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Donald Trump touted his business successes on the campaign trail. Now, as President-elect, his far-flung corporate empire has raised red flags for ethics watchdogs. Trump tried to address this by handing management of his company over to his children – and vowed to keep them out of his political life. But critics say the move hardly addresses the conflicts of interest that could arise in office. And concerns deepened after his daughter Ivana Trump attended a meeting with the Japanese prime minister last Friday, which was Trump’s first face-to-face with a head of state. Diane and guests discuss questions about Donald Trump’s corporate empire as he prepares for the presidency.
- Jan Baran Head of the election law group at Wiley Rein LLP; former general counsel, Republican National Committee; author, "The Election Law Primer for Corporations"
- Richard Rubin U.S. tax policy reporter, The Wall Street Journal
- Robert Weissman President, Public Citizen
INTERVIEWERThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Donald Trump's business empire stretches across industries and into countries around the world. The president-elect says he's pass the reins of the company to his children before taking office to avoid conflicts of interest. Ethics watchdogs say that's not enough and now Democrats on the House oversight committee are calling for a review of his financial dealings.
MS. DIANE REHMHere to discuss Trump's corporate empire and what it could mean for his presidency, Jan Baran, head of the Election Law Group at Wiley Rein and former general counsel to the Republican National Committee, and Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a liberal public interest organization. You are, as always, invited to be part of the conversation.
MS. DIANE REHMGive us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And thanks for being here.
MR. JAN BARANGood morning.
MR. ROBERT WEISSMANIt's good to be with you.
MR. RICHARD RUBINHello.
REHMAnd also here in the studio is Richard Rubin of The Wall Street Journal. I’m going to start with you, Richard. Give us a sense of just how big the Trump organization is and what kinds of businesses it's involved with.
RUBINSo it's got a couple of different lines of business. It's, you know, he says he's worth 10 billion so put that as sort of the upper end of where he's -- the size of the company. He's got hotels that he manages. He's got real estate in New York that is office space. He's got golf clubs around the country and then he's got this global business, some of which is these golf courses in the UK, but then some of it is these branding deals and that's where the business has gone in more recent years, is where he'll essentially license his name to some foreign real estate project.
RUBINAnd he doesn't necessarily own it at all, he's just getting a royalty stream coming off of that business. And so he's in all of these different facets of business. It's not really a real estate business purely. It's not really a personal branding business, purely. It's a kind of fusion of both.
REHMThere was a conflict. Something happened in the Las Vegas hotel. What happened there? And it seems as though it could be representative of the kinds of issues that could arise.
RUBINYeah, the hotel that he's involved in in Las Vegas, the workers there are trying to unionize and the hotel is not recognizing the union. And when those kind of disputes happen, they go before the National Labor Relations Board and then they can go into the federal courts. And so that's where this one is headed. It's now headed into federal court in a dispute over exactly whether the union and the hotel are complying with the labor laws.
RUBINWell, of course, the NLRB is a federal agency. It has people appointed, including its top lawyers appointed by the federal government and nominated by the president. So this is one of those situations where he's on -- you've got an agency that has a regulatory and legal function and one of the parties in that case is essentially able to influence who is involved from the government side, even though they're on the other side of the transaction.
REHMI see. So Robert Weissman, as president of Public Citizen, which, as we all know, is a liberal public interest organization, the Las Vegas situation is pretty striking as an example of what could happen in other situations.
WEISSMANYeah, it's representative of conflicts that will be pervasive, inescapable and consequential unless the president-elect divests himself of his holdings in the Trump organization. If you just think about the Las Vegas example, it's not just, as horrible as it might be, it's not just that he might actually try to influence the outcome of that particular dispute. It means he has an interest in broader labor policy. There are significant rules that have been adopted by the NRLB under the Obama administration, which are certainly going to be, at minimum, reviewed and likely undone by a Trump administration with a Republican Congress.
