Can Trump ‘build a wall’ between his presidency and his business?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today was supposed to be the day President-elect Trump held a news conference, to spell out what role, if any, he would play in the future of his business empire. He’s since postponed talking to the press about it, at least until January. Instead, today, he tweeted with a push back against all of speculation about potential conflicts of interest. He wrote, quote, “The media tries so hard to make my move to the White House, as it pertains to my business, so complex — when actually it isn’t!”

But there’s also this from one of his top aides, Kellyanne Conway. She told MSNBC this morning that there was still work to be done.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, Senior adviser, Trump transition team: Getting this right, before you announce it, is what’s important. That’s what I’ve been told by the legal experts and the other protocol experts — to make sure that the structure that’s put in place shows the complete separation, so that Donald Trump himself as the president of the United States, Steve, can focus 100 percent on being president of the United States. It’s going to take a little bit longer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, there’s new pressure today from a group of Senate Democrats, who unveiled a bill that would require Mr. Trump to divest from his businesses, and put his assets in a blind trust.

Here now to unpack those possible conflicts of interests are Marilyn Geewax. She’s senior business editor for NPR. And Richard Painter, he’s a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and he was a White House ethics adviser for President George W. Bush.
And we welcome both of you to the program.

Marilyn Geewax, let me start with you, what do we know about why this announcement is being postponed?

MARILYN GEEWAX, NPR: We know very little, other than what he tweets but one can speculate. He had said several weeks ago that he would have this press conference today, on the 15th, and on Monday, he said, never mind. I’m not really going to do that.

So, people are speculating that some think he wanted to wait until after the Electoral College votes. Others say the business is just so complicated that it’s going to take more legal work to figure out how to pull him out of it. And others just say that this is just kind of a general smokescreen, that you could say you’re going to do this, you stall for two weeks, then he says he’s going to do it, but now, he’s going to stall longer. And by the time he does get to this topic, it will be January, and we’ll be focused on the inauguration and it will seem smaller.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Richard Painter, as we just reported, Mr. Trump tweeted today. You know, it’s not complex. On the other hand, we just heard Kellyanne Conway, we’ve heard some of his other advisers say, well, there is more work to be done here to sort it all out.

RICHARD PAINTER, University of Minnesota: Well, it isn’t that complex to sell businesses, particularly if you have the advice of some of the best lawyers and investment bankers in New York. They buy and sell businesses all the time. He could have a public offering. He could find a private equity firm. Sell it to a private equity firm.

There are a number of different options. I don’t think it’s that complex, but it does need to be done correctly.
But I wish he would assure us at this point that he is going to sell off his business interests, and in particular, he needs to be in compliance with the Constitution, and the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution which prohibits payoffs from foreign governments to United States officials. They simply cannot receive payments from foreign governments. The businesses doing businesses with foreign governments, he can’t own them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Marilyn Geewax, is there agreement among ethics experts — and I know, you know, professor Painter is one of them — is there agreement about what Donald Trump needs to do?

MARILYN GEEWAX: I think there really is broad agreement. There’s — I can’t think of anybody, really, who would say, “No, it’s a great idea to keep owning hotels a couple of blocks from the White House and having people feel pressured to stay at your hotel when” — I mean, it just — it’s pretty much second grade stuff to see that there could be all sorts of conflicts of interest.

He’s going to be shaping foreign policy, and he has businesses in something like 20 countries. He literally has some position in hundreds of companies over all of these different parts of the world. It would be impossible to separate out when is someone trying to win his favor, or curry favor by boosting his business and when aren’t they? It’s really pretty obvious that you need to have a big, very high wall — if you’re going to build a wall, that’s the one you want to build — between your business and your job as president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we don’t know what he’s going to do for sure, but, Richard Painter, one of the things he said is that he wants his sons — or suggested that he wants his sons to take over the business. Would that provide a measure of separation?

