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Government ethics and legal experts say President-elect Donald Trump's plan to transfer oversight of his company to his sons does not go far enough to avoid serious conflicts of interest as president, and they urged journalists not to let him off the hook.
Trump announced today at a press conference that he would transfer control of The Trump Organization to a trust controlled by his eldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, and Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, but would still retain an ownership interest in the business and receive reports on the business' finances.
His attorney, Sheri Dillon of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, told reporters the company would also appoint an in-house ethics consultant to review future actions and cancel pending foreign deals. Still, ethics experts say the plan falls short of a clear separation from the business side.
“It doesn’t do what everybody wanted it to do,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project On Government Oversight. “In essence, keeping an ownership interest in the business is a wrong decision. He can’t just set up firewalls between himself and his sons who are running the business and think there isn’t a conflict of interest.”
He later added, “As the chief executive of the United States government, there will still be decisions made that can affect his business and the public needs to know that the decisions he is making are in the best interests of the public and not of his business.”
Amey said reporters “are going to have to stay on top of what the ethics agreement is going to look like and what enforcement mechanisms are in there to prevent conflicts of interest and what monitoring is being done on the government side and with this ethics official at The Trump Organization.”
Matthew Sanderson, a government ethics lawyer with law firm Caplin & Drysdale, called it a “mixed bag” at best.
“There are a few laudable measures,” he said. “The cancellation of any pending deals along with the appointment of an ethics advisor, freeze on foreign deals. Those are good things.”
“The problem is he remains conflicted,” Sanderson stressed. “He still holds an ownership interest in The Trump Organization, which means his net worth will increase with any favorable government decisions. The fact that he is now letting someone else do the work, the management, does not change the fact that he will still benefit. … He’s still in the position of being a conflicted president and open to the accusation that he is monetizing the presidency.”
Kathleen Clark, a Washington University School of Law professor and government ethics expert, said Trump needs to “remove not just his management activities, but remove himself from having a financial interest in the firm. He’s retaining a financial interest in the company -- that hasn’t changed.
“He’ll still be financially benefiting from them. I didn’t see any indication that he is giving up an ownership interest at all.”
She added: “There is the conflict of interest concern, an ethical concern even though the Congress has exempted the president from the conflict. But he will be in a position where he can use government office to enrich The Trump Organization and enrich himself.”
She also cited the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution that bars federal officeholders from profiting from foreign governments or their agents: “The problem is that The Trump Organization and Donald Trump will receive and he will receive money from foreign governments, that is what’s prohibited. He says he will donate the profits, the Emoluments Clause is concerned with payments, not just profits. Who gets to define what the profits are?”
Violating the Emoluments Clause is an impeachable offense. And according to legal experts, barring a full divestment from his business dealings with foreign governments, Trump will be in violation of this clause the moment he is inaugurated as president.
On Twitter, Laurence Tribe, Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard University, argued that “Trump's workaround is a totally fraudulent runaround.” He added that the plan is “cleverly designed to dazzle and deceive, but it solves none of the serious ethical or legal issues.”
Most Sunday news shows gave little attention to reports detailing the Office of Government Ethics’ (OGE) concerns that it will not be able to complete background checks on all of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees in time for their confirmation hearings. Despite the confirmation hearings beginning this week, CBS’ Face the Nation was the only show to devote significant time to the story.
The President-Elect’s Media Allies Are Already Helping Him Control Narratives And Publicly Attack Enemies
After the 2016 presidential election, President-elect Donald Trump is coalescing a network of supportive right-wing media outlets, including an online publication owned by his son-in-law, a supermarket tabloid, and a new 24-hour news outlet that has been described as “Trump TV.” Since the primaries, these right-wing media outlets have helped push Trump's agenda and have attacked his political opponents.
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Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich is advocating for Congress to “change the ethics laws” for President-elect Donald Trump, rather than forcing Trump to “disentangle himself from his multibillion-dollar business to avoid conflicts of interest with his incoming administration.”
Following Trump’s electoral victory, ethics lawyers warned that “that no president has ever come into office with such potential entanglements” as Trump, and that his proposed plan to address his potential conflicts of interests by simply turning over his business to his children “doesn’t go far enough to ensure that Trump’s presidential duties don’t clash with his money-making dealings.” In fact, ethics lawyers have cautioned about Trump’s potential conflicts of interest since September, with the former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush Richard Painter calling Trump’s potential conflicts of interest “a serious problem” that is deserving of media attention.
