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Trump's ethics plan is worse than you thought

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(Bloomberg View) — Just about a month ago, Donald Trump gave his first press conference since last summer to try to reassure voters, ethics watchdogs and political analysts concerned about financial conflicts of interest that might entangle and compromise his White House.

Related: Ten ethical mistakes

Like many Trump press events, it was a carnivalesque affair, featuring meandering attacks on the media and the intelligence community before finally offering an outline of how Trump would insulate his public policymaking from his own business dealings.

In short, Trump said he would extricate himself (and his daughter and political adviser Ivanka) from the Trump Organization by turning it over to his eldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, and keeping them under the watchful eyes of a pair of internal ethics and business monitors. Trump also promised to forward some profits from his hotels to the federal government to avoid violating constitutional restrictions against the president receiving gifts or money from foreign entities.

Related: Regulatory burden review

None of this amounted to Trump authentically distancing himself from his businesses. Nor was it in line with decades of presidential traditions informing how the commander in chief has avoided the substance and appearance of conflicts of interest (even though federal conflict-of-interest laws don’t apply to the president).

Thanks to documents that ProPublica, a non-profit investigative journalism organization, first unearthed recently through a Freedom of Information Act request — and which the New York Times subsequently reported — we now know that Trump appears to have even less distance from his business interests than the window dressing of that press conference suggested.

According to the documents, Trump has established a trust, the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust, that will house all of the president’s assets tied to the licensing and development activities of the Trump Organization. But the trust’s two managers are Donald Trump Jr. and Allen Weisselberg, a longtime Trump confidante who first worked for Trump’s father, Fred, and who has been the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer for years.

The documents note that President Trump is to receive “exclusive benefit” from any assets in the trust. In other words, he still could see profits from the Trump Organization flow directly into his wallet and he gets to keep those for himself. While Donald Trump Jr. and Weisselberg have legal authority over the assets in the trust, the president can revoke their authority at any time.

How much money might course through the Trump Organization and find its way to the president may never be discernable because Trump has resisted releasing his tax returns ever since he began his White House bid. Keeping those returns buried is also out of step with presidential tradition. While Trump’s spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, has tried to minimize the significance of that lapse, Trump’s refusal to do so continues to concern voters.

Trump’s tax returns are significant — they would offer the public a necessary window onto his business dealings, his philanthropic efforts, his overseas operations and the financial forces that will come to bear upon him in the White House. Yet Trump has latched on to a number of slender reasons for avoiding releasing them.

Trump’s tax returns would offer the public a necessary window onto his business dealings, philanthropic efforts and overseas operations. (Photo: iStock)Trump’s tax returns would offer the public a necessary window onto his business dealings, philanthropic efforts and overseas operations. (Photo: iStock)

As long as Trump remains intimately tied to the Trump Organization’s deals and profits, and for as long as he refuses to be transparent about his tax returns, virtually every action he takes as president will carry an odor of self-dealing.

Trump’s recent executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries has drawn various forms of criticism, while Trump has defended it as necessary to secure the nation’s borders from terrorists. But as my Bloomberg News colleagues first noted, the list of banned countries didn’t include Muslim-majority countries where Trump has pursued or completed deals.

Trump’s team took its list of banned nations from an earlier Obama administration list of targeted countries, his supporters noted. It followed, they said, that Trump hadn’t purposefully limited the scope of his list to countries where he didn’t have financial interests.

On the other hand, his minions had been crafting the executive order since shortly after Election Day and they had plenty of time to broaden the roster of banned nations to include countries where Trump has operated — if they had wanted to do that. Perhaps they didn’t to avoid stepping on Trump’s financial toes.

Either way, Trump and his team won’t get the benefit of the doubt about their actions and choices at moments like these because they’ve opposed a clear and clean separation of Trump Tower deal-making from White House policy-making.

Such behavior appears to flow from the father down to his children. Ivanka, for example, has claimed that she would part ways with the Trump Organization and her own clothing and jewelry business by moving to Washington and taking a “leave of absence” from the companies. (She hasn’t defined exactly what she means by “leave” other than to say that she’s letting others run both enterprises for her.)

But as ProPublica reported last week, Ivanka has yet to make public any documentation demonstrating that she has formally left her and her family’s businesses. Her husband, Jared Kushner, now has an influential role as a presidential advisor and is a potential conduit to his wife for confidential information about public policy decisions.

Ivanka has already begun making her Washington home into a salon of sorts. She may hope to revivify and update a largely vanished tradition established by society hostesses — such as Katharine Graham, Pamela Harriman, Polly Kraft, Sally Quinn — who helped give Washington life some texture and offered guests a safe harbor to discuss their differences.

But Ivanka, who was photographed last week attending a White House meeting with her father’s economic advisory council, recently hosted a dinner party that included a number of prominent corporate executives. Doug McMillon, the chief executive officer of Wal-Mart, was among them, according to Politico. Ivanka’s clothing line is sold in Wal-Mart stores, and Wal-Mart’s operations will be subject to a number of decisions that the Trump White House makes, including such things as corporate tax rates and labor regulations. All of Ivanka’s overlapping interests are thus rendered murky. What’s okay and what’s not? What’s traditional Washington hobnobbing and what’s influence peddling or self-dealing? The Trumps make it hard for all of us to draw clear lines around some of these things because they don’t draw clear lines themselves.

More likely than not, the Trumps’ hesitation to do so stems from the simple reality that they aren’t serious about leaving their business dealings behind in the name of public service. Trump himself has historically been enamored of making money almost any way he can, and that behavior isn’t likely to change now — especially if he saw his presidential bid from the very beginning as a marketing effort that could ultimately fatten his wallet, and not really as a crusade to make America great again.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

See also:

Ethical sales practices are good for more than your conscience

How to build an ethical, effective online presence

The Top 5 Ethical Challenges Facing Today’s Agents

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