Ethics watchdog criticises Trump over plan to hand over control of business empire to sons
Donald Trump said on Wednesday he had handed complete control of his business to his adult sons but stopped short of a full divestment, earning a swift rebuke from the government ethics watchdog.
Trump, the wealthiest man ever to ascend to the US presidency, has until now run the Trump Organisation whose network of hotels, golf clubs and luxury residences stretches across 20 countries but is not listed on the stock market, thus releasing no public statistics.
The 70-year-old billionaire has so far flouted recommendations that he sell off all his assets in a blind trust to avoid any suspicion of corruption or conflict of interest.
As he prepares to be sworn in as America’s 45th president in nine days, Trump still refuses to release his tax returns, claiming they are under audit, meaning relatively little is known about the extent of his interests.
“My two sons, who are right here, Don and Eric, are going to be running the company,” the president-elect told a news conference in New York. “They’re not going to discuss it with me,” he added.
Don Jnr, 38, and Eric, 32, are Trump’s eldest sons from his first marriage and are currently, with their sister Ivanka, executive vice presidents in the Trump Organisation.
Trump said manila files covering a table next to the lectern were the signed documents “turning over complete and total control to my sons,” before handing the stage to his lawyer, a Washington law firm partner.
The lawyer, Sheri Dillon, defended the plan saying it would “completely isolate” Trump from the management of his business during his presidency and that no new foreign deals “whatsoever” would be made during his time in the White House.
All pending deals – more than 30 – were cancelled, causing a “financial loss of millions of dollars” to Trump and his children, said Dillon, a partner in the firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.
Under the plan, an ethics advisor would review and give written approval to any “new deals, actions, and transactions that can potentially raise ethics or conflicts of interest concerns”, she said.
Long-time Trump associate Allen Weisselberg, currently the company’s chief financial officer, will assist the Trump sons in running the business, according to Dillon.
Daughter Ivanka, whose husband Jared Kushner will be a special adviser to the president, will have no further involvement in the business.
Tackling head on why Trump would not divest, Dillon alleged that selling “would not eliminate possibilities of conflicts of interest. In fact, it would exacerbate them”.
The president-elect “should not be expected to destroy the company he built”, said Dillon. “Selling the entire Trump organisation isn’t even feasible,” she added.
Instead the plan would “sever” the presidency from the Trump Organisation and in addition Trump will donate all proceeds from any foreign officials to his hotels to the US Treasury, she said.
But the head of the Office of Government Ethics publicly criticised the plan, saying it fell short of the example set by commanders-in-chief for 40 years.
“It doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every president in the last four decades has met,” said Walter Shaub, holding up secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, who stepped down as CEO of ExxonMobil, as a model to follow.
Shaub said the refusal to engage in new deals does not solve the problem of existing business interests, and called on Trump to divest fully.
“Nothing short of divestiture will resolve these conflicts,” he said. “This isn’t the way the presidency has worked since Congress passed the ethics and government act in 1978 in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal,” he added.
According to PrivCo, which seeks to provide financial and business information on private companies, The Trump Organisation employs about 22,000 people and had revenues of US$9.5 billion in 2014.
Trump closed his press conference by joking that if his sons did a bad job, he would come back in eight years and tell them “’you’re fired’” using his catchphrase from his reality television show “The Apprentice.”
“#nopressure,” tweeted Don Jnr shortly afterward.