Now, Gingrich, a staunch Trump supporter, is calling for “a whole new approach” for Congress to address Trump’s potential conflicts of interest: “Change the ethics laws.” Gingrich also suggested that Trump could use “the power of the pardon” to get around ethics laws by saying “Look, I want them to be my advisers. I pardon them if anyone finds them to have behaved against the rules. Period.” According to Politico:
Newt Gingrich has a take on how Donald Trump can keep from running afoul of U.S. ethics laws: Change the ethics laws.
Trump is currently grappling with how to sufficiently disentangle himself from his multibillion-dollar business to avoid conflicts of interest with his incoming administration, and the president-elect has already pushed back a promised announcement of an ethics firewall.
Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and one-time potential running mate for Trump, says Trump should push Congress for legislation that accounts for a billionaire businessman in the White House.
“We’ve never seen this kind of wealth in the White House, and so traditional rules don’t work,” Gingrich said Monday during an appearance on NPR’s "The Diane Rehm Show" about the president-elect’s business interests. “We’re going to have to think up a whole new approach.”
And should someone in the Trump administration cross the line, Gingrich has a potential answer for that too.
“In the case of the president, he has a broad ability to organize the White House the way he wants to. He also has, frankly, the power of the pardon,” Gingrich said. “It’s a totally open power. He could simply say, ‘Look, I want them to be my advisers. I pardon them if anyone finds them to have behaved against the rules. Period. Technically, under the Constitution, he has that level of authority.”
Gingrich — who says he is not joining Trump's administration — didn’t provide many details for what a new approach would entail, other than reiterating his support for an outside panel of experts Trump should convene that would regularly monitor how his company and government are operating and “offer warnings if they get too close to the edge.”
Sunday morning political shows almost entirely ignored the unprecedented move by North Carolina Republicans to significantly limit the executive powers of the incoming Democratic governor.
On December 14, Republicans in the North Carolina state legislature launched a three-day special session for the sole purpose of introducing “a flurry of bills … to undermine [incoming Democratic Governor Roy] Cooper by stripping him of his ability to make key appointments to state and local boards and mandating, for the first time, legislative approval of his cabinet,” The New York Times reported. The Times added that the “significant shackling of the governor’s authority” may result in lawsuits from the incoming administration against the state legislature.
CNN.com reported that the Republican legislature's "unprecedented power grab" includes legislation to “block Cooper from appointing any members to the state Board of Education and to the board of trustees for the University of North Carolina system,” and to slow lawsuits from reaching the majority Democratic-appointed state Supreme Court. The legislation also will revert to a partisan election process for filling vacancies at appellate level state courts.
Despite North Carolina Republicans’ “brazen bid for permanent power,” the Sunday morning political shows of December 18 all but ignored their unprecedented actions. A Media Matters review of ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation, NBC’s Meet the Press, CNN’s State of the Union, and Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday found that only Meet the Press discussed the situation in one brief segment that lasted less than three minutes.
Host Chuck Todd opened a discussion on Meet the Press about the events in North Carolina by describing them as “perfectly legal” due to Republicans’ “veto-proof majority.” (In fact, a legal challenge against North Carolina Republicans’ actions may be looming.) The segment also featured misinformation from CNBC’s Rick Santelli, a right-wing commentator sometimes credited for “launching the tea party movement,” who bizarrely transformed a story about a state political party’s power grab into a complaint that “the federal government gets too much control in various states.”
Other national and internet media outlets have given this story the detailed reporting and thoughtful analysis it demands. Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern wrote that the “last-minute power grab marks an alarming departure from basic democratic norms” and is “a blatant attempt to overturn the results of an election by curtailing judicial independence and restructuring the government to seize authority lawfully delegated to the incoming Democratic governor.” The New York Times and Washington Post editorial boards excoriated North Carolina Republicans’ "novel strategy to subvert the will of the voters" in a “graceless power grab.” And as elections law expert Rick Hasen explained, some of the measures are so extreme that they could spur “potential Voting Rights Act and federal constitutional challenges” on the basis that “the legislature would potentially be diluting minority voting power and making minority voters worse off."
Nonetheless, Sunday shows appear to be following the poor example set by broadcast news shows, which Media Matters previously found completely ignored the story for several days.
