President-elect Donald J. Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that he would soon leave his âgreat business in totalâ to focus on the presidency, a response to growing worries over the businessman-in-chiefâsÂ conflicts of interestÂ around the globe.
Shortly after, the official Twitter account of the Office of Government Ethics, the traditionally staid federal agency that often works closely with presidential transition teams, issued a rapid-fire series of tweets celebrating that Trump had committed to fully divesting his company stake â though Trump has publicly said no such thing.
The back-to-back tweetstorms raised more questions than they answered: whether Trumpâs move would focus on severing hisÂ ownership ties, or simply his management responsibilities; and whether the OGE was releasing new information or simply the victim of a hacker, prankster or official gone rogue.
The OGEâs messages were deeply out of character for a federal ethics agency that isÂ famously quiet and unadventurous. Among the nine tweets: â@realDonaldTrump Bravo! Only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest . Good call!â The tweets were first posted Wednesday morning, then deleted within an hour. They then reappeared at 1 p.m.,Â for unknown reasons.
In a 1:30 p.m. statement from the OGEâs email account, attributed to OGE spokesman Seth Jaffe, the agency said, âLike everyone else, we were excited this morning to read the President-electâs twitter feed indicating that he wants to be free of conflicts of interest. OGE applauds that goal, which is consistent with an opinion OGE issued in 1983. Divestiture resolves conflicts of interest in a way that transferring control does not. We donât know the details of their plan, but we are willing and eager to help them with it.â
A second statement at 3:30 p.m. added, âThe tweets that OGE posted today were responding only to the public statement that the President-elect made on his Twitter feed about his plans regarding conflicts of interest. OGEâs tweets were not based on any information about the President-electâs plans beyond what was shared on his Twitter feed. OGE is non-partisan and does not endorse any individual.â
Phone messages left with a dozen agency executives and representatives seeking verification or more details were not returned.
OGE lawyers haveÂ been influential in past presidentsâÂ decision making, but their adviceÂ has almost always been kept confidential. If nothing else, the OGEâs tweets have publicly revealed federal-ethics officialsâ preference for the president-elect to completely divest â a form of lobbying that is potentially unprecedented for the agency.
The messages surprised many who had worked with the agency in the past: Brett Kappel, a Washington campaign-finance lawyer who has worked with OGE, said the agency ânever tweets about an individual federal officialâs ethics issues unless they are announcing the conclusion of an enforcement action.â
.@realDonaldTrump this divestiture does what handing over control could never have done.
â U.S. OGE (@OfficeGovEthics) November 30, 2016
The tweets followedÂ Trumpâs morning announcement, which appeared to echo his long insistence that he would cede the companyâs management to his children, a way of putting distanceÂ betweenÂ his private interests and public power.
ButÂ it remained unclear whether the new arrangement would include a full sale of Trumpâs stake in the company. Ethics advisers said a management hand-off to his children would not resolve worries that the business could still influence hisÂ decisions in the Oval Office.
âI will be holding a major news conference in New York City with my children on December 15 to discuss the fact that I will be leaving myÂ great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country in order to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!â Trump tweeted.
âWhile I am not mandated toÂ do this under the law, I feel it is visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses.Â Hence, legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations. The Presidency is a far more important task!â
Presidents are not bound by the strict conflict-of-interest lawsÂ governing most U.S. elected officials. But most modern presidents have agreed to sell or sequester their assets in a blind trust, led by an independent manager with supreme control,Â in order to keep past business deals, investments and relationships from influencing their White House term.
Giving company management to his adult children â Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka â would still leave open the potential for Trump to make presidential decisions for their benefit. The children have already played a key part in Trumpâs governing preparations, serving on theÂ transition team now selecting key appointees and sitting in on meetings with foreign heads of state.
Trump spokespeople did not immediately return requests for more details on the move.Â But Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, said the moveÂ did not appear to offer enough of a division to keep entanglement worries at bay.
âThatâs business operations, not ownership. The problem is, we need to resolve the conflicts of interest that arise from his ownership. And weâre hearing nothing about how thatâs getting resolved,â Painter said.
