House Democrats Have a Plan to Go After Trump’s Conflicts
By Justin Miller | Jan 11, 2017
On Wednesday morning, Donald Trump held a long-awaited press conference to address how he will deal with the potential conflicts of interest posed by his massive business empire. For weeks, ethics watchdogs have called on the president-elect to fully divest from his business operations and place them in a blind trust.
Trump ignored those demands, announcing that he will retain ownership of his businesses, which his sons will oversee in a trust. To address concerns about possible violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, Trump said that he will donate all of earnings from hotel bookings made by foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury. (Sheri Dillon, Trump’s attorney has argued that his hotel holdings do not violate the Emoluments Clause.)
Trump continued to insist that none these measures were required by law and that he was making these moves voluntarily. “[My sons] are going to be running it in a very professional manner. They’re not going to discuss it with me. Again, I don’t have to do this. They’re not going to discuss it with me,” Trump said.
In response, House Democrats plan to launch a “Democracy Reform Task Force” that aims to hold Trump accountable for conflicts of interest and ethical lapses. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has tapped Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes, a leading proponent of ethics reform, to head the task force.
Trump’s plan “doesn’t come close to solving the problems that these conflicts of interest present,” Sarbanes says in an interview with the Prospect. “This notion that giving it to his sons to look after is absurd as representing any real distancing from these conflicts.”
“Without fully divesting ownership, there’s no way to avoid potential for divided loyalties. When he goes to make a decision [as president], somewhere in his brain, if he still has business ownership, he’s got to be thinking if the decision as president will hurt or benefit his business,” Sarbanes adds.
While the Democrats’ new task force won’t have any formal power to investigate Trump, Sarbanes said that members will hold ethics forums around the country; provide resources to ranking Democrats on relevant committees; and highlight Democratic legislation—like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s bill that would require Trump to fully divest or Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin’s bill to ban “golden parachute” bonuses for private-sector executives entering public service—that address the ethical concerns of Trump’s administration. “[The task force] can be a very effective clearinghouse on this broad issue of accountability,” Sarbanes says.
Sarbanes hopes that the task force will serve as a rapid-response operation to deal with Trump administration ethics concerns as they emerge. He also wants to see the group organize campaigns like the one that public-interest organizations led in early January that generated a flood of constituent calls to House Republicans after news broke that they planned to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. The calls were widely credited with forcing Republicans to back off the plan.
The Democrats’ ethics task force could become their primary tool for challenging the impending ethical dilemmas of the Trump administration, especially since they aren’t optimistic that congressional Republicans will monitor or rein in any new Trump conflicts that come to light.
Sarbanes is setting out to recruit members of the Democratic caucus to help articulate “nimble, timely” responses as needed while crafting an overarching message that Democrats are leading the way on holding Trump accountable. “We want to be in the middle of that conversation,” he says, adding “I don’t see that coming from the other side of the aisle.”
As part of, the House task force will also focus on other democracy and campaign-finance issues that are part of its larger “By the People” package and, further, will seek to “expose the GOP’s special-interest agenda.”