RICHARD PAINTER: Well, no, particularly if he’s still going to own the businesses. In order to give them to his son, he’d have to pay the gift tax. I don’t think he likes paying taxes.

So, if he just has his sons manage the businesses, that’s not going to solve any of these problems. If the businesses taking money from the foreign governments, he’s going to be in violation of the Constitution on January 20 if he owns the businesses

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there a precedent, Richard Painter, for a president — and we know — we don’t typically have billionaires assuming the office of the presidency. But is there any precedent — what is the precedent for a — someone coming into office and figuring out some way to keep his family involved?

RICHARD PAINTER: Well, we’ve had family members of the president involved. Usually, of course, it’s the spouse. And — but the involvement is informal, and giving advice to the president about how to do his job. But running a business on the side and trying to profit from the presidency, that’s what’s inappropriate. And I do not think we have family members who are both attending official meetings and then on the other hand running a business.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this week, Marilyn Geewax, we’ve seen the children just yesterday in that meeting with technology executives. Both of his sons were there, his daughter, Ivanka, her husband, Jared Kushner. Mr. Trump has talked about bringing Ivanka and Jared Kushner into the administration.

What’s the precedent there? I mean, everybody refers back to John Kennedy and his brother Bobby as attorney general. But that was back in the 1960s.

MARILYN GEEWAX: Right. And there are rules that are supposed — ethics that have grown up in the post-Watergate era, since 1978, where you really were trying to address these kinds of problems of nepotism and conflicts of interest where Congress did spell it out. It’s pretty clear what the will of the Founding Fathers was. They didn’t want you to take money foreign governments and they didn’t want people to have conflicts of interest.

When you’re the president, you should be focused on doing only what is right for all Americans, not for your family business. But what we’ve seen this week is really an aggressive push-back to that. I mean, rather than have this press conference and talk about solving conflicts of interest, he had a meeting with a bunch of tech executives.


MARILYN GEEWAX: There were 25 people at the table and four of them were Trumps. I mean, that’s pretty aggressive on his part.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s right. And his daughter, Ivanka’s husband.

But, Richard Painter, if there is some arrangement say where Ivanka Trump was involved– obviously not the first lady. That would be Mrs. Trump. But if she is there in a semiofficial role as daughter of the president, if Jared Kushner is involved, as has been suggested, maybe advising on national security, the Middle East, and they’re not paid, could an agreement like that work?

RICHARD PAINTER: Well, I think you probably have to work out with Congress because the anti-nepotism statute, which came in after the Bobby Kennedy appointment, is quite clear about not allowing someone to appoint relatives to positions in the government. And I don’t think the fact that it’s not a paid position would — would affect that.

And I think that that he could work something out with Congress, maybe to — if he wants to maybe disclose his tax returns and do some of the other things that we care about, I would not have an objection to Jared Kushner. I mean — or other family members being given a position. They’re very talented people, and in some ways I think more talented than some of the people he’s brought in.
But you have to work it out with Congress. The statute is quite clear on nepotism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet, the first lady, Marilyn Geewax, you know, typically does play some role. The modern first lady takes on a clause. Hillary Clinton, it was health reform.

MARILYN GEEWAX: But think about the roles they took on. I mean, in Mrs. Clinton’s case, she was pushing a health care agenda. With Mrs. Obama, it was about children and obesity and nutrition. But what if, you know, if Mrs. Obama had come out with a new line of jewelry and she started selling Obama-wear, and was holding up her new bracelets, that would have seemed peculiar. I mean, I think people would have been very shocked to see, you know, a little Obama fragrance or — you know —


JUDY WOODRUFF: But we’re not — we don’t know that it’s going to happen. So —

MARILYN GEEWAX: But, I mean, it didn’t happen while they were in office. But we do know the Trumps plan to continue — it appears — to sell all sorts of products.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We will see. Marilyn Geewax, Richard Painter, thank you both.

RICHARD PAINTER: Thank you very much.