The Oxford dictionary defines a “conflict of interest” as “a situation in which a person is in a position to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity.” Republican National Committee and Trump transition spokesman Sean Spicer apparently operates with a different definition, however.
During an interview with CNN’s Kate Bolduan on Wednesday, Spicer dismissed concerns that the involvement of President-elect Donald Trump’s adult children in official transition duties presents a conflict of interest.
“Conflicts of interest arise when you’re not — when you’re sneaky about it, when you’re shady about it, when you’re not transparent about it,” Spicer, who’s rumored to be the leading contender to become Trump’s press secretary, said. “If you tell everyone, here’s what’s going on, here’s the process, here are the people that are playing a role — that’s being transparent.”
But sneakiness is completely beside the point. Trump has been quite open about the fact that he plans to maintain ownership of his business, with his two adults sons — Eric and Donald Jr. — handling day-to-day management while their father is president. That arrangement won’t solve Trump’s conflict of interest problems.
Even if Trump is not running his business day to day, he’s still well aware his company owns the new Trump International Hotel, which is already becoming a destination for foreign governments looking to book events in D.C. For instance, the government of Bahrain, which has a record of abusing human rights, held its National Day celebration there last week. Might President Trump be reluctant to take aggressive action against Bahrain since it’s also his customer? That’s a conflict of interest, regardless of how transparent Trump is about the situation.
Or consider an example more directly involving Trump’s adult children. On Wednesday, Donald Jr. and Eric sat at the head of the table during a summit their father held with some of the nation’s most prominent tech entrepreneurs at Trump Tower. Cameras were rolling — Donald Jr. and Eric were transparently involved in the proceedings. But if one of the tech companies represented at the table starts doing business with the Trump kids as a result of the access provided by their father, and President Trump later needs to make a regulatory decision affecting that company, he’ll still face a conflict of interest.
Avoiding ethical problems of that sort is the reason every modern president has effectively eliminated financial conflicts by either placing their assets in a blind trust or divesting and placing the assets in index funds and treasury bonds. But Trump’s refusal to distance himself from his business creates a constitutional issue as well.
Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution bars office holders from accepting “any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” Events like the one Bahrain held at Trump International are a clear example of a foreign state providing Trump with an emolument (“a salary, fee, or profit from employment or office”) that could be intended to curry favor with the soon-to-be-president.
If events of that sort continue after Trump’s expected inauguration on January 20, he’ll violate the Constitution. Whether Republicans who enjoy majorities in both chambers of Congress will do anything about it is another question, but one thing is for certain — transparency (or lack thereof) will have no bearing on the issue.