NEW YORK : Donald Trump on Wednesday sought to head off criticism that his vast business empire poses an unprecedented conflict of interest for an incoming US president, even as he comes under attack for packing his cabinet with fellow billionaires.
In one of his trademark pre-dawn tweetstorms, the Manhattan real estate mogul promised that he will reveal a plan next month to put aside his “great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country.” The 70-year-old tycoon did not say who would take over his multi-billion-dollar global property and luxury branding interests, but said his children would be present at a December 15 news conference.
He has previously said his daughter Ivanka and sons Eric and Donald Jr. could take day-to-day charge, but it remained unclear what he would do with his personal stake. “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, seeking to get ahead of the burgeoning ethics controversy.
US law does not require Trump to give up his business portfolio, although the Constitution states no federal official can receive a gift or “emolument” from a foreign government. Some previous presidents have placed their investments in a blind trust, but they were not required to do so and Trump has said since winning election in early November that his lawyers believe it unnecessary.
However, critics argue that it would be an unprecedented ethical conflict for Trump to maintain interest in properties spanning the globe — investments that rely partly on goodwill from foreign governments and regulators. Even on home soil, his company has been attacked for marketing the new Trump International Hotel in Washington — just blocks from the White House — to foreign diplomats.
His new chief of staff, Reince Priebus, has insisted there are “smart ethics lawyers” working on a plan to resolve this issue. Trump has admitted the hotel’s brand is probably “hotter” now that he is to be president, but has vaguely promised to “phase out” his hands-on, check-signing role in Trump Organization business. Meanwhile, the Republican is building the cabinet team that will join him in the capital after his January 20 inauguration with a mission to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption.
So far, aside from former generals sidelined by President Barack Obama’s administration, Trump has focused on recruiting super-rich conservative figures from Wall Street and private business.
On Tuesday, Trump dined at a Michelin-starred restaurant with Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor and private equity baron. Although Romney’s own 2012 presidential campaign foundered partly because he was tagged as a member of an aloof elite, Trump is considering him as a possible secretary of state.
The latest figures Trump has nominated for senior roles — Wall Street veteran Steven Mnuchin and investor Wilbur Ross — are both billionaires and richer than Romney. Trump’s defeated Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, was attacked during the campaign for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars for giving private speeches to Goldman Sachs bankers.
But Trump, having already named former Goldman banker Steve Bannon as his chief strategist, nominated another, Mnuchin, for the key role of Treasury secretary. Mnuchin was a partner in Goldman Sachs before he launched a fund backed by Democratic Party supporter George Soros.
He financed Hollywood blockbusters, including “Avatar” and “Suicide Squad.” Alongside Mnuchin, Trump picked Ross — best known for buying failing steel and coal firms and turning them into saleable investments — for his commerce secretary.
Democrats were quick to slam the hirings. Senator Sherrod Brown, the senior Democrat on the banking committee, attacked Mnuchin’s hedge fund background, declaring: “This isn’t draining the swamp, it’s stocking it with alligators.” And Senator Elizabeth Warren, a scourge of Wall Street excesses, said Mnuchin’s hiring showed Trump has “every intention of running Washington to benefit himself and his rich buddies.”
Others criticized Trump for failing to his ownership — as opposed to control — of his businesses. “We need a president whose only interest is the national interest,” Democratic Representative Adam Schiff tweeted. “The only way to prevent future conflicts of interest is to fully divest!”
Mnuchin’s appointment is widely seen as a reward for taking Trump’s side at a time when many major Republican donors, such as the billionaire Koch brothers, had shunned him. The president-elect has vowed to cut corporate taxes and encourage multinational companies to repatriate their earnings, and plans to scrap the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reforms.
Ross has advocated a steep tariff on Chinese steel imports to prevent what Trump has alleged is the dumping of cheap commodities on the US market. Trump was scheduled to embark on a victory tour Thursday, leading an evening rally with his running mate Mike Pence in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The pair are also to appear at the Indianapolis plant of Carrier, the air conditioning firm that announced this week it will keep 1,000 jobs in US factories, after Trump warned the company during his campaign about shipping the jobs abroad. Pence on Wednesday headed to Washington, where he previously served in Congress, to meet with top Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
His message to lawmakers, he said, was to “buckle up,” as Trump was ready to engage with Capitol Hill. But Pence also sought cooperation from Democrats. “Working with Republican majorities in the House and the Senate, and Democrats who are willing to work with us, we’re going to roll our sleeves up and we’re going to move the Trump agenda forward,” he said.