Today in a wide-ranging interview with the New York Times, President-elect Donald Trump made the spurious claim that, “The law is totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
The president can indeed have a conflict. That is why for more than 40 years, every president has taken steps — bona fide blind trusts, divestment or firewalls — to address those conflicts to protect the integrity of the high office he held. President-elect Trump should do the same.
President-elect Trump should tread carefully here. As the Constitution makes clear, we are a nation of laws, not men. Simply because the president is not covered by one anti-corruption law — the 1978 Ethics in Government Act — does not mean he is above the law nor absolve him of obligations enumerated in the Constitution. In fact, the president is subject to a number of anti-corruption laws, including financial disclosure laws, the bribery statute, the Federal Election Campaign Act, the anti-nepotism laws and the Antideficiency Act. He is also covered by the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution which is codified in the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act of 1966 and prohibits a company owned directly by the president from receiving financial benefits from a foreign leader, a foreign treasury or a bank or other business owned and controlled by a foreign government without the consent of Congress.
Last week a group of more than a dozen ethics and public interest organizations joined together to call on President-elect Trump to place his business assets and investments into a genuine blind trust, or the equivalent. The two chief ethics counsels for President Obama (Norm Eisen) and President George W. Bush (Richard Painter) have both written extensively about steps President-elect Trump should take to resolve his conflicts of interest before moving into the Oval Office. Their position has been echoed by the general counsel of the presidential candidate John McCain (Trevor Potter) who recently wrote that it would be a “colossal mistake” for Trump to fail to sufficiently address the manifold conflicts of interest presented by his global holdings.
It would be prudent for the president-elect to brush up on his history and recall that nearly 40 years ago, in 1977, former President Richard Nixon sat across from journalist David Frost and made the claim, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”