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Top government ethics official denounces Trump's business plans

| Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, 1:12 a.m.

WASHINGTON — In an unusual rebuke of an incoming president, the federal government's top ethics official Wednesday joined a wave of ethics watchdogs denouncing President-elect Donald Trump's plan to retain his financial interest in his global real-estate and branding empire.

“The plan the president has announced doesn't meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every president in the past four decades has met,” Walter Shaub, the head of the Office of Government Ethics, told reporters Wednesday at the news conference.

He called Trump's pledge to step away from management of his company “meaningless from a conflicts of interest perspective.”

Shaub and a slew of outside groups have urged Trump to divest his businesses interests and follow the example of recent presidents by stashing his holdings in a blind trust or a bland mix of diversified mutual funds and Treasury bonds. That would avoid the conflicts that could arise between his official duties and his family's sprawling array of licensing, real estate and property-management firms, they say.

In a news conference Wednesday, Trump made it clear that he won't give up his ownership stake in the Trump Organization.

Instead, he will move his business assets into a trust that his adult sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, and a Trump Organization executive will manage. The incoming president will not participate in the running of the company, his lawyer Sheri Dillon said.

She said his businesses will not pursue any new foreign deals during his presidency, but will seek new domestic business.

A still-to-be-named ethics adviser will help the Trump Organization steer clear of potential conflicts, Dillon said. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, will not participate in the business either, she added. Ivanka Trump's husband, Jared Kushner, is preparing to join the White House as a senior adviser to his father-in-law.

Trump and his aides say their plan establishes a bright line between line between his presidency and business interests and note that conflicts of interest laws that govern most executive branch employees do not apply to the president or vice president. “I could actually run my business and run government at the same time,” a defiant Trump said Wednesday during a wide-ranging news conference, his first since July 27. “I don't like the way that looks, but I would be able to do that if I wanted to.”

Trump said he recently rejected $2 billion worth of business deals in Dubai. “I turned it down,” he said. “I didn't have to turn it down.”

Dillon said the steps announced Wednesday “will completely isolate (Trump) from management of the company.”

Shaub said OGE officials were not consulted about Trump's plan and said that the incoming president could set the wrong example for other government employees, who must comply with conflict of interest rules. “The ethics program starts at the top,” he said.

“I don't think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the president of the United States of America,” Shaub said.

The continued wrangling over Trump's business dealings came nine days before his Jan. 20 swearing-in, and his aides still were in the process of establishing the terms of the trust they say will be in place before Trump begins his takes office. Officials said they also were still interviewing candidates for the ethics adviser post.

The election of a businessman with financial interests from Turkey to the United Arab Emirates is unprecedented in modern U.S. history.

“We are on the verge of witnessing the first for-profit president,” said Robert Weissman, president of the liberal-leaning group Public Citizen, one of the groups urging Trump to divest.

Noted constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe took to Twitter to slam Trump's plan as a “totally fraudulent workaround.”

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