WEISSMANThat's one thing, but it's a whole other thing when the president himself has a direct interest in the outcome of that policy. And this labor story is, again, it's not an exception. It's exemplary. His interest will touch on bankruptcy law, tax law, consumer protection, conduct of foreign policy, access to justice for victims of corporate wrongdoing, a vast array of policies that the president is involved with. He's going to have some personal direct interest unless he severs his tie with the business.
REHMAnd is that what you'd like to see him do, sever completely all of his ties to his ownership both here and abroad?
WEISSMANYeah, I think that's really the only way to avoid these conflicts, which, again. will be inescapable unless he does so.
REHMJan Baran, how do you see it?
BARANWell, I think there's a very challenging situation for Mr. Trump and his family. We've never had a president not only this wealth, but so much of his wealth is tied up in business that he's been engaged in for decades. His family members, particularly his children, are actively involved in the business, including having some ownership in it. And the legal requirements actually make this simpler for him, in the sense that the president of the United States really is not subject to a conflict of interest law.
BARANAll of the decisions made by presidents prior to Mr. Trump on how to handle their resources or assets or income have been basically voluntary and also with one purpose in mind, which is to maintain confidence in their administration and their presidency. They don't want their supporters and the public at large to think that they're engaged in self dealing. They want to prevent interests from ingratiating themselves with their business dealings because the owner is the president and so forth.
BARANBut it's been simple in the past because wealth for presidents in the past have been tied up in very traditional investments, stocks and bonds. And so you put all of that into a blind trust and you're able to at least disassociate yourself.
REHMBut this is so much more complicated.
BARANMuch more complicated and, you know, the solutions that have been raised really present problems in themselves.
BARANWell, the -- a blind trust, well, it's really not blind, is it? I mean, he knows what he owns. He knows what income he receives. So much of his wealth in the businesses is tied up with branding, as Richard mentioned, which means that he doesn't really own a lot of these properties. He just...
REHMBut that's income.
BARANHe gets the income because he's lent his name.
BARANAnd so he gets royalties and it's under contract.
REHMSo where do you come out on this? Do you believe he ought to sell everything?
BARANWell, if he sells everything, then the question becomes who's going to buy this? And, you know, there have been proposals. Why doesn't he just wrap up all of his holdings into a company that then offers stock in a public market, an IPO they call it, initial public offering. Well, you know, what if the Russians want to buy a lot of his stock? Every solution presents problems. And so the challenge for him is, how am I going to credibly disassociate myself from the things that I can and conduct my affairs in a way that retains confidence in the way I'm conducting my presidency.
REHMSo Robert Weissman, obviously, Trump saw this coming. He came up with own solutions. What were they?
WEISSMANWell, a solution is a generous characterization. He said he would put it in a blind trust, which we think is really an all-seeing trust. He would transfer control of the businesses to his children without giving up his ownership stake. That would do nothing to reduce the conflicts of interest. And we're already seeing how this is going to play out. The New York Times reported a couple days ago that he's met with Indian businessmen who are operating Trump branded hotels in Mumbai.
WEISSMANWe saw it during the election where candidate Trump tried to exert pressure on a judge who was overseeing the Trump University class action dispute. There's just no reason to think that President Trump will show good judgment in trying to manage this conflict. But even if he did, there is a structural and unavoidable conflicts and there's really only one way to solve the problem, which is to sell off all these assets.
REHMNow, how many people, Richard Rubin, are informing the about-to-be-president that he should sell off everything?
RUBINI mean, you've heard this coming from groups like Robert's and other -- and ethics lawyers or, you know, there's a pretty unanimous recognition that there's a significant concern problem here. The solutions vary, but I think you know, what we've seen so far is he's said, well, we'll comply with all applicable rules. Well, at Jan said, there really aren't any for presidents. And so this is one of those situations where it's the politics of the situation, the congressional oversight, that we'll talk about later, that really can shape and force him to do things.
