TRUMPIAN CONCERNS, PART 1:

Conflicts of Interest

“No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”

– from The Constitution of the United States

Article I, Section 9

The above clause, usually referred to as “The Emoluments Clause”, was intended by the Founding Fathers to prevent any foreign state from funneling money into the personal pockets of any federal official. “No person holding any office of profit or trust” would include any federal employee or official, from the lowliest bureaucrat all the way up to the President, whether paid (“office of profit”) or unpaid (“office of trust”). Under this clause, no such person can receive “any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” Note that the word “any” appears several times here: “ANY office of profit or trust”, “ANY present, emolument, office, or title”, “of ANY kind whatever”, and “ANY king, prince, or foreign state”.  Clearly the Founding Fathers wanted to ensure there would be absolutely no exception to this rule.

Three of the four categories federal employees and/or officials are prohibited from receiving (without the consent of Congress) – presents, offices and titles – are easily understood. “Presents”, just like the birthday variety, are simply gifts. Presidents, of course, are constantly being given gifts by foreign dignitaries, but except for gifts below a threshold value established by Congress (currently $375), the President does not get to keep them. Instead, the President accepts the gift on behalf of the people of the United States, and the gifts are sent to the National Archives as the property of the American people (some of these gifts eventually end up on display in that President’s Presidential Library). If the President so desires, he or she may purchase the gifts from the Archives (at fair market value) upon leaving office.

The prohibition against any federal employee and/or official accepting an “office” or “title” from another country is self-explanatory. The idea that federal officials (and especially the President) should not simultaneously be working for another government – in any capacity – is beyond question.

The remaining category – “emoluments” – is less well understood. Many assume this term refers to bribes, but that is not correct (and of course “bribery” is already listed in the Constitution as grounds for impeachment). According to Merriam-Webster , an “emolument” is defined as, “the returns arising from office or employment usually in the form of compensation or perquisites” (“advantage” is also listed as an archaic definition, but it is not clear just how long ago that definition applied). In addition, the following are listed as synonyms to the term “emolument”:

wage, hire, packet [British], pay, paycheck, pay envelope, payment, salary, and stipend.

Other words related to the term “emolument” include:

living wage, minimum wage, nominal wages, take-home pay; double time, overtime, time and a half; compensation, recompense, remittance, remuneration, requital, return; recoupment, redress, reparation, restitution; reimbursement, repayment; earnings, profit, takings, and yield.

In other words, an emolument is money or benefit received legitimately. It can take the form of a salary or wages, benefits received as “perks” (such as health care coverage or a pension paid by an employer), business profits, money paid under contractual obligation, or returns on investments. Please recall that the Emoluments Clause, as noted above, absolutely prohibits ANY federal employee and/or official, whether paid or unpaid, from accepting ANY emolument of ANY KIND WHATEVER from ANY King, Prince, or Foreign State. Put another way, no federal employee and/or official can receive payments or perks from another country in any form – or for any amount – while serving this country. The appropriateness of this should be obvious to everyone.

President Donald Trump has spent a lifetime building his business empire, and that is to his credit. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to be willing to let go of his business empire while he serves as President. If his only income from that business empire was domestic, this would not present an issue (at least as it relates to the Emoluments Clause), but the Trump Organization has business relationships with foreign governments, officials of those governments, and other individuals around the world, and this is where he will run smack into the Constitution and its Emoluments Clause. Most of these business connections are unknown to the American people or to Congress (because he has not released his tax returns), but the relationships we do know about highlight the problem. As just one example, Mr. Trump is currently involved in a business partnership with a man named Jose Antonio, who happens to be the Philippines’ Diplomatic Trade Envoy to the United States (the partnership owns a hotel in the Philippines, with more projects in the works). Since Mr. Antonio represents the government of the Philippines, any profit derived from this partnership would qualify as an “emolument” from a foreign state. This is just one example, but there are many others .

Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyers in the Barack Obama and George W. Bush Administrations, respectively, have weighed in on this issue as well. “Without an ethics firewall that is set up at once and continues into the administration, scandal is sure to follow,” they wrote. Eisen also noted that, “We have never had a president with these enormous business conflicts domestically and globally. What’s more, we’ve never had a president who seems to insist on breaking the precedent set by every previous president for at least four decades of doing a true blind trust or its equivalent.”

Eisen and Painter are correct – Trump must find a way to disentangle himself from his business interests in order to abide by the Emoluments Clause while serving as President. Whether this is accomplished through a truly blind trust, an IPO to sell Trump’s ownership share, or some other acceptable means, he simply has to do this. (There is one other way Mr. Trump could avoid violating the “Emoluments Clause – he could get the consent of Congress to receive these “emoluments” from his global business relationships. I cannot imagine that Congress would do this, but this would offer a loophole he could slide through.)

I have been astonished by the cavalier attitude that has been expressed by usually intelligent people who seem to believe that Mr. Trump should not have to disengage from his business to serve as President. When confronted with the Emoluments Clause, these people have argued that it would be “too inconvenient” for Mr. Trump to fully divest himself and create a blind trust. I feel very strongly that I must call these people out on this one – we cannot tolerate the Constitution being violated on a daily basis just because it would be “too inconvenient” to abide by it. Regardless of how “inconvenient” the Emoluments Clause may be, it must be followed – period. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes”, and make no mistake – disregarding any provision of the Constitution will lead to disregarding other provisions that are deemed “too inconvenient”, eventually leading to dramatic changes in our government. It’s a slippery slope we do not want to start down. If a President is allowed to violate the Emoluments Clause, what would stop him from violating other provisions found in the Constitution? For example, Mr. Trump has been a bit hostile towards the idea of a vigorous free press, banning a wide array of media outlets (ranging from Buzzfeed to the Washington Post) from his campaign plane, from his press conferences and appearances, and from receiving the campaign’s press releases and scheduling information – all because he didn’t like their coverage of him. At his first press conference following his election, Mr. Trump refused to entertain a question from a CNN reporter (Jim Acosta) because he didn’t like a story CNN had covered the previous day. Will President Trump try to restrict, or even eliminate, Freedom of the Press, as he has already demonstrated a clear propensity to do? If he can violate the Emoluments Clause with impunity, then what would hold him back from violating other provisions he doesn’t like or which would be “too inconvenient” to abide by? That is a troubling concept.

Yes, it will be problematic for Mr. Trump to disengage from his many business relationships around the world, not least because so many of his assets are also encumbered with high amounts of debt (making those assets difficult to sell). That’s just too bad – he still has to do it. The Constitution requires it and must be abided by. For those who argue that there was not enough time for Trump to do this before his inauguration, I would argue that Mr. Trump began his campaign back in June of 2015, and if he had bothered to read the Constitution back then he would have known this would be required if he were to win. He could have made preliminary arrangements well in advance, had a trustee in place and ready to go, and perhaps even buyers lined up to acquire his various assets. He chose not to read the Constitution. He chose not to understand what would be required. He chose not to be prepared. I have no sympathy for him on this – if he didn’t want to abide by the Constitution, he shouldn’t have run for President. Now that he is the President, he has no choice but to abide by the Constitution.

If Mr. Trump does not completely disengage from his business interests – including his ownership share in the Trump Organization – and any one of those many global business relationships yields a profit of even one penny, this would be a violation of the Emoluments Clause. If a foreign dignitary chooses to stay at a Trump resort or hotel, the payment for that stay – however small – would constitute an emolument paid by a foreign state. A clear example of how this could happen occurred immediately following Mr. Trump’s victory in November. The Embassy of Bahrain in Washington D.C.  holds an annual reception in honor of that country’s “National Day” (similar to our Independence Day). For years this reception has been held at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington D.C. When Mr. Trump won the election, however, the Bahrain Embassy quickly moved the reception to Trump’s new luxury hotel in Washington (in the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue) – an obvious attempt to curry favor with the incoming President. This is precisely the type of conflict the Founding Fathers were concerned about when they included the Emoluments Clause; a foreign government finding a means to funnel money into the personal pockets of the President (or other official) in order to hold sway over American governmental policy.

