Federal ethics chief blasts 'meaningless' Trump business plan

Federal ethics chief blasts 'meaningless' Trump business plan
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The head of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) on Wednesday slammed President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpChelsea Clinton attends Muslim solidarity rally in NYC Pentagon chief: 'I don’t have any issues with the press' Kasich: The media is 'an important part of democracy' MORE’s plan to separate himself from his business, calling it “wholly inadequate” in resolving potential conflicts of interest. 

“The plan the president-elect has announced doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every president in the last four decades have met,” OGE Director Walter Shaub said during a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington. 

"Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective," he said.

Shaub, an Obama appointee, said the only way for Trump to avoid conflicts between his business empire and the presidency is to sell his assets and place them in a blind trust. 

The plan Trump rolled out Wednesday falls short of that standard.

“We can’t risk the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for professional profit,” he said. 

Trump announced Wednesday that he is handing control of his business empire to his two adult sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, and placing his assets into a trust.

“They are not going to discuss [the business] with me,” Trump said of his sons. “Again, I don't have to do this. They're not going to discuss it with me.”

But Trump said he would not be selling his company or real estate holdings. 

The agreement also does not constitute a “blind” trust, over which neither Trump not his family members would have control. 

While Trump is giving up control of his business, he would still have limited access to information, such as profit and loss statements.

"This is not a blind trust, it’s not even close," Shaub said.

Sheri Dillon, an attorney for the president-elect, argued it would be impossible for him to sell off his assets, saying the process would create even more possible conflicts.

Shaub recognized divesting himself from his business holdings “could be costly” for Trump, but called it a necessary step for any president to take.

“No, I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to be president of the United States of America,” he said.

Trump said the steps he undertook were purely voluntary because a president cannot have a conflict of interest. Shaub said that assertion is “quite obviously not true."

“I think the most charitable way to understand such statements is that they are referring to a particular conflict-of-interest law that does not apply to the president,” he said.

He added that “common sense dictates that the president can of course have very real conflicts of interests.”

While specific conflict of interest laws that apply to officials below the president don't specifically apply to the commander in chief, the "tone from the top matters," Shaub said.

"The signals a president sends set the tone for ethics across the executive branch."

The ethics office praised Trump in November when he first announced he would separate himself from his businesses. But since then, there has been an apparent breakdown between the two camps.

Trump has eschewed any help from the ethics agency, Shaub said, but his door is open should he want to revisit its plan for Trump's businesses.

"Let’s all remember there is still time to build on that plan [announced on Wednesday morning] that will resolve his conflict of interest."

The OGE has helped structure ethics agreements with many of Trump's nominees for Cabinet posts, including ones with sprawling and complex business holdings like former Goldman Sachs executive Steven Mnuchin and former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson.

Shaub praised the ethics agreement Tillerson struck, in which he divested himself of all Exxon assets and forfeited bonus payments that amounted to millions of dollars.  

That agreement, Shaub, is a "sterling model for what we’d like to see with other nominees."

"He clearly recognizes that public service sometimes comes at a cost. The greater the authority entrusted in a government official, the greater the potential for conflicts of interest. That’s why the cost is often greater the higher up you go."

Shaub began a five-year term at the helm of the ethics office in January 2013. He was confirmed by the Senate in a voice vote.

This story was updated at 5:21 p.m. Pete Schroeder and Megan R. Wilson contributed.