Trump Transition Team Curbs Lobbyists but Potential Conflicts Seen Ahead

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By Kenneth P. Doyle

Nov. 18 — Ethics experts and watchdog groups have praised moves by President-elect Donald Trump to limit the influence of lobbyists and personal financial interests in the presidential transition process, but many are also raising questions about what they view as “unprecedented” conflicts of interest that could be posed by a Trump presidency.

The nonprofit group Issue One, which supports stronger ethics and campaign finance rules, said in a Nov. 17 statement that Trump took a “small but important step” in restricting lobbyists’ involvement in the transition. Trump is requiring those working on the transition to sign a pledge that they will not get involved in “any particular transition matter” on which they have lobbied over the past year, as defined by the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

The transition team’s ethics pledge also contains other promises, including a commitment not to work on a particular issue in which one has a financial interest.

Focus on Lobbying Disclosure Act

The Issue One statement questioned, however, the focus on LDA-registered lobbyists, which could allow involvement of those doing advocacy work but not covered by the lobbying law’s loose definition of lobbying activities.

“Let’s be clear: lobbying is not bad,” Issue One’s Meredith McGehee said in the statement. “It is constitutionally protected and one of the most powerful tools citizens have to seek redress from their elected officials.”

McGehee said, however, that there are questions in the current process about whether there will be an appropriate cooling-off period for high-level individuals who seek to use “inside information and access gained while serving the public for the benefit of private interests or to enrich themselves.” Critics also have questioned whether the Trump transition team is adhering to its own rules regarding the role of lobbyists, citing reported examples of LDA-registered lobbyists who have been involved in the transition process.

Letter Calls for Blind Trust

Meanwhile, Issue One, along with about a dozen other nonprofit groups and experts, have raised broader questions about whether Trump’s wide-ranging business interests will pose insurmountable obstacles to his ability to conduct his presidency without appearing to serve the narrow, personal interests of himself and his family.

A Nov. 17 letter signed by these groups and experts called on Trump to sell his businesses or hand them over to an independent trustee by setting up a blind trust.

Among the signers were Norm Eisen, a former ethics lawyer in the Obama White House, and Richard Painter, who served as ethics counsel in the George W. Bush administration. Groups signing on included the Campaign Legal Center Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, Public Citizen and others.

If Trump insists on having his children manage his business interests, as he has indicated he will, the letter called on Trump to establish “a clear firewall … so that these family members have no involvement with policy decisions at the White House. Failure to follow this course of action will create conflicts of interest of unprecedented magnitude.”

Wide Range of Possible Conflicts

Examples of possible conflicts range from Trump’s contract with the U.S. government to lease Washington’s Old Post Office Building, where he has a new hotel, to his business loans from foreign banks, including Germany’s Deutsche Bank and the Chinese-government-owned Bank of China.

“The nature and diversity of the Trump Organization businesses mean that a wide range of government policy has direct impact on those businesses,” the letter to Trump said. “This includes important domestic matters related to tax policy, standards for government contractors, consumer protection, the functioning of the civil justice system, financial regulation, labor rights, workplace safety and health standards, and bankruptcy law.”

Trump’s companies are privately held, so financial details often are scarce or incomplete, the watchdogs and ethics experts said. The little that is known about details of Trump’s investments, coupled with the fact that he hasn’t publicly released his tax records, call for public disclosure and blind trusts for his wealth, they added.

Especially important, the letter said, are the business ties of the Trump Organization overseas.

“The American people need to know that when you are making decisions concerning our allies and our adversaries, you are not doing so because they are allies or adversaries of your businesses,” the letter to Trump said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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