All this regarding the Emoluments Clause is just the Constitutional issue – I haven’t even addressed all the conflicts of interest involving domestic money that simply raise ethical questions. And there is a lot of domestic money that goes into the Trump Organization’s coffers daily from all sorts of sources. Mr. Trump has done nothing to address these conflicts. In addition (and rather remarkably), Mr. Trump has stated that he will stay on as an Executive Producer of Celebrity Apprentice (Arnold Schwarzenegger will take Mr. Trump’s spot on the show). Apparently, the Trump Team just doesn’t understand why this might present a problem. When asked about this specifically, Kellyanne Conway (Trump’s Campaign Manager and now Presidential Advisor) responded that no one complained when President Obama played golf. Wait – what? Clearly, she thought the issue was about Mr. Trump engaging in activities outside of his Presidential duties, but that’s not an issue at all – Presidents have always taken vacations or set aside time for personal activities. They are allowed their leisure time. The issue is not about that at all – it is about Mr. Trump having a second job, for which he will receive financial compensation, while serving as President. This is absolutely unprecedented. We have never had a President who “moonlighted” during his term. It is extremely troubling – and raises all sorts of ethical questions – that as President, Mr. Trump will actually be receiving financial compensation from an employer other than the American people, namely NBC, part of international media company NBCUniversal, a subsidiary of Comcast. Comcast, while publicly traded, is really owned by the Roberts family, who own a controlling interest (the current Chairman, President, and CEO is Brian Roberts, son of co-founder Ralph Roberts). According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Comcast spends the seventh-largest amount on lobbying of any individual company or organization in the United States – and President Trump will be on their payroll. Anyone want to bet against Comcast getting whatever it wants from the Trump Administration?

So what is President Trump’s plan? How will he avoid the conflicts of interest that his business interests will present each and every day of his Presidency? He announced his plan at a press conference on Wednesday, January 11th 2017 – his first press conference following his election victory – and what he announced is nowhere close to acceptable:

  • He will retain his ownership interest in the Trump Organization and all business entanglements around the world. He will not divest himself of any assets.
  • The Trump Organization will be put into a trust run by President Trump’s two oldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric Trump, along with a long-time company executive named Allen Weisselberg. As President, Trump will limit his knowledge of his business to overall profits and losses. He claims he will not discuss business matters with his sons during his time as President.
  • The Trump Organization will not enter into any new foreign deals during his term, and any new domestic deals will have to be vetted and approved in writing by an “Ethics Advisor” – who will only be answerable to those running this new trust (Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, and Mr. Weisselberg), not to Congress, not to any other governmental agency, and not to the public. Bobby Burchfield, who among other things represented George W. Bush in the 2000 Florida recount and is the Chairman of Karl Rove’s “Crossroads GPS”, has been hired for this post.
  • Any profits derived from foreign governments paying for rooms at Mr. Trump’s hotels will be given over to the United States Treasury. It is not clear how these profits will be calculated or tracked – or by whom – or why only profits will be handed over, rather than the total amount paid by a foreign government, as the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause would require.
  • The plan does not include any public disclosure, outside oversight, or independent verification.

