Less than two weeks after scheduling a press conference for Thursday in which he said he would outline plans to leave his business empire behind "in order to fully focus on running the country," President-elect Donald Trump has postponed the event until next month. No date has been set.
Mr. Trump tweeted reassurances Monday shortly before midnight that he would leave business operations to two of his sons and other executives before formally taking office Jan. 20. "No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office," he added.
But ethicists question whether Trump's placations go far enough to address the unprecedented extent of his conflicts of interest, as his bouts of late-night Twitter activity raise additional questions of their own.
"It makes no sense to say 'no new deals,' " Richard Painter, a White House ethics adviser under President George W. Bush, told The New York Times.
"Is he going to continue to borrow money from foreign banks like Bank of China? That is a deal," Mr. Painter said. "Or collect rent from foreign government-owned companies? That is a deal. Will he still be hiring people, or having people stay in his hotels?"
Trump's holdings include hotels and golf resorts in the United States and around the world, plus a winery and modeling agency. The only way he could completely sidestep conflicts of interest as president, legal experts say, would be to sell off these holdings, rather than keeping them in the family.
Political history suggests that Trump ought to liquidate his stake in the company and take income off financial instruments instead, as The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Grier wrote last month: "But Trump got elected despite breaking many political norms that members of the press and political scientists thought were immutable. This might be another one. He’s said what he’s going to do, and he could well stick with it, ignoring all the 'conflict of interest' cries."
Previous presidential candidates released their tax returns, but Trump declined to do so throughout his campaign, bucking the norm. After winning the election, he has similarly fostered an atypical relationship with the press. Could his delay in announcing the details of his business arrangements be a stalling tactic? His transition team says, no, this is an effort to ensure all the legalities are in order before going public.
"With so many iconic properties and successful entities, moving the announcement to January ensures the legal team has ample time to ensure the proper protocols are put in place so his sole focus will remain on the country and achieving his ambitious agenda with the help of the world-class cabinet he has built," spokesman Sean Spicer told The Associated Press in an email Monday evening.
The new announcement, a date for which has not been set, will most likely take place before Inauguration Day and after a vacation at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, The New York Times reported. Officials blamed the delay on cabinet selections taking more time than anticipated.
Trump had said Nov. 30 in a series of tweets that he would unveil his version of a blind trust Dec. 15.
"Hence, legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations. The Presidency is a far more important task!" he wrote.
But Trump’s version could differ significantly from traditional understandings of presidential trusts used by almost every president since Lyndon B. Johnson took over in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Merely stepping aside from "business operations" might not impose the sort of barrier designed to protect the White House from undue influence.
Furthermore, Trump's business interests have reinvigorated a constitutional debate about the Emoluments Clause, which prohibits certain government officials from accepting gifts from foreign governments without Congressional approval, as ProPublica's Richard Tofel wrote:
That’s because the Emoluments Clause seems to bar Trump’s ownership of his business. It has little to do with his management of it. Trump’s tweets last Wednesday said he would be 'completely out of business operations.'
But unless Trump sells or gives his business to his children before taking office the Emoluments Clause would almost certainly be violated. Even if he does sell or give it away, any retained residual interest, or any sale payout based on the company’s results, would still give him a stake in its fortunes, again fairly clearly violating the Constitution.
Although some legal scholars contend that the Emoluments Clause does not apply to US presidents, vice presidents, and members of Congress, Mr. Tofel argues that Trump – if he does not sell his business altogether – could bring the debate to a head. If he declares himself exempt, Tofel writes, Trump would be the first chief executive to do so in at least 185 years.
This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.