Media Matters searched Snapstream and iQ Media for mentions of “North Carolina” on the December 18 editions of CNN’s State of the Union, ABC’s This Week, CBS’ Face the Nation, NBC’s Meet the Press, and Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday.
Fox News gave its contributors Pete Hegseth and Scott Brown platforms to publicly audition to be President-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of veterans affairs, a position for which they are both reportedly being considered.
On the December 16 edition of Fox & Friends, Hegseth answered viewers' questions about veterans' issues and explained his vision for the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). The hosts openly acknowledged Hegseth’s possible pick as VA secretary, and he acted as if the segment were an audition for the role, answering questions sent to the show, such as, “How will the VA combat corruption and avoid awarding bonuses to executives who do not meet targeted objectives?” and, “What will you do about the corrupt unions that continue to play politics and use intimidation tactics to keep all corruption issues quiet?” In addition to pushing for firing certain VA officials and allowing the use of private doctors, he bragged that the VA union disliked him because “we've been taking them on for years.” Hegseth discussed his meetings with Trump and lauded the president-elect for being “willing to fight back” and said he will be “an amazing president.”
The same day, Brown appeared on America’s Newsroom, where he also acknowledged he was “in the mix” for the VA position and was asked by co-host Bill Hemmer “what [his] big sales point” was to Trump about why he deserved the position. Brown said he had “political” and “media experience” and pushed for fixing “mismanagement” at the VA. He also praised Trump’s “plain talk” and his “positive” message.
Hegseth and Brown are reportedly top contenders to be Trump’s VA secretary, and have met with Trump multiple times to discuss the position. According to The New York Times, veterans groups have strongly opposed Hegseth and Brown. The groups told the Times that their opposition to Hegseth stems from his work with “Republican-funded activist groups and think tanks that have portrayed veterans health care as feckless and corrupt,” including the right-wing group Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) where he served as CEO. The group, which is backed by the Koch brothers and supports the privatization of the VA, has been criticized for its “partisan attacks” against Democrats. Hegseth was also criticized by veterans groups for his position that veterans should have “the choice to seek care in the private sector,” which those groups said could “siphon billions of dollars away from veterans hospitals, causing the system to collapse.”
Joe Chenelly, the executive director of the advocacy group Amvets, told the Times that Brown “lacks the experience to run a nationwide health care and benefits system with 350,000 employees.” Brown, a former Republican senator, has used Fox multiple times previously as a platform to criticize the VA and the Obama administration’s promise to help veterans.
If picked to head the VA, Hegseth or Brown would join the multiple Fox personalities who have joined or are being considered for the incoming Trump administration.
Catherine Herridge: “These Operations Were Sanctioned By The Highest Levels Of The Russian Government”
Fox News’ chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge reported that Fox News has independently verified Russian-backed cyber militias targeted US systems in “an effort to interfere in the US election.” Herridge’s report comes after weeks of Fox News denying the Russian government could have anything to do with the election hack.
After 17 intelligence agencies reported that the Russian government was involved with hacking political organizations’ emails, Fox News repeatedly attempted to cast doubt on the reports by calling the agencies political. Fox host Sean Hannity derided the CIA’s conclusions as “politically motivated” “fake news,” and his colleague Tucker Carlson has repeatedly downplayed the possibility of Russia influencing the election and attacked anybody supporting the thesis. And Fox News contributor John Bolton even claimed that the “ridiculous” allegations of Russian interference could be a “false flag.”
Despite Fox’s campaign to cast doubt on the possibility of the Russian government seeking to undermine American elections, a December 15 report from chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge said that “Fox News has independently confirmed that Russian backed cyber-militias were targeting US systems and influential US persons in the summer of 2015,” an operation which “evolved into an effort to interfere in the US election … sanctioned by the highest levels of the Russian government.” From the December 15 edition of Fox News’ The Kelly File:
CATHERINE HERRIDGE: Fox News has independently confirmed that Russian-backed cyber militias were targeting US systems and influential US persons in the summer of 2015, and the operation evolved into an effort to interfere in the US election. These operations were sanctioned by the highest levels of the Russian government.
After the FBI director’s July statement about the Clinton email investigation, a government source says there was a reluctance to further insert government institutions and their assessments into an already deeply politicized election cycle. A leading cybersecurity expert says the intelligence community reviewed the techniques, tactics, and procedures leveraged in the attacks and made the link to Russia. In October, the agencies and Homeland Security, or DHS, went on the record, though Putin was not mentioned by name.
