WASHINGTON — The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) today joined more than a dozen ethics officials and good government groups to send a letter to President-Elect Donald Trump urging him to set up a genuine blind trust, or the equivalent, for all of his business assets and investments.
The letter — full text below — was signed by individuals and organizations with extensive experience in dealing with conflicts of interest in the federal government, including two former Chief White House Ethics Lawyers, Norm Eisen and Richard Painter. Other signatories include: Gary D. Bass, Campaign for Accountability, Campaign Legal Center, Center for American, Progress, Center for Media and Democracy, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Common Cause, Democracy 21, Essential Information, Issue One, Thomas E. Mann, OpenTheGovernment.Org, Norman Ornstein, People for the American Way, Project on Government Oversight, Public Citizen, and Sunlight Foundation.
Scott Amey, POGO General Counsel, said:
“POGO is proud to work with these partners to make sure the incoming administration follows through on its promises to crack down on undue influence in Washington. President-Elect Trump’s most recent announcement that he'll ban lobbyists from the transition team and restrict their post-government lobbying has its holes, but it is a start.
It is crucial that Trump accepts the necessity of a blind trust for his and his family’s businesses. Draining the swamp is important, but avoiding self-dealing at all costs is absolutely essential.”
Full Text of the Letter
November 17, 2016
President-Elect Donald J. Trump
725 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10022
Dear President-Elect Trump,
We are writing to urge you to place all of your business assets and investments into a genuine blind trust or the equivalent. This means that control of these assets would be transferred to an independent trustee who would sell the assets and place the proceeds in investments which do not create conflicts of interest and which are not disclosed to you.
Alternatively, you could convert the Trump Organization businesses to cash and buy treasury bills and widely diversified mutual funds. These holdings are deemed conflict free under federal law.
If family members choose to stay involved with Trump Organization businesses, or any other business, then, within the constraints of you selling all your ownership interests, a clear firewall must be established so that these family members have no involvement with policy decisions at the White House. This means you should pledge not to discuss the businesses with your children or anyone else involved. Contacts about the Trump businesses should be prohibited between all other administration officials and people involved in the businesses, including any of the children who maintain an ongoing involvement with the businesses. Except for personal communication with the president or first lady, such telephone calls and emails should be routed to White House counsel to make sure that the firewall is not breached.
We understand that this arrangement would require you to sever your relationship with the businesses that bear your name and with which you have invested a life’s work. But whatever the personal discomfort caused, there is no acceptable alternative – and your duties to the American people now must prevail over your personal ties to the Trump Organization businesses.
Failure to follow this course of action will create conflicts of interest of unprecedented magnitude.
The nature and diversity of the Trump Organization businesses mean that a wide range of government policy has direct impact on those businesses. This includes important domestic matters related to tax policy, standards for government contractors, consumer protection, the functioning of the civil justice system, financial regulation, labor rights and workplace safety and health standards, and bankruptcy law.
Matters of foreign policy are also implicated because of the global reach of the Trump Organization. The American people need to know that when you are making decisions concerning our allies or our adversaries, you are not doing so because they are allies or adversaries of your businesses. Moreover, every time any foreign government or company controlled by a foreign government does business with a Trump entity, you could be accused of accepting a payment in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, creating a constitutional crisis that could even result in threats of impeachment.
In the absence of a full separation from the Trump Organization businesses, the sources of conflict from your overriding duties to the American public are legion. For example, every time any private party sees an opening for litigation against a Trump business entity, that person, perhaps in collusion with your political opponents, could file suit, perhaps even against you personally, embroiling the presidency in litigation.
Mr. Trump, you were elected to the presidency with a promise to eliminate improper business influence in Washington, to break the stranglehold that commercial interests impose on government. There is no way to square your campaign commitments to the American people – and your even higher, ethical duties as their president – with the rampant, inescapable conflicts that will engulf your presidency if you maintain connections with the Trump Organization, including by maintaining ownership with control transferred to your children.
We would be pleased to meet with your transition team to discuss these issues and explore specific protocols for carrying out the ethical imperative of creating a genuine blind trust, divesting your ownership stake in the Trump Organization and creating a genuine firewall between those connected to the Trump Organization businesses and your administration.
Gary D. Bass
Campaign for Accountability
Campaign Legal Center
Center for American Progress
Center for Media and Democracy
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)
Ambassador (ret.) Norm Eisen, chief White House ethics lawyer, 2009-2011
Thomas E. Mann
Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer, 2005-2007
People for the American Way
Project On Government Oversight