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Former White House Ethics Lawyers Parse Trump News Conference

Jan 12, 2017
Originally published on January 12, 2017 7:34 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's hear a critique of President-elect Trump's plan to manage his business conflicts of interest. Now our colleague Scott Horsley reports on the plan elsewhere this morning, the details of it. Let's bring back the former White House ethics lawyers we heard from yesterday who've been talking us through the situation. Richard Painter served President George W. Bush. He's on the line from Minneapolis. Good morning, Mr. Painter.

RICHARD PAINTER: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And, of course, Norman Eisen is here again in our studios, he worked for President Obama. Thanks to you for coming by.

NORMAN EISEN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And let's hear the president-elect's basic assumption - federal ethics law excludes the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: So I could actually run my business. I could actually run my business and run government at the same time. I don't like the way that looks, but I would be able to do that if I wanted to. I'd be the only one that'd be able to do that.

INSKEEP: OK, that's true, so why shouldn't we be pleased that at least he's turning it over to his sons? Mr. Painter, you go first.

PAINTER: Well, actually it's not true. There's one specific statute that doesn't apply to the president. That's the criminal conflict of interest prohibition in 18 U.S.C. 208. But the Constitution has a conflict of interest provision called the Emoluments Clause that prohibits profits from dealings with foreign governments, and that applies to every person holding a position of trust with the United States government including the president. So right there...

INSKEEP: And I want to refine this because you've talked about this on the program before. I know you've also mentioned there are bribery statutes and other statutes that would apply. I guess what we're saying here is the ethics law requires you to do something in advance. He's not required to do something in advance, but if whatever arrangement he has goes wrong, then all these other laws apply. Is that right, Norm Eisen?

EISEN: Well, Steve, I hate to be disagreeable so early in the day...

INSKEEP: Please, go right ahead, it's fine.

EISEN: ...But no, it's much broader than that. And we mustn't fall for another one of Mr. Trump's half-truths, as there is a big body of federal ethics law starting with the Constitution. As Richard says, the Constitution prohibits the president, once he takes office on January 20, from accepting any foreign government benefit of any kind. That includes profits, as Richard pointed out, but it's much broader than that - encompasses gifts, revenues of any kind, permitting, trademarks. And then there's a whole body of federal law, so what Mr. Trump announced yesterday is totally deficient and it's based on a distorted understanding. Either he's been fed a bad understanding of the Constitution American law by his counsel or he came to it naturally.

INSKEEP: Well, let's just remind people what he is doing. He's turning over management of his company to his two adult sons along with a corporate executive. They're supposed to make decisions, they're not supposed to tell them what they're doing, but he retains ownership of the company. Obviously, this is not selling all your assets which you guys have advised, it's not a blind trust which you guys have advised. But let's listen to Sheri Dillon, this is Mr. Trump's lawyer, she spoke yesterday. We heard this earlier. Let's hear it again. She explains why selling the assets would not make sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHERI DILLON: Selling his assets without the rights to the brand would greatly diminish the value of the assets and create a fire sale. President-elect Trump should not be expected to destroy the company he built.

INSKEEP: Richard Painter, why should he be expected to do that?

PAINTER: Well, because he has chosen to run for president, and he won. And he has a job to do, which he has to do in accordance with the Constitution and the laws of the United States. And he can sell his assets, and he can make a lot of money doing that. His branding and putting his name up on buildings all over the world, of course that's going to have to stop while he is president. We don't put the president's name up on the top of a building in Nairobi or in Paris or in the, you know, in the Middle East where there could be a terrorist attack on a building because the president's name is on it. This is the type of thing that not only creates ethics problems but a strategic problem for the United States. It could endanger people's lives. He needs to focus on being president, not on just making more money.

INSKEEP: Norm Eisen...

PAINTER: He has enough money. His family has enough money. It's time to do the job he asked the American people to elect him to do.

EISEN: The argument that Ms. Dillon made is a red herring. All Painter and I - and by the way, this is bipartisan. It's been endorsed by The Wall Street Journal editorial page by their columnist Peggy Noonan, by Trump's own favorite conservative editorial morning read the New York Post, many other Republicans have endorsed it, conservatives. All we're asking Mr. Trump to do - it's very simple - sign a piece of paper, turn the properties over to a trustee to figure out what to do with them. Let the trustee have the headache while Trump does the job he was elected to do. It's hard enough already, president of the United States.

INSKEEP: Richard Painter, I want to give you the last word here. We've got about a minute left. When you look at surveys, you find overwhelming majorities of Democrats are concerned about the president-elect's ethics. Some Republicans are also concerned but many Republicans are not. And when I talk with Trump voters, they basically trust the guy. I was talking with someone who voted for Trump a couple of weeks ago who said, I don't think he's the monster people keep saying that he is. They basically trust him to try to do the right thing. So let me give you an opportunity, Richard Painter. What would you say to people who just think this guy's a businessman, he's doing the best that he can and they trust him?

PAINTER: Well, I think that a lot of that's true. He is a good businessman. And I don't think he's going to do a lot of the things he said he would do during the campaign, and that's actually going to be a very good thing for the country. But he does need to make sure that he is complying with the ethics laws and with the Constitution, and he needs to take these steps to sell his businesses. He will make a lot of money doing that. He's been very successful in business, and now it's time for him to be successful as a president. And he's not going to be able to do that...

INSKEEP: Norm Eisen, you get the last, last word.

EISEN: Poll after poll shows that a supermajority - 60, 70 percent or more of Americans - want him to divest.

INSKEEP: OK. And so now I get the last, last, last word which is simply saying thank you very much gentlemen for coming by, really appreciate it, both of you.

EISEN: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's Norm Eisen, who was the top ethics lawyer for President Obama. We also heard from Richard Painter, who was the top ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, talking about President-elect Trump's plan announced yesterday to manage his ethical concerns arising from his business interests around the world. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.