âEven if he does not operate the businesses, youâre going to have lots of people working for the business running around the world trying to cut deals,â Painter added. âAnd itâs critical that none of those people discuss U.S. business in a way that could be interpreted, or misinterpreted, of offering quid pro quo â¦ or soliciting a bribe on the part of the president.â
If Trumpâs family does take over management of the business, Norman Eisen, the chief White House ethics lawyer for President Obama from 2009 to 2011, said an âethics firewallâ would need to be put in place to combat theÂ ârisk of improper preferential relationships andÂ treatment for the Trump Organization with the United States government and foreign ones.â
Republican National Committee ChairmanÂ Reince PriebusÂ said Wednesday on MSNBCâs âMorning Joeâ that he was not âready to revealâ whether the move wouldÂ include Trump truly severing ties to his business or whether he would simply leave the day-to-day operations to his kids.
âItâs not the easiest thing to work out,â Priebus said. âWhat you see in those tweets is the person at the top that understands and is willing and showing the American people that heâs working hard on it and heâs taking it seriously.â
Others in the president-electâs orbit have shared little more on his plan. Asked Wednesday if he would take over the business, Eric Trump said, while walking through Trump Tower, âYouâll hear it soon enough.â
Asked how the new arrangement would be set up, Anthony Scaramucci, a member of the transition teamâs executive committee, said, âI donât want to steal Mr. Trumpâs or the childrenâs thunder on that, so letâs wait for Dec. 15.â He added, âAt age 70, after having this phenomenal life and building this phenomenal business in this great tower, heâs going to be a hundred percent focused on working for the American people and for the United States.â
The weeks since Trumpâs electoral victory have been marked by a series of entanglements between his private ventures and public ambitions.
Trump welcomed a group of Indian business executives to meet with him and his family at Trump Tower, where talk turned to the potential for new real-estate deals. Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, who will likely play a key part in running the company, met withÂ Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo AbeÂ during Trumpâs first meeting as president-elect with a foreign government leader.
HisÂ company, the Trump Organization, has over the years sealed lucrative real-estate and branding deals for business in at least 18 countries and territoriesÂ across the world, including in placesÂ where the U.S. has sensitive diplomatic ties, such as Turkey, Azerbaijan and India.
Trumpâs company is also pitching foreign diplomats on his new luxury hotel in Washington as a place to book rooms and hold meetings. But such entreaties eventually could run afoul of an âemolumentsâ clause in the U.S. Constitution that bars the president from accepting gifts from foreign leaders â even if he is not actively running the company.
Eric Trump also traveled to Turkey this week to hunt wild deer at the invitation of a Turkish businessman, according toÂ Turkish newspaper Hurriyet.Â Trumpâs company has made millions offÂ licensing the name to Trump Towers Istanbul,Â a luxury project in a country under close scrutiny by U.S. diplomats.
Buffeted by entanglement worries,Â Trump has largely dug in, arguing âthe lawâs totally on my side, meaning, the president canât have a conflict of interestâ last week in an interview with the New York Times.
âIn theory I could run my business perfectly, and then run the country perfectly,â Trump said. âBut I would like to do something. I would like to try and formalize something, because I donât care about my business.â
Peter Schweizer, a conservative authorÂ who raised alarms in the book âClinton Cashâ about Hillary Clintonâs possible conflicts of interest because ofÂ donations to her familyâs foundation, said Trump will face an equally skeptical public, not just about his entanglements but those of his children as well.
âItâs incumbent on the president of the United States, particularly one who is seemingly committed to âdraining the swamp,â to remove any questions about financial transactions involving him or his family,âÂ saidÂ Schweizer, who is also close to Trump senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who served as chairman of the Government Accountability Institute, where Schweizer is president.
âForeign entities look at family members as a route to gaining influence and getting special favors. Itâs not a question of if itâs going to happen â itâs going to happen.Â The best thing he could do is set up mechanisms now to avoid those pitfalls that invariablyÂ surround presidential families.â
He suggested bothÂ Trump and his adult childrenÂ voluntarily submit to quarterly in-depth disclosures about their financial holdings and major Trump Organization financial transactions, even though the law does not require it.
He also proposed that Trumpâs charitable foundation cease accepting donations from non-family members and that Trumpâs children agree they will not accept paid speaking engagements for fees larger than those they were paid before their father was elected president.
Stuart E. Eizenstat, who served as former President Jimmy Carterâs domestic policy chief and helped guide his transition to the White House, called Trumpâs announcement today âan important first step showing that he recognizes the concerns of the press and the public.â
Eizenstat recalled that Jimmy Carter put his interest in a peanut warehouse in a blind trust before inauguration day and that Carter agreed to recuse himself from discussion of Agriculture Department policy towards peanuts and limit his involvement in sugar â the latter playing a critical role in the fortunes of Coca-Cola, a leading home state industry.