Mr. Trump’s plan was immediately condemned by virtually every ethics expert on both sides of the aisle:

  • Walter Shaub, Director of the Office of Government Ethics: “I need to talk about ethics today because the plan the president has announced doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every president in the past four decades has met…This is not a blind trust — it’s not even close…The only thing it has in common with a blind trust is the label ‘trust’… Nothing short of divestiture will resolve these conflicts.” (see Mr. Shaub’s full statement attached to the end of this article)
  • Trevor Potter, former campaign lawyer to John McCain and currently President of the Campaign Legal Center: “Having Trump’s adult children lead the operational control of his business, while he still retains full ownership, is not an acceptable solution. His decision has created a direct path by which U.S. and foreign interests, including foreign governments, can exert influence over him through his companies or holdings.”
  • Lisa Gilbert, Director of Public Citizen’s “Congress Watch” division: “The idea of giving up only profits, not all revenue, from foreign business, and only from hotels, is not an acceptable answer to the emoluments clause problem.”
  • Danielle Brian, Executive Director of the Project on Government Oversight: “Firewalls work in businesses, not in families. Trump claims he’ll only learn about his businesses from the newspapers, but it’s hard to believe that family dinner conversations will be restricted to the weather.”
  • Scott Amey, General Counsel for the Project on Government Oversight: “There were other ways to handle these conflicts of interest, and it seems as if there was more just a lack of will than anything else. By retaining an ownership interest, that is just going to open him up to controversy and litigation for the lifetime of his term. I mean, who is not going to want to sue ‘Trump Industries’ and name Donald Trump and drag him into a deposition?”
  • Richard Painter, former chief ethics lawyer for the George W. Bush Administration: “He has all of the conflicts of interest that he had before. We don’t know who his business partners are, we don’t know who he owes. I hope we don’t have a terrorist attack on some building with his name on it. I hope we don’t have an international crisis in a country where he has a lot of money invested. If Turkey and Russia get in a fight or something, it’s not a question about, well, what about my hotel?”
  • Norman Eisen, former chief ethics lawyer for the Obama Administration: “Tragically, the Trump plan to deal with his business conflicts announced today falls short in every respect. Mr. Trump’s ill-advised course will precipitate scandal and corruption.”
  • Noah Bookbinder, Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW): “Every decision he [President Trump] will make as president will be followed by the specter of doubt, and will be questioned as to whether his decision is in the best interest of the American people or the best interest of his bottom line. He will also face questions about whether he is violating the constitution by taking payments from foreign governments on a daily basis. Today was his first test as president. He failed.” (see Mr. Bookbinder’s full statement attached to the end of this article)

All of these experts are correct. Mr. Trump’s plan is completely inadequate; it does nothing to ameliorate the conflict of interest issues, and nothing to address the Emoluments Clause issue. At one point during the press conference, Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Sheri Dillon, argued that selling Trump’s ownership interest to his children would mean that Donald Jr. and Eric would have to borrow massive amounts of money, selling it to the public in an IPO stock offering would have been “cumbersome and complicated,” and selling it to a person not related to Trump would bring accusations of currying favor. Sorry, but these are simply not good enough reasons to allow Mr. Trump to violate the Constitution on a daily basis.

So what now? What consequence will President Trump face as a result of his refusal to avoid the many conflicts of interest he faces, and his refusal to abide by the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause? Sadly, the answer is probably that there will be no consequence at all – and Mr. Trump knows it. Under the Constitution, actions that can be taken against the President are extremely limited. The House of Representatives could impeach him, but that is not likely to happen with a Republican majority (although the notion of House Speaker Paul Ryan and/or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell using the threat of impeachment as a bargaining chip in negotiations with President Trump presents an intriguing scenario). Congress could also “censure” President Trump, but that would be more of a symbolic gesture with no real means of enforcement.

The bottom line is that, barring a change of heart on Mr. Trump’s part, his Administration will be marred by constant corruption allegations, impairing his ability to govern. No matter how hard I try, I cannot find any plausible reason why President Trump would want that, but apparently he cares more about keeping his business than he does about governing the country or abiding by the Constitution.

And that’s bad news for all of us.