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Since the presidential election, conservative radio host Sean Hannity has devoted himself to promoting the dangerous and undemocratic notion that President-elect Donald Trump should not have a press office in his White House. The Trump campaign is taking steps to ensure that Hannity’s vision may become a reality.
Hannity has used his radio and television shows to urge the incoming president to “rethink how he deals with media,” arguing that mainstream media outlets are “all full of crap." Hannity advised fellow right-wing radio host and potential Trump administration press secretary Laura Ingraham that, if she got the job, she should not "go out and talk with" the media every day. Hannity even suggested to Trump advisor Newt Gingrich that, instead of a press office, Trump should come on The Sean Hannity Show to “take calls from people all over the country.”
On December 14, Hannity repeated his offer to allow Trump to have a “fireside chat” using the 550 radio stations that receive his broadcasts instead of Trump taking the media's "inane, idiotic, combative questions every day":
SEAN HANNITY (HOST): Journalism’s dead. I honestly could see Trump saying, “we don't need a White House press office anymore. We don’t need” -- He hasn't named a press secretary. Why? Why go out there, the dog-and-phony-pony show? Where you have a bunch of Hillary Clinton supporters in the media, a bunch of propagandists, a bunch of people that colluded with the Clinton campaign, why sit there evwery day and take their inane, idiotic, combative questions every day? What, and then what, run it on MSNBC? Because they can’t get any better programming than that? I think you just say forget it. I’ll do a fireside chat with him.
It appears that the Trump administration is listening. On Wednesday Reince Priebus, incoming Trump administration chief of staff, told right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt that “many things have to change” in the relationship between the White House and the press, “including the daily briefing with the White House Press Secretary and the seating chart." According to Politico, Priebus said that "I think that it’s important that we look at all of those traditions that are great, but quite frankly, as you know, don’t really make news and they're just sort of mundane, boring episodes”:
Incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus suggested that major changes are coming to the White House press corps.
Speaking to radio host Hugh Hewitt, Priebus said "many things have to change" in the White House's relationship and daily traditions with the media, including the daily briefing with the White House Press Secretary and the seating chart.
"I think that it’s important that we look at all of those traditions that are great, but quite frankly, as you know, don’t really make news and they're just sort of mundane, boring episodes," Priebus said.
"The point of all of this conversation is that the traditions, while some of them are great, I think it’s time to revisit a lot of these things that have been done in the White House, and I can assure you that change is going to happen, even on things that might seem boring like this topic, but also change as far as how we’re going to approach tax reform, the American worker, how we protect them and business all at the same time why skyrocketing our economy," Priebus told Hewitt.
Trump is already setting the stage for more favorable press coverage during his presidential tenure. Right Side Broadcasting Network, a new 24-hour conservative media network favorable to Trump has recently announced that they will “be in the White House” and “be at the press briefings” in the Trump administration. And while Trump has been extremely hostile to the press, Trump has maintained his relationship with Hannity. After his election, President-elect Trump was sure to make his first cable TV appearance with Hannity, who not only appeared in a campaign advertisement for Trump before the election but also gave Trump over $31 million in free publicity and over 24 hours in total airtime.
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Can we even count all the ways that NBC’s ongoing business relationship with President-elect Donald Trump, in the form of his executive producer title for The Apprentice, obliterates virtually every common sense standard that exists for avoiding conflicts of interest and creates an impossible situation for the network’s reporters?
The parent company for NBC News, one of the largest news organizations in America, is going to maintain its business relationship with the president of the United States; the same Donald Trump whom NBC announced last year didn’t reflect the company’s “core values,” which was why NBC publicly terminated its business relationship with him.
But now after winning the White House, it turns out Trump is going to stay on as executive producer for the latest incarnation of The Apprentice reality show, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. And all of this we’re learning just days after Trump made a big public show about how he was going to remove himself from his business conflicts.
We’re obviously through the looking glass with this Trump-NBC deal. Yet lots of Beltway pundits, the type who obsessed over the appearance of conflicts for Hillary Clinton during the campaign, now shrug their shoulders and suggest Trump maintaining a lucrative business association with a news and entertainment giant is no big deal.