Trump presents a unique challenge from an ethics perspective because of his wide ranging business interests and because his name is used so widely in pursuit of those interests around the globe. âWe are navigating in uncharted waters,â Eizenstat said.
Eizenstat, who also held several major positions in the Clinton administration,Â said the blind trust approach might be unworkable for Trump given those wide-ranging interests, his name brand on his companies and the active involvement of his children in the business.
He spoke approvingly of the idea of an independent monitor as a possible way to reassure the public. But he said that a monitor can be cumbersome and expensive. Given those hurdles, the best way to deal with the public policy challenges of Trumpâs vast business portfolio may be to simply encourage âa free and unfettered pressâ to investigate Trumpâs holdings and potential conflicts â along with his disclosure statements.
âThe power of a free press is what separates our country from non-Democratic countries and the vibrancy of the press would be the best instrumentâ to deal with Trumpâs international holdings and the constitutional prohibition against his receiving favors from foreign leaders.Â In addition, Eizenstat said that Trumpâs honesty and credibility in discussing his holdings is critical.
âIn the end, he is going to want to be sure that he is seen by the public as a president animated by the national interest,â Eizenstat said. âI am hopeful he will meet that standard.â
Michael Toner, who served as general counsel to the Bush-Cheney transition in 2000, recalled the 10-week post-election period as a time for setting broad ethical policy â and considering specific safeguards for the incoming president â that would set the tone for the incoming administration.
At the time of the Kennedy-Johnson transition, Lyndon Johnson separated himself from the Texas radio stations he operated, drawing up new ownership documents putting his wife, Lady Bird, in charge and removing himself, at least officially, from the companyâs operations. After his election in 1976, Jimmy Carter set up elaborate arrangements to remove himself from the family peanut business, its management and knowledge of day to day decisions.
For decades incoming presidents and vice presidents have used the inaugural period to meet with federal ethics officials to take steps, such as setting up blind trusts, to remove themselves from their previous business activities and investments. The idea, Toner and others said, is to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
One of Trumpâs most visible potential entanglements, even under a potentially new business arrangement, would beÂ Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., the new luxury hotel he opened in the White Houseâs backyard.
Charging his children with running the Trump Organization also does not necessarily protect against potential contractual or constitutional violations his presidency may trigger in regards to his D.C. hotel, legal experts say.Â Trump remains the majority owner of the project, which the company leases from the federal government.
Trump opened the hotel this fall after spending $42 million of his own money and borrowing another $170 million to foot the cost of construction. There is a provision in the lease allowing Trump to sell or transfer his stake in the hotel to âany Trump Family Member.â Selling it to an outside entity would likely require approval by the General Services Administration.
If Trump chooses not to sell, his ownership stake could create two problems once he steps into office. A boilerplate 88-word lease measure may require that the government terminate the deal because it bars âan elected official of the Government of the United Statesâ from having âany share or part of this Lease.â
Procurement experts Steven L. Schooner and Daniel I. Gordon have argued the GSA ought to terminate its deal with Trump because of that clause, writing in The Post a week after the election that âhaving the presidentâs adult children negotiate with the staff of the presidentâs appointee at GSA presents what any reasonable person would view as the appearance of a conflict of interest.â
Schooner, a George Washington University law professor, said in an email Monday that he worried GSA officials wouldnât terminate the lease out of risk of financial penalties or âintimidationâ from the incoming president.
But Steven J. Kelman, a former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Office of Management and Budget,Â said the passage may apply only to elected officials at the time of lease negotiations.
Even if itâs not a violation of the lease, putting his children in charge would leave them to negotiate with Trump administration officials over the deal going forward.Â The official who oversaw the selection of Trump for the project, Robert A. Peck, said recently that he couldnât imagine the average federal employee feeling much empowered to negotiate with one of Trumpâs children while they also advised their father in the White House, if he holds on to the property.
âIt would be one thing if his kids ran the business, if his kids didnât also want to be White House advisers,â Peck said. âBut even then, the specter of some â¦ contracting officers sitting across the table from Eric Trump. How does that feel?â
Rosalind S. Helderman, Jonathan OâConnell and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.