WASHINGTON ― If President-elect Donald Trump wants to preserve Americans’ faith in democracy, he must truly divest his extensive and complicated business holdings, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told The Huffington Post.
Gillibrand, a former corporate lawyer, is the lead Senate author of the Stock Act, a 2012 law that for the first time codified rules making it illegal for members of Congress to profit from inside information they obtain through their jobs. It explicitly applies to executive branch employees as well, including the president and his Cabinet.
For a person like Trump, who is fond of hashing out his thoughts with confidants and who has innumerable business investments that could be affected by his new job, the law makes juggling financial and public interests akin to a daily walk though a minefield, Gillibrand suggested on Thursday.
“The basic principle is really clear: If you buy or sell stock based on nonpublic information, or if you make business decisions based on nonpublic information, those are going to be in violation of the Stock Act,” Gillibrand said. “And if you tell people that work for you or tell people that you like or tell your best friends, that’s all insider trading.”
The Stock Act definitely applies to Trump, the federal Office of Government Ethics said in a letter released Thursday night.
And it clearly poses significant problems for a billionaire president who seems intent on maintaining a stake in his business enterprises.
“I think you’d try to follow leaders before you who made the very clear decision, ‘I have one very big job and I’m going to do that one very big job.'”
Trump has suggested that he will hand the reins to his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, which the ethics office said earlier this week does not qualify as a blind trust. But if he (or anyone he talks to) gives them (or anyone else) valuable information that originated from the government and hasn’t been made known to the public, Trump would likely be committing a felony.
“What we don’t want, and the reason we wrote the Stock Act, was to say no member of Congress and no member of the executive branch should be benefiting financially because they have access to nonpublic information,” Gillibrand said. “That’s the intent of the law, and that’s the restriction that all of us as public servants must follow.”
To completely separate what he knows and does as president from what he communicates to his family and associates and what he decides in relation to his businesses will be an enormous challenge for Trump. The same concerns apply to the wealthy men and women he’s chosen for his Cabinet.
“I just think it would be difficult,” Gillibrand said. “People will make their own decisions based on what’s best for themselves, but you’re going to have access to a lot of nonpublic information and so it’s just a massive risk. I don’t know why you’d want to take it.”
While Gillibrand declined to go as far as some of her colleagues, who are demanding that Trump divest his holdings and place the proceeds in a blind trust, she made it clear she thought that would be the best choice for him and for his Cabinet.
“I think you’d try to follow leaders before you who made the very clear decision, ‘I have one very big job and I’m going to do that one very big job,’” Gillibrand said.
While Trump’s actions suggest that he hasn’t yet separated his business interests from his governmental responsibilities, Gillibrand was still giving him the benefit of the doubt.
“I think he just has to assure folks that he understands the importance of his responsibilities,” she said. “And I think he will do that. I think they’re planning to do statements to that effect.”
“We need to have faith in our democracy, that politicians are working for the people first, not for themselves, not for their bank accounts.”
Trump could not be prosecuted under the Stock Act while in the White House, but violations can be grounds for impeachment. A prosecution after removal from office would not be out of the question ― unless, as with Richard Nixon, the next president issued a pardon.
“I think there’s a lot of discussion now about concerns, about how does this work,” Gillibrand said.
But she emphasized that the issue was actually bigger than Trump’s own fate.
“We want people to not lose faith in American democracy. We don’t want people to believe their elected leaders are bought and paid for or doing their jobs for financial reasons,” Gillibrand said.
“I can’t imagine any president-elect wanting people to lose faith in our democracy,” she added. “So hopefully they’ll chose transparency and accountability, and do things the right way. And I hope the entire Cabinet makes those choices as well.”
“Because we want to have faith in our government. That’s why I took the time to work with others to pass this law. We need to have transparency, we need to have faith in our democracy, that politicians are working for the people first, not for themselves, not for their bank accounts.”