President-elect Donald Trump said Wednesday that he will divorce himself “in total” from his business empire, promising more details in the next few weeks — but still faces intense criticism from ethics watchdogs who insist he needs to give up all ownership stakes.
In a series of early morning tweets, Mr. Trump said he plans to hold a Dec. 15 press conference to lay out how he will distance himself from his business interests and focus on the presidency.
“While I am not mandated to … do this under the law, I feel it is visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses,” he tweeted, saying legal documents are being drafted to take him “completely out of business operations.”
Mr. Trump’s team said details are still being ironed out.
But top ethics lawyers from other administrations said just removing himself from an operational role won’t be enough.
“In order to avoid conflicts, he must also exit the ownership of his businesses through using a blind trust or equivalent,” Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, who worked for Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, respectively, said in a joint statement. “Otherwise, he will have a personal financial interest in his businesses that will sometimes conflict with the public interest and constantly raise questions.”
Setting up a blind trust, which is common among politicians with significant stock or business interests, would theoretically remove Mr. Trump entirely from any real knowledge or input into Trump Organization dealings.
Congressional Democrats are also pressing their Republican counterparts to investigate Mr. Trump’s vast financial arrangements for potential conflicts of interest, saying the extent to which Mr. Trump’s adult children could be involved in the business also raises questions.
“The American people should never have to question whether their president is working on their behalf or rather on behalf of his own personal interests,” Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee wrote Wednesday in a letter to Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican.
Mr. Trump has long faced questions over how he would square running his vast real estate and golf course empire while serving as president. Some critics predicted he wouldn’t even run for office because he would have to disclose a great deal of information about his finances and business ventures, several of which have gone through bankruptcy over the years.
Mr. Trump’s team has pegged his net worth at about $10 billion, though other analysts have put it at far less.
Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman and incoming White House chief of staff, acknowledged Wednesday that the situation with Mr. Trump’s empire isn’t clear-cut but said the American people had accepted and even celebrated the president-elect’s business record.
“So now we’re working on making sure that all those conflicts are taken care of and doing the best job we can given the fact that the laws actually are very vague and don’t contemplate this scenario,” Mr. Priebus said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
In one immediate example of what Mr. Trump is facing, he might end up violating the lease on his latest crown jewel, the Trump International Hotel built out of the Old Post Office Building in the nation’s capital, simply by being sworn into office in January.
Government Executive reported this week that the lease, which runs through the federal government’s General Services Administration, forbids elected government officials from being party to it in order to avoid conflict of interest issues. That would apply to Mr. Trump once he officially enters the White House.
Mr. Trump’s transition team said this week that they were looking into the matter, and a GSA spokesman said the agency plans to coordinate with the president-elect’s team to address any issues tied to the property.