REHMRichard Rubin, he's U.S. tax policy reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Short break here, your calls, your comments, stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the Trump empire, if we may call it that, his extensive holdings, the places to which he has lent his name and how all that might be dealt with when he assumes the presidency after the Electoral College votes December 19 and after he is inaugurated in January.
REHMJan, what does the law say about this issue?
BARANWell, there is a law regarding conflicts of interest that apply to government employees in general, which basically prevents them from holding investments or taking action that would result in a direct personal financial benefit for them or their families. So we have those ethics rules, but they apply a little differently to each branch of government.
BARANYou know, the general rule applies to all executive branch officials. So when somebody's nominated to be secretary of the Department of Treasury, they look at his or her assets, they try and figure out which of them would present a conflict, and then they usually dispose of it. Or if they are a secretary of Treasury, and a conflict, unanticipated conflict arises, the normal remedy is that the government official recuses himself or herself from acting on that specific matter before the government.
BARANThe problem, however, is much more complicated for a president or for a congressman or a senator or for the justices of the Supreme Court, and the conflicts rules there apply a little differently so that the House and the Senate have rules that require recusal in very, very narrow circumstances because a congressman or a senator cannot recuse himself or herself and allow someone else to vote for their constituents or for their state.
BARANAnd the same is true for the Supreme Court. It's very, very narrow, and it's fairly self-enforcing because a justice can't hand a vote over to somebody else. So for that reason, those officials rarely recuse themselves. The president of the United States has constitutional duties, and I served on the President's Commission for Federal Ethics Law Reform back in 1989, it was co-chaired by former Attorney General Griffin Bell and former Judge Malcolm Wilkey, there were eight or so of us, and we reviewed all the ethics laws to try and figure out how we can make them all operate the same across the entire government.
BARANAnd we found that it really wasn't possible to do that because of the different roles that a president has or a congressman or a senator or even a justice. So the rules operate a little differently. But the overarching -- and by the way, because the president cannot recuse himself or herself from a decision, you know, the conflicts law really will not apply. The remedy there is that the public will cast judgment and certainly will do so in any re-election campaign for someone like President Trump, and also the Constitution provides the impeachment provision, which is, you know, one of the remedies if there was gross negligence or disregard or really gross unethical behavior that Congress can examine that, as well as conduct hearings.
REHMRichard Rubin, step back a little bit and explain to us exactly what a blind trust is.
RUBINSo the law sets up federal rules for creating what's known as a blind trust. And the idea is say you had a pile of assets, some stocks, some bonds, some mutual funds, even some real estate. You would turn that over -- and this is what President Bush did, what Reagan did, Clinton did. You would turn all that over to an independent trustee, someone who you couldn't tell them what to do, you wouldn't know what was in there, and that trustee would have full authority to buy, sell, do anything.
RUBINSo, you know, once you hand it over, you wouldn't necessarily know what you own. And that's just -- as Jan said before, that's just so different from the situation we're in. I mean, Trump knows what he owns. He knows -- I mean, right now he can know who's staying in his hotels if he wants to. He knows the terms of the deals with these foreign entities, which we don't all necessarily know. He knows what the -- all the detailed loans look like. He knows who the vendors are that he uses. He has all sorts of information that he knows about these businesses that all are now potential levers for anyone to influence the government, and we don't necessarily have anything close to a transparent peak inside of that empire.
REHMYou know, it's so interesting that up to now Donald Trump has seen fit, not that it's an absolute rule, but he has seen fit not to release his tax records. Do you think that's any indication of how he might deal with these arguments that he should indeed sell everything?
RUBINI mean look, this is someone who spent 40 years of his life building this business and doing so in a -- it's a private business. So he's built it that way. He's built it where it's not open to the -- where the books aren't open to the public, and so he's I think used to that sort of framework for it. And this is just a very different world that he's about to be in right now.
