Donald Trump's plan to separate himself from his business empire does not go far enough and could create major ethics and even constitutional problems on the first day of his administration, experts said.
A Trump lawyer on Wednesday told reporters in New York that Trump will separate from his global business assets by putting them into a trust run by his two eldest sons and a Trump Organization executive. The company will also hire an ethics advisor to clear any new domestic deals, and Trump will donate any hotel profits generated from foreign governments to avoid the appearance of gifts.
With this structure, Trump is "walking through a minefield blindfolded" when he takes office Jan. 20, said Norman Eisen, a former top White House ethics lawyer under President Barack Obama who has led calls for Trump to divest his businesses, along with former George W. Bush lawyer Richard Painter.
"The president-elect's disregard for ethics and precedent and the Constitution in his press conference today are going to precipitate an ethics and constitutional crisis from the day he's sworn in," he told MSNBC on Wednesday.
Many ethics experts had called on Trump to divest his business or give his assets to a truly independent trustee to avoid the potential for him or his family to profit from the presidency. The U.S. Office of Government Ethics, an independent executive branch agency, previously said the involvement of Trump's children would not go far enough to reduce conflicts.
The president is exempt from the main federal conflict of interest law, though the OGE says past presidents have always acted like they were bound by it. Sheri Dillon, a tax attorney at Morgan Lewis, contended that Trump did not even need to take the steps he announced Wednesday to reduce possible conflicts.
Dillon contended that divesting the business would have been too complicated and could have created even more conflicts. She also argued that a constitutional clause barring gifts from foreign officials should not apply to foreign diplomats staying at Trump's Washington hotel. Reports of officials wanting to be seen at Trump's hotel raised concerns that the transactions could be seen as gifts, violating the so-called Emoluments Clause.
Eisen said, though, that this structure still leaves the possibility for emoluments violations or leaves the door open to running afoul of rules prohibiting bribery or insider trading, for example.
"This is a guarantee of scandal, corruption, controversy," he said, noting that action to check Trump's possible conflicts could come from all three branches of government.
Trump's involvement in his businesses does not matter if he continues to own them, added Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a public advocacy group. Trump "knows what he owns, and he knows how policy choices will affect his business," he said in a statement.
Trevor Potter, president of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, also said in a statement that "there is no reason why Trump would not be affected by the fortunes of a business he founded and still owns, which is run by his adult children."
Elizabeth Warren and Democrats in the Senate and House have already introduced a bill aimed to push Trump to divest his businesses. Still, it may not gain traction with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress and Trump assuming the presidency in nine days.