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Many potential conflicts of interest await Trump presidency

November 16, 2016 at 6:40 PM EST
The Trump Organization’s assets and arrangements span the globe. As president, Donald Trump will have the authority to appoint people to make decisions that could affect his organization. To discuss the potential conflicts the president-elect could face, John Yang speaks with Robert Weissman of Public Citizen and Susanne Craig of The New York Times.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Donald Trump will be sworn into office on January 20 with more business holdings than any previous president.

John Yang has more on the questions that are being asked.

JOHN YANG: The Trump Organization has a variety of assets and arrangements that span the globe. And, as president, Mr. Trump will have the authority to appoint people who will make decisions that affect those businesses.

Here to discuss the potential for conflict is Robert Weissman, president of nonprofit public interest group Public Citizen, and in New York, Susanne Craig, a New York Times reporter who has writing about this story.

Welcome to you both.

Susanne, let me start with you.

This is a very complicated story. There are a lot of parts to president-elect Trump’s business holdings. But I think the easiest example is the Trump International Hotel here in Washington, D.C. Walk us through the potential for conflicts with that hotel.

SUSANNE CRAIG, The New York Times: It’s really interesting.

This is a hotel that just opened, and it’s been — it’s been in progress for a few years, and it’s on the site of the old post office, which is a government property. And Donald Trump has a ground lease for 60 years, the Trump Organization, for 60 years, to run the hotel out of that.

So there’s an arrangement between the federal government, an agency called the GSA, and the Trump Organization. And the president has the power to appoint the head of the GSA. So it’s just this incredible situation where you have got a private company that will now be — that is owned by soon to be the president that will be negotiating with a government agency where the head of that agency is appointed by the president.

So just the potential there for conflict, you can just see it coming 100 miles away. And the GSA is already saying they are preparing for it and they’re looking at it. Imagine that situation and multiply it by so many when you look at all the different things that could happen with the various companies that Donald Trump owns and the business interests that he has.

JOHN YANG: And, also, Susanne, in that hotel are workers who might want to unionize.

SUSANNE CRAIG: Who might want to unionize.

And this situation’s actually been playing out in Las Vegas, where he co-owns a hotel in Las Vegas, and that hotel has — the workers there have tried to unionize, and the National Labor Relations Board, which has got presidential appointees on it, has actually — the board has ruled against Donald Trump even in the days before the election, so yet another example playing out in real time already where you have got conflict between the private — the private holdings and now government agencies that will have presidential appointees on them.

JOHN YANG: Robert Weissman, Hope Hicks, who is the spokesperson for president-elect Trump, says that Mr. Trump will comply with all applicable rules and regulations. What are the rules and regulations in this case?

ROBERT WEISSMAN, President, Public Citizen: Almost none.

SUSANNE CRAIG: Yes.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: There are a lot of rules, ethics rules that apply to government employees, to members of Congress. As regards this set of issues, there’s really not too much that applies to the president, except some issues about taking gifts from foreign governments.

JOHN YANG: And so there’s no law, there’s nothing that says he has to do anything with his personal assets?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: There’s no law. There is common sense.

What we’re looking at is an unprecedented set of conflicts of interests, and common sense says the president has to divest himself of these business holdings to avoid these conflicts, which will be legion, covering everything from worker health and safety issues, worker rights that you were discussing, treatment of government contractors, to consumer protection, how the civil justice system works, bankruptcy law, tax policy, even the — even the conduct of foreign policy.

It’s a staggering set of potential conflicts of — actually, conflicts that will emerge, unless he divests.

JOHN YANG: He says he’s going to have his children running the business. And Rudy Giuliani says: “You have to have some confidence in the integrity of the president. I don’t think there’s any real fear or suspicion that he’s seeking to enrich himself by being president.”

How do you respond?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, even if the president-elect operates in good faith as president, the conflicts are still present. They are unavoidable.

SUSANNE CRAIG: Yes.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: And it makes no difference if he maintains ownership of the Trump Organization businesses and lets his children run the businesses. At the same time, those children are plainly going to be centrally involved in administration and policy-making.

JOHN YANG: Susanne, we talked about the specific example of that hotel. He’s a real estate businessman. He relies on low interest rates from banks to prosper.

He says he won’t release his tax returns because they’re being audited. But talk about the nexus of his role as president and those issues as well.

SUSANNE CRAIG: Well, the thing is, sometimes, it’s — these conflicts and potential conflicts exist, and it’s simply that you don’t know a lot of conversations that are going on, which is why there is a call for him to divest the assets.

I mean, you can’t — you can’t have your children run them and then not know what the assets are, and especially in the case of real estate. These are fixed assets. He knows the financials of them.

So, unless there’s a full divestiture, there’s just — there’s no way that these either real conflicts or potential conflicts come up. And the other thing that’s of concern is that he hasn’t released his taxes. We don’t have a full picture of his financial situation and foreign holdings.

There’s just — there’s so much going on here, and it’s just — sometimes, we’re just never even going to know if stuff happens because we don’t even know, you know, that there is even a conflict.

I did a story earlier this year, and he had he had released a number of his lenders. And it turns out he’d only released loans in which the Trump Organization, in which there was 100 percent ownership of the property behind it. We found loans on partnerships that weren’t disclosed and so on.

It’s just — it was sort of mind-boggling when I started to do this, this summer on just the potential for what wasn’t there and what we were finding. And this is a situation where I just don’t think we’re ever going to be sure, unless there is a divestiture, that there isn’t something going on or there is the potential for something to go on. And it’s troubling.

JOHN YANG: Robert, we have a very brief amount of time left. What can be done? And what do you want to see done in this case?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, there’s just no way to square the candidate’s promises to deal with corruption in Washington, to end ended insider dealing and his maintaining these business interests.

So he’s going to have to sell them off, unless he’s going to discredit everything he ran on.

JOHN YANG: Robert Weissman, Susanne Craig, thanks very much for joining us.

SUSANNE CRAIG: Thank you.

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