RUBINAnd so I don't -- I have not sensed any receptiveness, just like there was very little receptiveness to releasing tax returns, I haven't sensed any receptiveness on their part to selling. They say they're looking at structure that they think will comply, but as Robert said earlier, they're talking about putting his children in charge, but he would still own everything, and he knows -- like I said, he knows where everything is in the business.
RUBINSo no, we haven't seen much yet that would indicate that he's prepared to make major changes in the way this business is structured or run.
REHMWhat do you think, Robert?
WEISSMANWell, there's no evidence of that. I hope that some of the pressure will lead him to change. And I think it's just very important to underscore it's not a matter of whether he's operating with good will or not, although I don't think he deserves the benefit of the doubt on this. But even if he is, the conflicts are unavoidable.
WEISSMANTo take, you know, another example, he -- his operation borrows heavily from Deutsche Bank, and Deutsche Bank is in trouble with the U.S. Department of Justice. The Department of Justice has been seeking a large-scale fine, on the order of $14 billion. Its stock value has tanked. Some worry about whether the company could even survive paying that fine.
WEISSMANWell, after his election, stock value went up 20 percent of Deutsche Bank not because Donald Trump said a word about it, just because the markets made their own judgments. And those kinds of problems are just absolutely unavoidable so long as he's got this wide-ranging corporate empire.
BARANI think it's important to point out to your listeners that while Mr. Trump does not disclose his personal income taxes, he as a candidate and going forward as president is legally required to annually disclose all of his assets and all of his income. And that information has been on file for a couple years now while he was campaigning. It will continue. And I don't think anyone has claimed that those filings are inaccurate or incomplete so far. But they are enormous. They are not legally incomplete. What I think those who wish to have more information are saying, we'd like to get his tax returns so we have a little more specificity on his financial activities.
REHMRichard Rubin, you're shaking your head.
RUBINYeah, I mean, one of the things we've seen on those filings, whether they're legally incomplete or not, there's two things to note. One is that a lot of times he's listing income he's getting from a property in terms of gross revenue instead of net income, and so it can be hard to tell how successful a business is.
RUBINSecond is those forms, as Mr. Trump has said himself, aren't made for someone like him. And so they say anything that's over $50 million, you just check a box that's over $50 million, and you're not getting a full picture of that. And then third is we don't see the -- understandably those forms aren't written so that you would see the customers of his business.
RUBINSo as we've seen in the past week, he's got this hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. Well, if foreign diplomats stayed there and paid a lot of money to that hotel, either -- you know, even if they overpaid, you wouldn't see that flow through at all onto that form. And so that form is useful, but it's limited.
REHMOn another aspect of the ethical questions, what about his daughter Ivanka sitting in on the meeting with the Japanese prime minister? What about his desire to appoint his son-in-law to be with him in the White House, Robert?
WEISSMANWell, the appointment of the son-in-law, if it's going to happen, creates some special problems because there are rules, anti-nepotism rules that would seem to forbid doing exactly that. But the -- I think the bigger question is around the children and the son-in-law together. It is plain that, you know, it's a very close-knit family, and the family is integrated with the business, and it's also plain that he intends to have the family integrated into the White House and the decision-making process.
WEISSMANSo the idea that there's going to be some separation between the children running the business and him running the White House runs afoul of absolutely everything we've seen. It's again why the only solutions to this really serious problem require complete severance from the business interests.
REHMSo are you saying if there were a complete severance from the business interests there would be less objection to having his son-in-law be part of the White House and his daughter somehow be integrated into that process, or are they totally separate?
WEISSMANWell with the children, the children are integrated into the business. So as long as the children are bridging the divide between the business and the White House policymaking, we have special, unique and unprecedented problems of conflict of interest. The son-in-law has his own separate set of businesses, imposes his own unique problems, particularly raising this nepotism issue, which I think are important but not at the same scale of fundamental conflict of interest as the integration of the business and the White House.
