Lessons from the Trump Administration’s Conflicts of Interest

In May 2017, this blog began tracking corruption and conflicts of interest in the Trump Administration, in order to identify and document the myriad ways that the President, his family, and his closest advisors may “use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.” This includes payments directly from the U.S. government to the Trump Organization (e.g. the Secret Service renting out space in the Trump Tower); use of the presidency to promote Trump brands (e.g. numerous Republican re-election campaigns held in Trump owned businesses); regulatory and policy decisions that benefit the Trump family and close advisors (e.g. the General Services Administration approving a lease for the Trump International Hotel); and private and foreign interests dealing with Trump businesses (e.g. Trump hotel, resort, and other development projects around the world). Keeping track of all these various conflict and corruption risks is important at a time when the news of yesterday gets drowned out and forgotten amid the drama of today.

After working for over a year as one of several contributors to this tracking project, I think that there are also some broader lessons and themes that have emerged from these efforts, which are worth highlighting:

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Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–July 2018 Update

Since May 2017, GAB has been tracking credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests, and providing monthly updates on media reports of such issues. Our July 2018 update is now available here.There are not too many substantive updates since last month–the most notable concerns revelations that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appears to have misled Congress and the public about potential financial conflicts of interest.

Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Anti-Nepotism, and Conflicts of Interest

On the same day as President Trump’s swearing in, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) released a memorandum elaborating upon why President Trump’s appointment of his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a Senior White House Advisor did not violate the federal anti-nepotism statute (5 U.S.C. § 3110). That statute prohibits a public official (including the President) from appointing or employing a relative (which the statute defines as including a son-in-law or daughter-in-law). The OLC reasoned that despite the seemingly clear prohibition in 5 U.S.C § 3110, another federal statute, 3 U.S.C. § 105(a), exempted positions in the White House Office from the anti-nepotism law. The OLC recognized this conclusion was a departure from its own precedent, but with the aid of some selective reading of legislative history, the OLC argued that lawmakers intended to allow the president “total discretion” in employment matters when it passed 3 U.S.C. § 105(a). (For non-specialists, see this primer for an explanation of these and other federal laws and regulations which could be relevant for addressing corruption in the Trump Administration.)

Somewhat predictably, the OLC memo generated debate among legal commentators (see here, here, here, and here). Yet even if the legal arguments were not entirely convincing, the OLC ended with a practical point that was echoed by many of the commentaries: given that President Trump will seek Mr. Kushner’s advice, regardless of whether he is a formal employee, it would be better for Mr. Kushner to be formally employed as a White House advisor, and thus subject to the applicable conflict-of-interest (COI) and financial disclosure rules. The same argument applies to Ivanka Trump, who also recently became an employee of the White House.

Some anticorruption advocates, myself included, were persuaded at the time by the OLC’s practical point. It would be best if the President did not make major policy decisions on the advice of radically unqualified relatives. But unfortunately, he is going to turn to them for advice. Given that baseline, we should prefer those family members occupy formal appointments, where at least they will be constrained by the COI statute and disclosure rules. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we should never have been persuaded. The COI statute and the disclosure rules turn out to be ineffective devices for preventing corruption in the Trump era. While the disclosure rules did encourage Mr. Kushner to make some divestments, they do not contain enough details to identify potential conflicts. And when there are conflicts, the COI statute is unlikely to be enforced, either because Attorney General Jeff Sessions will choose not to, or because the White House will grant a waiver.

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