WASHINGTON ― Congressional Democrats led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced legislation on Monday that would require President-elect Donald Trump to divest his business holdings in order to avoid conflicts of interest while serving in the White House.
The President Conflict of Interest Act would require the president and vice president, their spouses and any minor or dependent children to divest all personal financial holdings that could create a conflict of interest, and to place the resulting assets into a blind trust governed by an independent trustee.
The bill would also formally implement the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which bans government officials from receiving gifts or payments from foreign governments, by declaring the violation of financial conflict-of-interest laws and provisions by the president to be considered a high crime or misdemeanor punishable by impeachment.
Trump is set to enter office with an unprecedented array of financial conflicts of interest related to his multibillion-dollar Trump Organization. He has failed to specify how he will separate himself from the business that bears his name in order to avoid conflicts of interest. Instead, he and his aides have simply declared that “the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” an assertion that is not true.
After stating during his presidential campaign that he would have nothing to do with his business if elected, Trump has met with his foreign business partners, touted them to foreign leaders and appointed his adult children to the executive committee of his presidential transition despite plans for them to assume control of the Trump Organization. His hotel in Washington, D.C., pitched foreign governments on booking hotel rooms to curry favor with the Trump administration.
In December, Trump postponed a press conference where he was supposedly going to announce plans for resolving his conflicts of interest. A new press conference was announced for Jan. 11, but it has not been billed as an announcement of any plans to disentangle himself from his business.
“The American people deserve to know that the President of the United States is working to do what’s best for the country ― not using his office to do what’s best for himself and his businesses,” Warren said in a statement. “The only way for President-elect Trump to truly eliminate conflicts-of-interest is to divest his financial interests by placing them in a blind trust. This has been the standard for previous presidents, and our bill makes clear the continuing expectation that President-elect Trump do the same.”
The bill, which has 23 additional Democratic co-sponsors, would also require presidential appointees to recuse themselves from any decisions that relate to the president’s financial holdings, and would require the president to disclose his tax returns. House Democrats led by Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) introduced identical legislation.
The push for divestment stems from the fact that current ethics laws do not apply the rules for resolving conflicts of interest to the president or the vice president. Presidential appointees are required to disentangle themselves from financial arrangements that their work as a public servant could conflict with. In these cases, true blind trusts governed by independent trustees are required.
While the president is not bound by this law, past presidents have acted as though the conflict-of-interest statutes applied to them by separating themselves from any financial holdings that might have caused a conflict. During his single term in office, President Jimmy Carter placed stewardship of his peanut farm in the hands of an independent trustee. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush all placed their holdings into true blind trusts.
Trump, meanwhile, has given no hint that he will divest from his business. Instead, he has talked about handing off control to his adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric Trump, while maintaining a financial stake in the business. This means that any future payment, deal or sale involving the Trump Organization would redound to the personal financial benefit of the president.
“Every recent president in modern history has taken steps to ensure his financial interests do not conflict with the needs of the American people,” Clark said in a statement. “The American people need to be able to trust that the President’s decisions are based on the best interests of families at home, and not the President’s financial interests.”
Joining Warren in co-sponsoring the Senate version of the legislation are Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).
In the House, Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Richard Neal (D-Mass.), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) are co-sponsors of the bill.