BARANYeah, I actually think that all the family members do have their own businesses apart from Mr. Trump. His daughter has a longstanding and apparently very successful fashion business of some sort. I think the two sons have their own ventures in addition to Mr. Trump's and probably some co-ownership in some of those matters. And I think that this discussion sort of points out not only the uniqueness of the situation that's being confronted here, but it may be possible -- it may be impossible to eliminate all the potential problems.
BARANEven if he sold everything, that doesn't mean that the family would -- maybe you're saying the family would have to sell everything. Should Ivanka sell her business, as well? I mean, is that where we're headed here in terms of a solution?
WEISSMANWell, I think there's probably a difference between her role in the Trump -- what's called the Trump organization, network of businesses versus anything that she has on her own. I actually don't know if the jewelry business is part of the Trump organization. If it is, that is an ongoing problem. If it's its own separate business, she's allowed to have...
BARANShe markets -- she markets her business as Ivanka Trump, all right, now Ivanka Kushner.
RUBINRight, you know, she has her own business. She's allowed to make a living. That's not a problem. On the other hand, if she's making a living at running a jewelry business, and she's consulting with the White House on policy, there is another problem.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. And there was that moment when she had a certain bracelet on on television, and immediately after her appearance there was I guess a QVC or something that said you, too, can own this bracelet for $10,600.
WEISSMANRight, so an appearance on "60 Minutes" becomes a product placement for the jewelry that she's selling. I mean, that's just astounding, less central to policymaking than the other things we're talking about but I think indicative of that -- the appropriate lines of distinction between the business and the business of running the country are not being respected.
REHMIs there any other way, Richard Rubin, that you can see resolving this issue? And even if, as Jan says, if he sells everything and puts it into some other kind of monetary interest, is there still going to be that doubt?
RUBINMaybe. I think this falls back -- as Jan was saying before, this becomes sort of a political question. This is -- you know, Congress is responsible for overseeing the operations of the federal government just like the president is, and so you'll see -- the thing to watch for is congressional committees and congressional oversight with the ultimate stick being impeachment but the other stick being laws.
RUBINI mean, Congress can pass a law that requires him to release his tax return, that requires him to disclose much more detailed information about his customers and vendors and business deals. I mean, that would happen -- it would need, you know two-thirds in both houses and a lot of Republicans to overcome a veto if he did, but that's the one mechanism.
RUBINAnother mechanism one could think of is something that Congress has used for other really messy kinds of situations, which is like a special inspector general. So, you know, for -- when they did the TARP program back in 2008, Congress created a special inspector general, who had pretty wide authority to range throughout the federal government and often annoyed people at the Treasury Department and was able to produce sort of independent reports.
RUBINSo you've got those -- that kind of independent report, something like GAO. I mean, there are some independent federal agencies out there that I don't -- Jan or Robert would know the laws better than I would on what they have access to within the executive office of the president. But Congress could, you know, change those laws, too, to allow some sort of third-party kind of investigator to have some ability to produce more information to the public about this.
REHMRobert, this isn't the first time these kinds of questions have come up. Lyndon Johnson with the purchase of his wife's radio stations.
WEISSMANThat's right, but there aren't a lot of other examples like this, and there's nothing in recent times.
REHMQuite so large.
WEISSMANAnd there may be nothing in American history that really is at the vast scale of this and with the global scope, where you really do have unprecedented questions about how the United States government is going to engage with foreign countries and foreign governments now potentially impacted by the business relationships of the Trump organization with those same governments or government-owned enterprises.
REHMYou know, one of the emails we've received, this from David, says what will prevent a foreign or domestic entity from hacking a Trump organization computer and threaten the president via that weakness? Will the NSA protect the entire business empire? What a question. Short break here, and we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We'll open the phones in just one moment. First, here's an email from Constance, who says, "Today's guests on your show care about Trump's conflicts of interest and so do I. But do Trump voters care? They seem to want Trump to go to Washington and break a lot of rules." Suppose he does, simply thumb his nose at all these rules, then what, Jan?
