Resolution Aims To Keep Trump's Businesses From Being A Conflict
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President-elect Trump portrays himself as a negotiator. And if that's right, we may be witnessing a public negotiation over his business. At issue here are Trump's global interests. His company runs a Washington hotel, for example. It owes money to a giant German bank and also to a state-owned bank in China. It controls real estate, such as golf courses in Scotland and much more. Republican and Democratic ethics lawyers have said that while federal ethics law exempts the president, he could violate other laws and face risk of foreign influence.
So here's the flow of negotiation. The president-elect's opening bid came a few days ago. He said everyone knew of his business when he ran and it's not a, quote, "big deal." A new bid came yesterday. Mr. Trump said on Twitter he should, quote, "in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses." And he said he would remove himself from, quote, "business operations," but he gave no details.
Presidential ethics lawyers say that's not yet enough. Republican members of Congress have agreed this needs to be addressed, though they're giving the president-elect time. A Maryland Democrat, Senator Ben Cardin, has introduced a resolution about this. We reached Cardin in a Senate office building after Trump's statement.
BEN CARDIN: I was encouraged by the president-elect's announcements. I will wait to see the details. But it must be an independent trustee. It cannot be his children, who are also being used as part of the advice of his new administration.
INSKEEP: The president-elect in announcing some kind of future step that he intends to take adds, quote, "I am not mandated to do this under the law." Do you agree that he's not required to take any steps to avoid conflicts of interest?
CARDIN: The president - any president is required to take these steps under the Constitution. The Constitution prohibits the president from accepting any types of gratuities or gifts from a foreign power. The Trump enterprises are involved in countries around the world. It would be almost impossible for the president to be able to conduct business without foreign entities trying to curry favor by how they treat his business enterprises.
INSKEEP: Could bribery statutes also apply here?
CARDIN: Well, bribery statutes do apply. I don't think anyone is suggesting that the president is beyond a bribery statute. We saw at one time there was a question as to whether what the president does is automatically legal. That was challenged and, as you know, Congress took steps. So, no - president is certainly subject to the criminal statutes.
INSKEEP: You said it's not good enough for him to turn the business over to his children. Why not?
CARDIN: The president-elect has already nominated his children to be part of his transition team. They're selecting or helping to select who will be in the cabinet of President Trump. They clearly have access to the power in decision making. That type of person cannot be an independent manager of Trump enterprises.
INSKEEP: I don't want to overstate this, Senator Cardin, but this is about the rule of law basically, at least as you have framed it here. Is the constitution on the line here in this?
CARDIN: Well, the first thing that Donald Trump will do in becoming president of the United States is to take the oath of office, where he swears his allegiance to support the Constitution of the United States. This provision was put in by our founders because they were concerned about corrupt foreign influence in our system of government.
So this is a fundamental responsibility for the presidency. It is not about any one person. And it's critically important that Donald Trump follow the practice of previous presidents since George Washington to make sure that there is no effort by foreign powers to influence our government and there's certainly no appearance of that influence.
INSKEEP: What would your resolution that you've proposed do?
CARDIN: My resolution restates the clause in the Constitution, says that Donald Trump is required to comply with it and that he needs to establish a way in which he is not at all involved in the decision making.
A blind trust has been the preferred route of previous presidents. Some have gone further. President Obama sold most of his assets and put them into U.S. Treasury bonds. But at a minimum, he needs to set up a totally independent control of his business and not with a person who also has contact with the president in regards to his decisions as president.
INSKEEP: And I guess we should note, some people have said a blind trust must be impossible here 'cause it's obvious what Trump owns. It has the word Trump all over it. But in a blind trust, the trustee typically begins selling things, doesn't he or she? So you don't really know anymore.
CARDIN: Well, the trustee has full power. The trustee can sell. The trustee can do what he or she thinks is in the best interests. But you're right. Trump's name's on a lot of buildings. Some of those buildings he has a financial interest. Some of them he does not have a financial interest. So he sells just the trademark. That's a decision that an independent trustee would make, independent of any attempt by the owners to influence those decisions.
Also the trustee could not give the president any advice as to how he should conduct the office of the presidency. That's the firewall that needs to exist. Clearly, it's a challenge. But in reality, we got to make sure that the Constitution's adhered to.
INSKEEP: What have you heard from your Republican colleagues about this?
CARDIN: Several of my Republican colleagues have already commented on the potential conflicts here and that the president has a responsibility to make sure that that doesn't happen. So this is not a partisan issue. This is an effort to avoid a problem?
INSKEEP: But just underlining this a little more, you've got Republican majorities. If the Congress is going to act as a check and balance on this president, some Republicans are going to have to decide that they want to join that effort. Do you believe that they will?
CARDIN: Oh, absolutely. This needs to be an institutional decision. It can't be a decision by one party. There's - be no effort made to make this a partisan issue. I think there are many Republicans and Democrats who recognize that if this were to go without resolution, we run the risk of a constitutional issue.
INSKEEP: Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, thanks very much as always.
CARDIN: My pleasure. Good talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.