 

 

The following is a press release on this topic from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW):

_______________________________________________________________________
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 11, 2017
CONTACT: Jordan Libowitz
202-408-5565 | jlibowitz@citizensforethics.org

 

CREW STATEMENT ON TRUMP PRESS CONFERENCE

Washington, DC—In response to President-elect Trump’s press conference in which he failed to adequately address his massive conflict of interest issues, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) Executive Director Noah Bookbinder released the following statement:

“The only way for Donald Trump to avoid massive conflicts of interest is to sell his business outside the family and place the assets in a true blind trust, where he will not have any way of knowing or influencing how the assets are allocated. By refusing to divest, Trump is breaking decades of precedent, just as he did with his refusal to release his tax returns. He has failed to live up to the ethical standard of past presidents including Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and all others of the past 40 years.

He will continue to own his business, which will continue to have foreign interests. It is absurd to believe he will have no knowledge of his business, when he will continue to own it, and it will be run by his children. He claims that he will only know what he reads in newspapers, but newspapers report which foreign dignitaries are staying at his hotel. His businesses all have his name on them in giant gold letters. He will know what they are and what legislation, regulations, or actions will benefit or hurt them.

He’s not worried about conflicts of interest because the statutes don’t apply to the president. If that sounds familiar, it was the position Nixon took when he told David Frost ‘when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.’ Just because it’s not illegal, does not mean it is right or moral. Every decision he will make as president will be followed by the specter of doubt, and will be questioned as to whether his decision is in the best interest of the American people or the best interest of his bottom line. He will also face questions about whether he is violating the constitution by taking payments from foreign governments on a daily basis. Today was his first test as president. He failed.”

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Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is a non-profit legal watchdog group dedicated to holding public officials accountable for their actions. For more information, please visit www.citizensforethics.org or contact Jordan Libowitz at 202-408-5565 or jlibowitz@citizensforethics.org.

 

 

 

The following is the complete statement of Walter Shaub, Director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics:

 

Remarks of Walter M. Shaub, Jr., Director, U.S. Office of Government Ethics, as prepared for delivery at 4:00 p.m. on January 11, 2017, at the Brookings Institution:

I wish circumstances were different and I didn’t feel the need to make public remarks today. You don’t hear about ethics when things are going well. You’ve been hearing a lot about ethics lately.

I need to talk about ethics today because the plan the President-elect has announced doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every President in the past four decades has met. My hope is that, if the Office of Government Ethics can provide some constructive feedback on his plan, he may choose to make adjustments that will resolve his conflicts of interest.

I’ll limit the scope of my remarks today, and I won’t be talking about nominees whose ethics packages have not gone to the Senate. With that limitation, there’s still much that can be said. For starters, I’m happy to report that it’s not all bad news. OGE has been able to do good work during this Presidential transition. I’m especially proud of the ethics agreement we developed for the intended nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.

Mr. Tillerson is making a clean break from Exxon. He’s also forfeiting bonus payments worth millions. As a result of OGE’s work, he’s now free of financial conflicts of interest. His ethics agreement serves as a sterling model for what we’d like to see with other nominees. He clearly recognizes that public service sometimes comes at a cost. The greater the authority entrusted in a government official, the greater the potential for conflicts of interest. That’s why the cost is often greater the higher up you go.

We’ve had similar success with some of the President-elect’s other intended nominees. Some of them haven’t quite gotten there yet, as I explained in recent letters to the Senate. But with an example like Mr. Tillerson’s ethics agreement, I anticipate we’ll get them there, too. In connection with this work, it’s important to recognize that OGE is not the enforcement mechanism but the prevention mechanism. OGE is nonpartisan and does its work independently. Our goal—our reason for existing—is to guard the executive branch against conflicts of interest.

We can’t risk creating the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for profit. That’s why I was glad in November when the President-elect tweeted that he wanted to, as he put it, “in no way have a conflict of interest” with his businesses. Unfortunately, his current plan cannot achieve that goal.

It’s easy to see that the current plan does not achieve anything like the clean break Rex Tillerson is making from Exxon. Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective. The Presidency is a full-time job and he would’ve had to step back anyway. The idea of setting up a trust to hold his operating businesses adds nothing to the equation. This is not a blind trust—it’s not even close.