BARANI think it will be up to the voters and to the public and how -- whether -- what they think and whether they accept his behavior.
REHMWhat about the Congress?
BARANI think Congress has a role. Obviously, it is possible to impeach a president. We've seen that in the last 20 years.
REHMBut does this rise to high crimes and misdemeanor?
BARANWell, that's, you know, there are a lot of constitutional law books written about how broadly that can be interpreted. But my point would be that even if you impeach somebody, it doesn't necessarily mean that they get convicted. In fact, I don't think President Clinton was convicted of his impeachment because he didn't do anything wrong. It was just that the public wouldn't accept it and the senators agreed.
BARANAnd so there are rough means of enforcement or, you know, claims against behavior, including impeachment is drastic. But, you know, public opinion is gonna drive everything. And that doesn't mean that there's not gonna be a divide -- divisions of opinion, as we've seen through the campaign.
REHMAll right. Let's take a caller in Cary, N.C. Elizabeth, you're on the air.
ELIZABETHHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
ELIZABETHYour panel has answered many of my questions. So really the comment I have to make is that during the campaign, the major Trump slogan was crooked Hillary. And even though the Hillary -- even though the Clinton campaign tried to address ethical issues on Trump's part and certain personality disorders, they never really raised this issue. And I think even some of your, maybe undecided people who voted for Trump would have cared a great deal about what was going on with respect to the ethical issues now with President-elect Trump.
REHMDo you agree, Robert?
WEISSMANI do. I mean, I think time will tell. I think Jan has it right. The public is really gonna matter on this. The president-elect ran on an anti-corruption platform. And this is actually, if it goes unchecked, far more corrupt than anything that was being alleged about the Clinton Foundation. And we'll see.
REHMAnd yet, here's a tweet from Steven that says, "Policy is much more important than these conflicts of interest that are just exaggerated beyond belief." Do you agree with that, Richard?
RUBINThe exaggerated, I mean, look, it's -- depends on your perspective on this. I think there are real conflicts of interest out there. Even in cases where you might not -- it might not be intentional. We had a story in the Wall Street Journal last week about a Chinese trademark dispute that Trump had had simmering since 2006 that got resolved the week after the election. Well, did he do anything to make that happen? I don't know. Did the Chinese government do something to make that happen? I don't know. What might they want? I don't know.
RUBINAnd so there's -- you can make this quite large. Now, are there interests -- are there important policy pieces to write? Are there important policies to look at? Yes. And believe me, we'll have plenty of time and -- to talk about that. And we're already talking about all of those policy questions.
REHMAnd what about the 25 million he's just paid to Trump University students, a class action?
WEISSMANRight. Well, that's a remarkable case. But, you know, all of these things, they're particular disputes. And they are troubling enough as particular disputes. But more important is that they -- these -- all these issues implicate much broader policies. So I agree with the tweet, but the problem is these conflicts implicate policy. Trademark policy, access to justice, consumer protection, labor rights, tax, bankruptcy, these are directly related to the Trump organization business interests.
REHMAll right. And let's go to Pittsburgh, Pa. Jack, you're on the air.
JACKYes. Thank you. I wanted to make a comment. There have been other presidents who have had business interests. The Kennedys, John Kennedy appointed Bobby as attorney general, nepotism. Sergeant Shriver, head of the Peace Corps, nepotism, Johnson, FCC licenses throughout the state of Texas, Al Gore, Al Jazeera radio or television station. You know, they're getting on Trump because he came into the White House with money.
JACKHe didn't leave the House -- he didn't -- it's not like he went into the White House with no money and leaving with a lot of money. I mean, the Clintons, I mean, you know. And by the way, Bill did break the law. He lied under oath. So a Yale Law School graduate, Rhodes Scholar and he lied. I don't care if you're going for a speeding ticket, you don't lie.
