Since Donald Trump won the presidential election last month, his conflicts of interest have come into sharper focus.
Ethics experts say that to clearly separate his role as president from his role as businessman, he must sell off his holdings. Trump has so far rejected that recommendation, saying via Twitter that he intends to have his two oldest sons run the Trump Organization.
But those sons have been deeply engaged in the transition work of the incoming Trump administration.
So now what? Ethicists say Trump must sell; Trump has shown no willingness to do so. For example, he had planned to hold a news conference to discuss conflicts of interests last week, but he has postponed it indefinitely.
Can someone or something force Trump to comply with the ethics guidance that he has so far rejected?
The best answer seems to be that only Congress can force Trump to make any changes. Let's walk through this messy, unprecedented situation one step at a time.
As the head of the Trump Organization, the incoming president has financial interests in hundreds of companies, spread over at least 20 countries. He also has many outstanding debts. His exact assets and debts are not known because he has refused to release tax records.
The scant information available comes from a disclosure filing Trump made in May to the Office of Government Ethics. So while relatively few details are known, this much is obvious: Trump The Businessman has many financial interests that would come into direct conflict with Trump The President.
Examples of Conflicts
The conflicts are far too numerous to list here, but two examples provide a glimpse into how serious the problem is. The first involves the Philippines, where Trump licenses his name to Trump Tower at Century City, a huge project involving residential, commercial and retail space. His business partner there is Jose E.B. Antonio.
After Trump won the election, the Philippines named Antonio as a special envoy to the United States. So in the future, Trump will face a question when he sits down with Antonio to discuss U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia: Is he acting in the best interests of all Americans – or in the best interests of Trump Tower's profits?
Here's the second example, this one involving debt. Trump's disclosure form and other documents show he owes roughly $364 million to Deutsche Bank, headquartered in Frankfurt, Germany. But the U.S. Department of Justice is pursuing an immense fine – around $14 billion – from Deutsche Bank for its role in the 2008 financial crisis. If the Trump administration were to back off from demanding such a huge fine, would it be because that's the right policy for this country, or because Trump wants to curry favor with his German lender?
As long as Trump is both president of the country and father of the men running the Trump Organization, questions constantly will arise about his motives.
Ethics Rules for Presidents
Decades ago, Congress wrote rules to prevent federal officials from having conflicts of interest, but they left the president exempt. Nevertheless, presidents have complied with the standards, putting their financial interests into a blind trust or investing only in simple instruments such as Treasury notes.
Trump's plan to have his sons run the Trump Organization would not create a hands-off "blind" trust. In fact, sons Donald Trump, Jr., and Eric Trump already have blurred the lines between their roles in the company and the incoming administration.
For example, when Trump met with technology industry executives last week, his sons, along with daughter Ivanka, were seated at the table. Were the four Trumps listening for lucrative investment opportunities, or for good public-policy ideas?
Walter Shaub, director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, released a letter last week saying that "transferring operational control of a company to one's children would not constitute the establishment of a qualified blind trust, nor would it eliminate conflicts of interest."
So how does OGE normally enforce federal ethics rules? It does so by referring cases to the Department of Justice. But as noted, the president is technically exempt, and in any case, he chooses the Attorney General to run DOJ, so that path to an ethics crackdown doesn't sound likely.
But in addition to the federal ethics rules, the Constitution itself has an "emoluments clause" that says "no person holding any office of profit or trust" shall "accept of any present, emolument, office or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince or foreign state" unless Congress consents.
So remember those two examples of conflicts, one involving a Philippines real estate project and the other, a German bank loan? What if Trump were to someday use his presidential clout to steer business to Trump Towers at Century City, or reduce Justice Department fines for Deutsche Bank in exchange for forgiveness of his company's debts?
Such examples are entirely hypothetical. But if in the future, Congress were to discover that Trump took actions equivalent to accepting foreign bribes, then lawmakers could turn to another part of the U.S. Constitution: "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High crimes and Misdemeanors."
Already, Democrats are making it clear they will be watching Trump conflicts closely. Last week, Senate Democrats introduced legislation requiring Trump to divest, and House Democrats held an event where ethics experts discussed Trump's conflicts.