I think Politico called this a “half-blind” trust, but it’s not even halfway blind. The only thing this has in common with a blind trust is the label, “trust.” His sons are still running the businesses, and, of course, he knows what he owns. His own attorney said today that he can’t “un-know” that he owns Trump tower. The same is true of his other holdings. The idea of limiting direct communication about the business is wholly inadequate. That’s not how a blind trust works. There’s not supposed to be any information at all.

Here too, his attorney said something important today. She said he’ll know about a deal if he reads it in the paper or sees in on TV. That wouldn’t happen with a blind trust. In addition, the notion that there won’t be new deals doesn’t solve the problem of all the existing deals and businesses. The enormous stack of documents on the stage when he spoke shows just how many deals and businesses there are.

I was especially troubled by the statement that the incoming administration is going to demand that OGE approve a diversified portfolio of assets. No one has ever talked to us about that idea, and there’s no legal mechanism to do that. Instead, Congress set up OGE’s blind trust program under the Ethics in Government Act. Under that law anyone who wants a blind trust has to work with OGE from the start, but OGE has been left out of this process. We would have told them that this arrangement fails to meet the statutory requirements.

The President-elect’s attorney justified the decision not to use a blind trust by saying that you can’t put operating businesses in a blind trust. She’s right about that. That’s why the decision to set up this strange new kind of trust is so perplexing. The attorney also said she feared the public might question the legitimacy of the sale price if he divested his assets. I wish she had spoken with those of us in the government who do this for a living. We would have reassured her that Presidential nominees in every administration agree to sell illiquid assets all the time. Unlike the President, they have to run the gauntlet of a rigorous Senate confirmation process where the legitimacy of their divestiture plans can be closely scrutinized. These individuals get through the nomination process by carefully ensuring that the valuation of their companies is done according to accepted industry standards. There’s nothing unusual about that.

For these reasons, the plan does not comport with the tradition of our Presidents over the past 40 years. This isn’t the way the Presidency has worked since Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act in 1978 in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Since then, Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all either established blind trusts or limited their investments to non-conflicting assets like diversified mutual funds, which are exempt under the conflict of interest law.

Now, before anyone is too critical of the plan the President-elect announced, let’s all remember there’s still time to build on that plan and come up with something that will resolve his conflicts of interest. In developing the current plan, the President-elect did not have the benefit of OGE’s guidance. So, to be clear, OGE’s primary recommendation is that he divest his conflicting financial interests. Nothing short of divestiture will resolve these conflicts.

This has been my view from the start. The media covered some messages I sent the President-elect through Twitter. While some people got what I was doing, I think some others may have missed the point. I was trying to use the vernacular of the President-elect’s favorite social media platform to encourage him to divest. My thinking was that more pointed language would have been too strong at a time when he was still making up his mind. I reiterated my view in a written response to questions from the Senate, which is posted on OGE’s website. I’ve been pursuing this issue because the ethics program starts at the top. The signals a President sends set the tone for ethics across the executive branch. Tone from the top matters.

I’ve had the honor and great privilege of serving as Director of the Office of Government Ethics for four years now. But I’ve been in ethics for much longer than that, having come up through the ranks as a career government ethics official. Over the years, I’ve worked closely with countless officials in administrations of both major parties. Ethics has no party.

The job hasn’t always been easy, though, especially when I’ve had to ask nominees and appointees to take painful steps to avoid conflicts of interest. I can’t count the number of times I’ve delivered the bad news that they needed to divest assets, break open trusts, and dissolve businesses. Most of these individuals have worked with us in good faith. Their basic patriotism usually prevails, as they agree to set aside their personal interests to serve their country’s interests. Sometimes these individuals have required more persuasion, but every OGE Director has been buoyed by the unwavering example of Presidents who resolved their own conflicts of interest.

