The Trump Organization is widely known to be a family affair. And as President-elect Trump puts together his new administration, signs increasingly point to that being a family affair as well — posing a huge problem for the Constitution and for the likelihood that Trump will serve the interests of the American people above his own.
The latest signal comes, in another Trump brand parallel, from real estate. Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner are reportedly house hunting in Washington D.C. with the intention of moving to be closer to Trump when he takes up residence in the White House, CNN reports.
Ivanka and Kushner’s move to D.C. positions them to further blend Trump business interests with the Trump administration. As such, it makes it even more crucial for Trump to legitimately separate himself from his businesses, Norman Eisen, chief ethics counsel for Barack Obama, told ThinkProgress via email.
“If true, the D.C. presence of Trump’s daughter and son-in-law makes it all the more important that the President-elect follow 40 years of precedent and divest using a true blind trust with an independent trustee. The foreign government conflicts that will otherwise here result are, among other things, constitutionally prohibited,” said Eisen.
Trump’s business interests create a maze of conflicts around the world. And while the president is not restricted by the same strict proscriptions against conflicts of interest that other government employees are under, the president is specifically restricted from receiving any gifts or payments from foreign governments, known as emoluments.
As Eisen alludes to, this is particularly pertinent to Trump as a result of his ownership of an international hotel chain. His business is a uniquely convenient way for foreign governments to make exactly the kinds of financial overtures the framers set out to prevent —which included basically any payments of any kind to the head of state.
Unless Trump fully divests, experts say that he will violate the Constitution from the first day of his presidency.
Instead, Trump has previously indicated that he intends to deal with the massive conflicts posed by his business empire by putting his children in charge. He recently announced on Twitter that he would hold a press conference on December 15th with his children to detail his plan, which he says will “take [him] completely out of business operations.”
Ivanka and Kushner’s proposed move, however, lays bare how superficial such a plan really is.
In such a scenario, Ivanka is likely to be the new head of the Trump Organization. The company is headquartered in New York, making the move an odd choice for a woman supposedly focused running the company outside of her father’s influence.
It would, however, be a convenient move for Kushner — who is eyeing a role in the Trump administration. Kushner is 35 years old and has no previous government experience. Nonetheless, he emerged as a key player during Trump’s campaign and is expected to play some as-yet undefined advisory role in the federal administration.
Constitutionally speaking, that’s a problem.
“Nepotism laws limit the President’s ability to hire his son-in-law for a White House job, and another statute (the Anti-deficiency Act) prescribes Kushner offering full-time services free of charge,” Eisen told ThinkProgress.
After John F. Kennedy made his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, attorney general, nepotism laws were passed making it illegal for public officials to hire family members (including those related by marriage). And under the Anti-deficiency Act, government employees are specifically prohibited from accepting voluntary work, excepting cases of emergency.
In order for Kushner to take a position in his father-in-law’s administration, then, they would have to creatively interpret the rules and likely bend some others. Nonetheless, multiple sources have indicated that Kushner is expected to carve out some role in the White House.
Even aside from the legal issues, Kushner’s involvement leads to other conflicts. In this scenario, the head of Trump’s personal business will be his daughter — who would also be married to one of his more trusted advisers, and living just a few miles away.
In terms of a firewall between Trump’s personal interests and his service to the American people, it’s nonexistent.
Belying any supposed division, too, is that Ivanka and Kushner are both heavily involved in shaping Trump’s incoming administration as members of his official government transition team. Ivanka is rumored to serve as a de-facto First Lady, especially in the early months when future First Lady Melania Trump will be remaining in New York. Also on Monday, Ivanka met with former Vice President Al Gore to discuss climate issues — despite the fact that she is not legally allowed to assume policy-making or advising roles for her father.
Additionally, Ivanka, while one of the heads of the Trump business, has been accompanying her father on diplomatic meetings and listening in on phone calls with foreign heads of state — particularly including meetings with the leaders of countries where the Trump organization has business interests.
In one egregious example, Ivanka and Kushner both met with the Prime Minister of Japan. Ivanka is also currently working on closing a licensing deal in Japan for her fashion line, reports the New York Times. The deal is with Japanese company Sanei International, whose largest shareholder is the Development Bank of Japan — which is owned by the Japanese government. Ivanka also joined in on a phone call with the Argentine president. One day later, an investment group building a $100 million Trump-branded tower in Buenos Aires, a project that was long stalled, announced that they were moving full speed ahead.
Actions like these are why Eisen, like other experts, says that unless Trump fully divests of his business and gives control of his assets to a neutral party, putting Trump’s children in charge accomplishes nothing. In any scenario other than true divestment, Trump would still be aware of what his business interests are, and would still be intimately connected to its leadership. Additionally, the issues posed by the emoluments clause mean that unless Trump truly divests, he will inevitably violate the Constitution.
“Hopefully Mr. Trump will obviate these kinds of constitutional and statutory clashes by doing the right thing on December 15 and announcing a true blind trust,” said Eisen.
Otherwise, Trump will still be in the unprecedented position to use the presidency to line his own pockets.