The Director of the Office of Government Ethics on Wednesday blasted President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to eliminate his conflicts of interest calling it “wholly inadequate.”
“The plan the President-elect has announced doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every president in the last four decades has met,” OGE Director Walter Shaub said during a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective,” he said.
Shaub, who was appointed to a five year term in 2013 by President Obama, openly pleaded with Trump to reconsider his plan before his inauguration. He said that the President-elect should agree to “divestiture,” a process where he would sell his corporate assets and place the profit in a blind trust administered by a neutral trustee approved by the OGE.
“We can’t risk the perception that goernment leaders would use their official positions for professional profit,” he said.
On Wendesday, Trump announced his plan through his lawyer at his first press conference since he wont the election. The plan basically involves Trump turning over the operation of his business empire to his two adult sons and placing his assets in a trust that would be managed by them.
“They are not going to discuss [the business] with me,” Trump promised about his sons. “Again, I don’t have to do this. They’re not going to discuss it with me.”
Trump also said that he would not be selling his company or real estate holdings. Additionally, the trust in question is not a blind trust nor anything that could be interpreted as such. And, while he is giving up control of his business, he would still have some access to information, including profit and loss statements.
“This is not a blind trust. It’s not even close,” Shaub said. While Trump’s lawyer argued that a divestiture would be impossible, claiming that the process would create even more conflicts, most experts, including Shaub, do not agree with that assessment. Recognizing that divesting himself from his business holdings “could be costly” for the President-elect, Shaub called it a necessary step.
“No, I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to be president of the United States of America,” he said. Shaub also rebuffed Trump’s claim that the steps are voluntary as the president cannot have a conflict of interest, saying Trump’s assertion is “quite obviously not true.”
“I think the most charitable way to understand such statements is that they are referring to a particular conflict of interest law that does not apply to the president,” he said, adding that “common sense dictates that the president can, of course, have very real conflicts of interest.”
While Trump’s team has so far stayed away from seeking the help of the OGE, Shaub said his door is open. “Let’s all remember there is till time to build on that plan that will resolve his conflict of interest.”
The President-elect is not the only billionaire within his own government. the OGE has helped structure ethics agreements with many of his nominees for Cabinet posts, including billionaires like his Treasury chief Steve Mnuchin. Shaub also praised the ethics agreement Secretary of State Rex Tillerson struck where he divested himself of all Exxon assets and forfeited bonus payments that amounted to millions of dollars. He said that the agreement is a “sterling model for what we’d like to see with other nominees.”
“He clearly recognizes that public service sometimes comes at a cost. The greater the authority entrusted in a government official, the greater the potential for conflicts of interest. That’s why the cost is often greater the higher up you go.”