Trump Business Conflicts Can Only be Addressed Through a True Blind Trust Says Bipartisan Group of Leading Governance Experts

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  • David Vance

A bipartisan group of organizations and individuals, many of whom specialize in ethical and conflicts of interest issues, today called on President-elect Trump to divest his businesses into a true blind trust managed by an independent trustee, or the equivalent.

This is the approach that has been taken by Trump’s predecessors for the past four decades. 

“Americans expect their President to put the business of the nation first. Mr. Trump has promised to serve his country before his business interests but he can only live up to that pledge by divesting his assets and setting up a true blind trust,” said Paul S. Ryan, Common Cause Vice President of Policy and Litigation. “He was elected on a promise to change the way business is done in Washington for the better, not to introduce unprecedented conflicts of interest to the office of the President. If Mr. Trump does not remove these extensive and multi-national conflicts of interest, then as President his every move will be second-guessed and he will both undermine the American people’s faith in the office and the nation’s standing in the world.”

According to the letter sent today:

By combining your presidency with your family business enterprises, you will create ongoing conflict of interest and credibility problems for your presidency. Questions will regularly arise as to whether your domestic and foreign policy positions are being taken on behalf of the interests of the American people or the financial interests of the Trump family, which will necessarily diverge on numerous occasions from those of the nation as a whole.

Since your business is a private one and not a public company, furthermore, the American people will have no way of knowing all of the financial benefits that may come to your business enterprises from domestic and foreign interests who benefit from your decisions.

The letter was signed by Democrats and Republicans, and by liberal and conservative groups.

The 29 signers included Norm Eisen, President Obama’s chief ethics lawyer, and Richard Painter, President George W. Bush’s chief ethics lawyer. They also included two former Republican governors and four former Republican House members.

Signers ranged from Harvard Law Professor Laurence H. Tribe to former Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-OK), a former chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee; from Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann to Peter Schweizer, president of the Government Accountability Institute; from Public Citizen to Take Back Our Republic. (See below for a full list of the signers of the letter.)

The letter pointed out that serious domestic and foreign policy problems would be caused by Trump’s continued ownership of his business enterprises or by turning the businesses over to his children:

Turning your businesses over to your children will not prevent the credibility problems that will arise when your policy positions appear to have been made to benefit domestic and foreign interests that have provided financial benefits to the Trump family.

In taking foreign policy positions, furthermore, foreign countries will not be able to tell if your positions are being taken on behalf of the United States or your business interests. This will seriously affect the ways in which other countries view the United States and our foreign policies. It will create the widespread appearance and belief that the way for countries to curry favor and gain advantageous treatment from the United States is to do business with your children and the Trump businesses.

The letter stated that Trump’s continued ownership of his business enterprises will cause legal problems for Trump from day one of his presidency, as a result of “the anti-corruption Emoluments Clause of the Constitution which prevents Trump from accepting any presents or other financial benefits from foreign governments and their agents.” According to the letter:

The framers included this provision in the Constitution to help ensure that the president does not have divided loyalties between the interests of the United States and the interests of a foreign country in carrying out his responsibilities. Given the world-wide dealings of your businesses, the Emoluments Clause would come into play in numerous ways.

The letter noted published reports that illustrated the problems:

– A Washington Post analysis (November 20, 2016) found that at least 111 Trump companies have done business in 18 countries and territories throughout the world;

– A Washington Post article (November 25, 2016) detailed how your presidency and your foreign business deals and relationships with foreign governments could become intertwined;

– A New York Times analysis (November 26, 2016) showed that many of your foreign development ventures involve business partners with close ties to foreign governments; and

– A New York Times article (December 4, 2016) spelled out the entanglements that exist between the Trump family, your business empire and those who have interacted with your family at home and abroad.

The letter stated:

We urge you to divest your business enterprises into a true blind trust managed by an independent trustee having no family relationship with you, or the equivalent, in accordance with the guidelines of the Ethics in Government Act. The trustee would then dispose of any business enterprises divested to the trust behind the blind trust wall and would invest the new assets without any information going to you as to the new holdings. We also urge you to divest any other investments you may hold into the blind trust or the equivalent.

According to the letter, “It must be clear to all that any domestic and foreign policy decisions you make are not being influenced by your business arrangements and family relationships…” 

The letter concluded:

Republicans and Democrats called for similar strong measures regarding the Clinton Foundation if Hillary Clinton were elected president. It is no less important for you to take the steps set forth in this letter with The Trump Organization now that you will be entering the Oval Office.

We urge you to protect the integrity and credibility of the presidency by divesting your business interests and investment holdings into a true blind trust with an independent trustee.

Signers of the letter include:

Ambassador (ret.) Norm Eisen, chief White House ethics lawyer, 2009-2011

Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer, 2005-2007

Campaign for Accountability

Arne H. Carlson, Former Governor of Minnesota (R)

Kathleen Clark, Professor of Law, Washington University, Affiliation noted for identification purposes only

Center for American Progress

Center for Media and Democracy

Common Cause


Democracy 21

Former Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-OK), Former Chairman, House Republican Policy Committee

Every Voice

Issue One

Thomas Mann

Norm Ornstein

People For the American Way

Trevor Potter, President, Campaign Legal Center

Project On Government Oversight (POGO)

Public Citizen

John Pudner, Executive Director, Take Back Our Republic

The Rootstrikers Project at Demand Progress

Former Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-RI)

Former Rep. John J.H. Schwarz, M.D. (R-MI)

Peter Schweizer, President, Government Accountability Institute

Former Rep. Peter Smith (R-VT)

Sunlight Foundation

Laurence H. Tribe, Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law, Harvard Law School, Affiliation noted for identification purposes only

Christie Whitman, Former Governor of New Jersey (R)

Read the full letter here.