Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, says if Republican nominee Donald Trump becomes president, the only way to avoid serious conflicts of interest would be for Trump and his family to sell all of their holdings in the Trump Organization. Painter also stressed that the issue was a “serious problem” that warrants increased media attention.
The ethical mess presented by the Trump Organization is back in the news thanks to a Newsweek piece by reporter Kurt Eichenwald, who explained that if Trump and his family don’t cut ties to the family’s business conglomerate, Trump would “be the most conflicted president in American history, one whose business interests will constantly jeopardize the security of the United States” due to the Trump Organization’s relationships and financial entanglements with foreign interests.
Painter, who served as President George W. Bush's chief ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007, said the conflicts are so vast and serious that Trump and his family should simply sell off the company’s assets if he becomes president.
“He needs to be out, he and his family need to be out,” Painter said in a phone interview Wednesday. (Trump has previously suggested that he would turn his business empire over to his children if he wins the presidency.)
“To deal with the conflicts of interest the answer is to have all of these holdings, put ‘em all into a holding company, one company. He assigns all of his personal interests in everything to a holding company, then does an initial public offering for cash on Jan. 20 with the registration statement and he takes the cash, puts it in treasury bills or something like that.”
Painter, who has publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton, points out that the criminal conflict of interest statute that bars such associations for federal employees does not apply to the president or vice president.
But he said that still does not make them acceptable and said previous presidents and vice presidents have divested themselves from such conflicts upon taking office.
In his article, Eichenwald explained the Trump Organization’s blatant conflicts of interest have been “largely ignored,” something Painter says the media should rectify.
“I think it needs media attention, I think it’s a serious problem,” he said. “The fact that he won’t even deal with it just like he won’t release his tax returns is a serious problem. The problems with Clinton is we just hear the same stuff over and over again, there is not a lot of stuff to talk about. … With Trump we’ve got this long list of problems.”
Painter said that the key danger is when U.S. economic or foreign policy affects a nation with which Trump has business dealings or a business relationship. He fears that would put the U.S. at risk.
“My number one concern is the amount of debt and the way he’s basically beholden to the banks. Like any real estate guy he has the support of loosey goosey credit regime and that means cronies in the banks keep throwing money at him,” he said. “What the Newsweek article does is flesh out another dimension of this particularly with respect to the international holdings and I very much suspect that they’ve only uncovered the tip of the iceberg.”
He continued, “He has holdings all over the world, financial relationships all over the world. These are people who would be directly impacted by United States foreign policy. He makes money abroad because he has friends and if he has enemies he’s going to lose money abroad. This is a very serious problem for the United States from the vantage point of our foreign policy and our national security to have a president with significant economic exposure outside of the United States.”
Painter stressed that for Trump to simply turn over control of The Trump Organization to his children would not be enough.
“Just turning it over to his son and say his son is going to manage it, or his daughter, that doesn’t solve the problem,” Painter said. “I don’t think that if he has these financial interests and turns it over to his son, he knows what’s there. He knows who they're dependent on outside the United States. He knows which foreign governments and which organizations, which business consortiums he’s dependent on. If the statute applied to him, the criminal conflict of interest statute, that solution would never work.”
Painter has also -- while explaining “there is little if any evidence that federal ethics laws were broken” by Clinton and those working for her -- urged the Clintons to further distance themselves from the Clinton Foundation.