BARANYeah, I think the caller has a valid point, that there have been conflict issues in prior presidency. I would point out, however, that, you know, Lyndon Johnson's behavior, which is very well documented in Robert Caro's very fine books on Johnson, predated the ethics laws that we now have in place. Predated the requirement that public officials, including the president, annually file disclosures as to what they own and what income they receive. So we've made some progress on this front.
BARANBut in all cases, the behavior of the president is really dependent on his own conduct and what he's going to do. I think that President-elect Trump's challenge is to do something with all of this, recognizing these problems. In fact, his campaign against the Clinton Foundation and their behavior, I believe, raises his consciousness about the importance of conducting himself going forward to minimize -- he's not gonna be able to eliminate -- but to minimize similar attacks against him.
BARANSo let's see, you know, we're only 12 days since the election. They've been busy on a variety of things. These are issues they have got to be grappling in right now. And they're gonna come up with some proposals. And we'll see if they're credible.
REHMSo, Robert, spell out what would be a satisfactory solution to all of these holdings, the -- not only those in this country, but those around the world. How are people gonna deal with this?
WEISSMANWell, again, I think the solution has to be to sell the business.
REHMJust outright sell everything?
WEISSMANOutright. He cannot, yes. And the business can maintain, can go on using the Trump name, but Donald J. Trump can no longer be connected to the business. And his proceeds would then be invested in mutual funds or invested by a trustee operating, a legitimate blind trust. He has to be completely disconnected. In the absence of that, how are people gonna deal with this? You know, we have no precedent. The -- and the -- and it's gonna be constant.
WEISSMANThe -- Richard was report -- mentioning the Washington Post just reported over the weekend about foreign diplomats saying, yeah, we're gonna go stay in the Trump Hotel, downtown, right by the White House, so we can go and then report to the president. Yeah, we just stayed in your hotel and it was great. Again, he doesn't have to do anything. And there's actually nothing he can do to avoid those kind of problems unless he doesn't have a relationship.
WEISSMANAnd if you think -- just that hotel is really remarkable. That hotel is in the Old Post Office building. It's leased from the U.S. government. So the Trump business is leasing rights to run the -- to run this hotel from the U.S. government. The nature of that contract is there's gonna be constant negotiations over the terms of the -- how that hotel is being run, public access, which is required as part of the contract, ongoing negotiations. How is the government official supposed to negotiate with the Trump organization, knowing that the president is on both sides of the deal, above him or her and at the other side of the negotiating tables?
REHMSo, Jan, do you agree with Robert that selling all the assets is the only way to make this a workable solution?
BARANI don't think it will stop the nitpicking or the scrutiny. You know, it may be a partial solution.
REHMWhat would be the other part?
BARANWell, the other part is increased disclosure. Now, you know, I don't think we can be just disregarding the effect of selling a business as basically family-run and that is tied to his children. It won't eliminate the Trump name from any of these things. It will not have anything to do with the lease for the Trump Hotel here, which, by the way, is a case where the Trump organization is paying the government, you know, according to -- I assume it's a 30 or 40-year lease. Those things are already set in stone. The challenge for them, if they're gonna continue with the business in any fashion, is not what's happened up to this point, it's what they're gonna do going forward.
REHMRichard Rubin, what are we hearing from the Trump camp thus far?
RUBINThey've said, you know, they'll have their children, the adult children, running the business. Again, as Robert talked about before, it's the distinction, you talk about running it and not owning it, that he would continue to own it. And they've talked about complying with all applicable rules and that they're working with lawyers on this. And that's about the extent of what they've said. Every time they're asked about it, that's kind of what they keep coming back to. So we have not gotten anything resembling a full plan for how they propose to deal with this.
REHMAll right. To Michelle, at Star Tannery, Va. You're on the air.
MICHELLEHello, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
MICHELLEThis conversation doesn't give me very much confidence in our system or our electorate. Shouldn't the matter of Trump's business dealings been addressed while he was a candidate? Isn't this like closing the barn door after the horses are stolen?
