The least transparent presidential nominee in modern history needs to take immediate steps to avoid becoming the most corrupt president in United States history. Sunlight joined a dozen other organizations and individuals convened by Public Citizen in a letter calling on President-Elect Donald Trump to liquidate his holdings and put them in a blind trust controlled by an independent overseer to remove the unavoidable, unprecedented conflicts of interest between the presidency and a global business empire.
Sunlight has been calling how Trump’s foreign dealings and business ties pose a conflict of interest to the public’s attention for over a year, long before the Election Day and subsequent transition. Open government advocates in Washington are not alone in making this call in the next White House. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board called today for a liquidation and placement of the Trump Organization’s business interests in a blind trust. There is no way for a President of United States to recuse himself from making domestic or foreign policy decisions which would have an impact upon his business holdings.
As the text of the letter makes clear, continuing on the current course has the potential to devastate public trust in government even further from its current woeful state, provide foreign governments with an obvious means to influence the presidency, and bedevil the White House with lawsuits.
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.
Transparency is an insufficient solution to the institutionalized corruption, self-dealing, and conflicts of interest that President-Elect Trump’s current melding of corporate and government power represents. Sunshine alone cannot disinfect this scale of conflict, nor will an ethics agreement provide necessary accountability for his children or the White House itself.
Open government won’t be a sovereign balm to an arrangement that is not steeped in secrecy but rather in an assumption of good faith that cannot be trusted. No amount of disclosure can address this level of conflict of interest. A President of the people cannot be trusted by the people unless he enters office free of such conflicts.
If President-Elect Trump wishes to “drain the swamp,” he must take enduring action now to separate his family’s business interests from his Presidency. In the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter sold his peanut farm and placed the proceeds in a blind trust. In 2017, President Trump should embrace an ethical standard that exists for good reason.
We understand that this would represent a sacrifice, but that is what is often required of public servants and their families. We call on him to embrace the spirit of service that his office embodies and stand ready with our allies to discuss how open government can strengthen our democracy.