard Painter, what do you need to hear from him today?

PAINTER: Well, first on the connection between anybody in his campaign and Russia, those allegations, he needs to support a investigation by the House and Senate in collaboration with the CIA and the FBI to find out who in the United States has been collaborating with the Russians to conduct espionage inside the United States on private citizens and perhaps on the United States government. That is a very important investigation that needs to happen in Congress with the CIA and the FBI. The president needs to support that and make sure that everybody cooperates because we do not need anybody who's been engaging in that type of espionage to be infiltrating the White House or any other part of our government. So that's the absolute number one priority right now. I think with respect to the president's personal finances, his disclosure of the tax returns would help enormously and have - help Americans have much more confidence in their new president. And also...

MARTIN: But that's likely not going to happen any time soon. What does he...

PAINTER: Well, that's his decision, yeah.

MARTIN: What could he say today that could give you some peace of mind?

EISEN: Five...

PAINTER: Yeah. In addition to release of the tax returns, he needs to sell the assets that he has that create conflicts of interest. And he can't be in the hotel business and bringing in foreign diplomats and foreign governments booking the hotel. He's got to get rid of the hotels, the branding where he has his name on hotels and office buildings all over the world. And that could be potential...

MARTIN: Donald Trump has said this is very difficult, Norman Eisen, real estate can't just be liquidated and all slung into a blind trust

EISEN: Rachel, like many things Donald Trump says, that's just not true. It's simple for Donald Trump. All he needs to do is affix his signature to an irrevocable power of attorney, set up a trust, get a trustee who's going to have all those complexities and worries. And Donald Trump needs to, number one, as Richard says, give up ownership, not just operations. Number two, he's got to set up that true blind trust as every president has done for the past four decades or the equivalent. Number three, we want to see that independent trustee. Number four, he's got to assure us in particular that he's not going to get unconstitutional payments from foreign governments and other benefits as he's getting today - violates the Constitution. And number five, we must have in addition - this is no substitute, but in addition - we need to have a strong ethics wall separating the business and the government. And professor Painter and I wrote yesterday in Politico laying out those five criteria in detail.

MARTIN: Richard Painter, what do you make of Donald Trump's announcement that he intends to install his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a senior White House adviser? Do you see any problem with that?

PAINTER: Well, there's a debate about whether that is not permitted under the anti-nepotism statue, and there's room for reasonable people to disagree on that. My initial reaction was that the anti-nepotism statute prohibited it. And many experts believe it does prohibit it, but there are those who agree with the Trump administration - the incoming Trump administration - that that is permitted. The president has a right to make the appointments he wants in the White House to the White House staff. What's critically important is that Mr. Kushner comply with the same ethics rules that everybody else needs to comply with, that he file a form 278 financial disclosure as the senior White House staff do, that he divest from assets that create conflicts of interest or recuse from matters in which he has a financial conflict. For example...

MARTIN: Which he says he is - he's doing.

PAINTER: Well, I think he - they need to be very careful about this and make sure, for example, if he's in the real estate business with large bank loans, he shouldn't be getting involved in the proposed deregulation of the banks. I mean, that's all about real estate lending, an awful lot of it. And we know what we got in 2008 because of excessive real estate lending. Another area is if Ivanka, his wife, is going to be importing clothing from outside the United States and selling it here, that's going to shut him out of international trade issues. A lot...

MARTIN: Lots of questions to be discussed in the days and weeks ahead. We will have both of you back to do that. Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, White House lawyers under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, thanks to you both.

PAINTER: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.