RUBINSort of. I mean, look, there was -- was this the prime subject of the campaign? No. Was there coverage of this? Yes. And we certainly wrote about the potential conflict of interest before the election. And other news organizations did, too. As Diane talked about earlier, this wasn't something necessarily that the Clinton campaign really drove at very much. They talked a lot about his lack of transparency, but they didn't really hit him on the conflict of interest piece quite as much. And to some extent, the press and the public take their cues from campaigns. And this was not something the campaign drove at consistently.
BARANI think his wealth was very prominently displayed during the campaign. I mean, he had numerous campaign events at many of his properties. I think he opened a golf course of Scotland during the campaign. He opened his hotel here in Washington. And that's kind of important because everyone knew that he was a very rich man with a lot of businesses, they were personally owned. And he got elected notwithstanding that. So now the question is, well, how is he gonna reconcile that wealth and that ownership and not have it undermine his presidency?
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Center Harbor, N.H., Peggy, you're on the air.
PEGGYYes. I have a comment and a question. My comment when Jimmy Carter became president he digested himself of his peanut farm after a lot of pressure from Republicans. And, you know, I'd like to know why Donald Trump is different. Also, I'm not sure if this fake news or real and I'd like to know what your guests think about this, that I've heard that on December 14th there's a lawsuit regarding his alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl. Hello?
WEISSMANI'm not, yeah, I'm not up on that. I've heard some bits. But I just can't comment on that.
REHMWe don't know if that's fake news or otherwise.
WEISSMANRight. I just don't -- I don't know enough to talk about it.
REHMBut she does raise the point about Jimmy Carter and the peanut farm. And Republicans saying he had to get rid of it.
WEISSMANThis is just common sense. There are hard problems in ethics, in life and in government. And this is not one of them. This is a really easy call. No question. I mean, I agree with Jan. It would create personal discomfort. And it's obvious that he personally has built -- his personal identity is connected to the business. The family is integrated in it. So that would be personally difficult. But that really is not an issue of national import.
WEISSMANAnd whether he has conflicts of interest that are pervasive and affecting the conduct of government policy, the conduct of foreign policy, that is a question of national interest and it has to prevail.
BARANI think the Jimmy Carter peanut business is a good example, 'cause he did sell that. Of course, this was much easier to do that. It, however, did not eliminate any -- all of the controversies. He had a brother named Billy who wanted to continue working at the peanut warehouse and did for awhile. The brother then marketed his name to somebody to create Billy Beer.
BARANAnd then, towards the end of the presidency poor Billy Carter wound up trying to negotiate some sort of an oil exploration contract for some company in the country of Gabon in Africa.
REHMAll right. Last question from Laura in Potomac, Md. Quickly, please.
LAURASure. Hi. I think that the problem here is actually what's best about America and Americans, which is we're so trusting, we rely on people doing the right thing. And I just wonder why all of this -- we're able to say, oh, it's unprecedented, instead of putting something into place now, you know, saying you have to, you know, apply this code of ethics, you cannot have this conflict of interest. Is there anything we can do now before he actually takes office?
WEISSMANWell, the Congress could act, but of course it's not highly likely that a Republican Congress is gonna impose these kind of rules on a Republican president.
BARANThere are serious constitutional issues as to the point in which Congress can impose certain criteria on a president. And I think that that has been the obstacle in proposing rules of this -- in this area, against any president of the United States.
REHMSo what you're saying is he could take office, keep everything exactly as it is, unless the Congress moves?
RUBINI think so. Congress is the check on him. The other thing to watch that we haven't really talked about at all is the -- what's known as the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prevents any federal official from taking gifts or fees from foreign governments. And that's likely to become a bigger issue…
RUBIN…as we get more detail about what his foreign business transactions are like.
REHMAll right. And we'll have to leave it there. Richard Rubin of The Wall Street Journal, Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen and Jan Baran, head of the election law group at Wiley Rein. Thank you all for being here.
BARANThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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