Unfortunately, NBC News is no stranger to ethical entanglements when it comes to Trump and the larger NBC family. In October, NBC News was caught flat footed on one of the biggest scoops of the election season when The Washington Post revealed live-microphone comments Trump had made during an Access Hollywood taping about grabbing women by the “pussy,” because when you’re a “star” you “can do anything.”
Access Hollywood airs on NBC and executives at NBC News were told about the tape days before the Post scoop.
As CNN reported:
Thanks to a series of decisions that can be described as at least curious, NBC News missed out on gaining credit for the scoop of the campaign, an October surprise to put all others that have come before it to shame.
And it has left NBC News answering questions about its hyper-cautious reaction to the tape, and pondering if it can rehabilitate the image of its recent high-profile anchor hire, Billy Bush.
Once the disturbing tape recordings were found, NBC reportedly sat on the blockbuster story figuring out how to proceed. (By contrast, the Post published its story just hours after learning about the tapes.) But today, with Trump having an ongoing financial relationship with NBC, we’re supposed to believe there won’t be anymore potential entanglements? That’s really not believable.
Meanwhile, recognize that over the years, NBC News treated Trump very kindly while his show was a tent pole on NBC’s entertainment lineup.
Earlier this year during the Republican primary season, when the conservative Media Research Center was upset with how much television airtime Trump was getting compared to the other GOP candidates, the group examined NBC News’ often-cozy relationship with Trump between 2004-2015, while he was a regular presence on NBC’s primetime lineup:
NBC has spent more than a decade building his brand as a successful businessman of almost mythic proportion. The network’s coverage of Trump was overwhelmingly and consistently positive. MRC Business found only 15 stories (out of 335) on Trump’s business failures, and 320 stories promoting him as a businessman, his businesses and his shows. The vast majority of stories were about the network’s show The Apprentice, which featured Trump … NBC News’s Today served as a de facto PR machine for The Apprentice and its star.
It’s impossible to suggest those conflicts for NBC will soon evaporate when Trump’s sworn into office. In fact, they’ll only multiply.
For instance, The Apprentice has been leaking viewers for years. If the show continues to lag next year, who at NBC is going to be responsible for telling President Trump that his television show has been canceled and his weekly, five-figure checks are going to dry up? What if the enraged executive producer (i.e. the president of the United States) then goes on a Twitter tirade and urges his millions of followers to stop watching NBC programs, or he starts an advertising boycott against the network?
Conversely, what if the new Apprentice turns into a ratings behemoth? Will NBC News think twice about airing a blockbuster scandal report about Trump corruption, for instance, knowing it could damage a key NBC primetime asset?
And remember how Trump picked that weird public fight with U.S. manufacturing giant Boeing last week? What if the next target of Trump’s free market wrath decides it needs to mend fences with the White House and buys millions of dollars worth of product placement on The Apprentice; a cut of which could end up in Trump’s pocket?
This is just nuts. Trump’s looming business conflicts are out of control. The fact that a media company with a huge news division is part of the problem just makes it all the more distressing.
Meanwhile, a key point is that this is just the latest in the media’s rampant normalization of Trump’s wildly abnormal behavior. Every modern-day president before Trump, and every modern-day nominee before him, pledged to make sure not only wouldn’t there be any conflicts of interest surrounding their presidencies, but there wouldn’t even any appearances of conflicts; of cashing in on the Oval Office. (Cue Richard Nixon: “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook.”)
Now Trump does the opposite by openly flaunting obvious conflicts and the D.C. press largely shrugs its shoulders. (Exceptions were appreciated.) Does the controversy surrounding Trump’s Apprentice payday constitute the pressing issue facing the president-elect’s transition? It does not. (Not when he’s tapping a climate denier to run the EPA, among other alarming moves.) But it highlights the disturbing pattern of the press routinely explaining away Trump’s unparalleled behavior.
I mean c’mon. When President Obama published a children’s book in 2010 as president, he donated all the earnings to charity. It would have been political suicide for him to even think about pocketing the profits. And it also would’ve been the unethical thing do.
But Trump thumbs his nose at all of that and lots of journalists just shrug while NBC stays mum? This is just the press needlessly normalizing radical Republican behavior.
Brian Stelter: "What Is He Hiding?"
Media figures criticized the secrecy surrounding President-elect Donald Trump's postponement of a press conference regarding his conflicts of interest arising from his business holdings.