As I said, every President in modern times has taken the strong medicine of divestiture. This means OGE Directors could always point to the President as a model. They could also rely on the President’s implicit assurance of support if anyone balked at doing what OGE asked them to do. Officials in any administration need their President to show ethics matters, not only through words but also through deeds. This is vitally important if we’re going to have any kind of ethics program.

Now, some have said that the President can’t have a conflict of interest, but that is quite obviously not true. I think the most charitable way to understand such statements is that they are referring to a particular conflict of interest law that doesn’t apply to the President. That law, 18 U.S.C. § 208, bars federal employees from participating in particular matters affecting their financial interests. Employees comply with that law by “recusing,” which is a lawyerly way of saying they have stay out of things affecting their financial interests. If they can’t stay out of these things, they have to sell off their assets or get a waiver. That’s what Presidential appointees do. But Congress understood that a President can’t recuse without depriving the American people of the services of their leader. That’s the reason why the law doesn’t apply to the President.

Common sense dictates that a President can, of course, have very real conflicts of interest. A conflict of interest is anything that creates an incentive to put your own interests before the interests of the people you serve. The Supreme Court has written that a conflict of interest is, and I’m quoting here, “an evil which endangers the very fabric of a democratic society, for a democracy is effective only if the people have faith in those who govern, and that faith is bound to be shattered when high officials and their appointees engage in activities which arouse suspicions of corruption.”

That same Court referred to what it called a “moral principle” underlying concerns about conflicts of interest. The Court cited, and I’m quoting again, “the Biblical admonition that no man may serve two masters, a maxim which is especially pertinent if one of the masters happens to economic self-interest.” A President is no more immune to the influence of two masters than any subordinate official. In fact, our common experience of human affairs suggests that the potential for corruption only grows with the increase of power.

For this reason, it’s been the consistent policy of the executive branch that the President should act as though the financial conflict of interest law applied. One of my tweets and my letter to Congress cited an OGE opinion issued during the Reagan administration that articulated this very policy.

Back when he was working for the Justice Department, the late Antonin Scalia also wrote an opinion declaring that a President should avoid engaging in conduct prohibited by the government’s ethics regulations, even if they don’t apply. Justice Scalia warned us that there would be consequences if a President ever failed to adhere to the same standards that apply to lower level officials. The sheer obviousness of Justice Scalia’s words becomes apparent if you just ask yourself one question: Should a President hold himself to a lower standard than his own appointees?

I appreciate that divestiture can be costly. But the President-elect would not be alone in making that sacrifice. I’ve been involved in just about every Presidential nomination in the past 10 years. I also have been involved in the ethics review of Presidents, Vice Presidents, and most top White House officials. I’ve seen the sacrifices that these individuals have had to make. It’s important to understand that the President is now entering the world of public service. He’s going to be asking his own appointees to make sacrifices. He’s going to be asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives in conflicts around the world. So, no, I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the President of the United States of America.

As we all know, one of the things that make America truly great is its system for preventing public corruption. For a long time now, OGE has helped developing countries set up their own systems for detecting and preventing conflicts of interest. Our executive branch ethics program is considered the gold standard internationally and has served as a model for the world. But that program starts with the Office of the President. The President-elect must show those in government—and those coming into government after his inauguration—that ethics matters.

All of this is to say there are reasons why experts and others are expressing concern. These calls for divestiture have been bipartisan. You have the examples of President Obama’s ethics counsel, Norm Eisen, and President Bush’s ethics counsel, Richard Painter. The conservative Wall Street Journal recommended divestiture. So did conservative columnist Peggy Noonan.

It’s plain to see that none of this reflects any partisan motivation. All you have to do is imagine what will happen if the President-elect takes this advice and divests. He’ll be stronger. He’ll have a better chance of succeeding. So will the ethics program and the government as a whole. And, in turn, America will have a better chance of succeeding. We should all want that. I know I want that.

In closing, I would just like to add that I’m happy to offer my assistance and the assistance of my staff.

Thank you.