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Trump needs to do one thing to truly remove personal conflicts, experts say

Donald Trump has taken some steps to reduce a web of possible conflicts of interest during his presidency, but he will not truly cut his entanglements until he signs his businesses over to an independent trustee, experts say.

Over the weekend, Trump announced that he plans to shut down the Donald J. Trump Foundation, a charitable organization, "to avoid even any appearance" of a conflict with the presidency. The foundation, which Trump vehemently defended this week, left the potential for individuals to try to gain access in exchange for donations. The move came after three of Trump's children distanced themselves from charity events that appeared to offer access to the incoming first family.

The organization cannot fully shut down yet amid the New York state attorney general's investigation into whether foundation funds were used to help Trump, his family or his businesses, among other issues. Even when it does close, it will not go far enough to ensure he does not use the presidency to enrich himself or his family, government ethics experts said.

"In my mind it doesn't mean much when he has so many other obvious conflicts to tackle," said Lisa Gilbert, director of the Congress Watch division at Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a stop on his 'USA Thank You Tour 2016.' at the Orlando Amphitheater at the Central Florida Fairgrounds on December 16, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images
President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a stop on his 'USA Thank You Tour 2016.' at the Orlando Amphitheater at the Central Florida Fairgrounds on December 16, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.

Presidents for decades have signed their assets over to a blind, or fully independent, trust to avoid the appearance of conflicts, Norman Eisen, a former ambassador to the Czech Republic and Obama administration ethics advisor, told CNBC on Wednesday. Trump canceled a press conference this month meant to outline his plans for his global business holdings, then tweeted that his eldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, will help to run his companies.

Trump has noted that the president is exempt from criminal conflict of interest laws. But he could still violate the Constitution if he does not put his assets in a blind trust, according to Eisen and Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration.

"He just has to sign and turn all of these businesses over to an independent trustee," Eisen told CNBC's "Squawk Alley."

For instance, Eisen and Painter said Trump could possibly run afoul of the Constitution's "Emoluments Clause," which effectively bars federal officials from doing business with or taking gifts from foreign governments without congressional approval. A connection to his businesses could put Trump at risk of violating that provision as he talks to leaders around the globe.

"There are lots of risks here for the president holding on to the businesses," Painter told "Squawk Alley."

Painter added that he believes Trump ultimately will turn his assets over to a blind trust because "there are just too many problems" if he keeps them. Already, Trump has faced criticism for including his children in official meetings and admitting that he might have discussed business-related issues with a foreign official.

Earlier this month, the Office of Government Ethics argued that Trump should follow tradition by divesting from his businesses or establishing a true blind trust. In a letter sent to Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., agency director Walter Shaub Jr. said transferring operational control to his children "would not constitute the establishment of a qualified blind trust, nor would it eliminate conflicts of interest" under the primary federal statute.

Trump previously argued that "in theory" he could keep running his businesses while in office.

Trump's transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.