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Federal Agencies Pressure Trump To Address Conflicts Of Interest

Dec 14, 2016
Originally published on December 14, 2016 8:27 pm
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Two federal agencies have now cautiously challenged President-elect Donald Trump to uphold federal ethics standards. They want Trump to avoid conflicts of interest between his administration and his business. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Trump has interests in more than 500 business entities spread across at least 20 countries. To avoid the obvious conflicts of interest they would present, his plan has been to run the government while his children run the business. Here's Trump on "Fox News" Sunday this week.

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DONALD TRUMP: Hopefully, they're going to run it properly. I'm sure they're going to run properly, but I'm not going to do deals. And I think, you know - I think that's going to be good.

OVERBY: His critics don't think so. It's true that presidents are exempt from federal conflict of interest rules, but they've always complied with them so far. Now at the Office of Government Ethics, the agency that helps newly elected officials navigate the federal ethics laws, the director has gone on record saying Trump's plan to keep his family involved wouldn't eliminate the conflicts of interest. Democrats and advocates of clean government are pushing for Congress to look into the conflict issues. Here's Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings at a bipartisan forum today.

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ELIJAH CUMMINGS: This is bigger than our president-elect. This is bigger than this moment. This is about our democracy and the laws that go with it.

OVERBY: Besides the Office of Government Ethics, the federal General Services Administration weighed in today on another conflict of interest - the Trump Hotel in Washington's old Post Office Building. GSA owns the building. Trump leases it, but federal elected officials are barred from being on the lease or benefiting from it. Cummings and other Democrats say a GSA deputy commissioner told them last week Trump will be breaching the lease the moment he takes office. But this afternoon GSA backed away from that language. The spokesperson said the agency can't assess the situation until Trump takes office.

The president-elect has long promised a press conference to explain his ethics policies. It was going to be tomorrow, in fact, till it was postponed. It hasn't been rescheduled. Sean Spicer on the transition team had this response to a question in this morning's press briefing.

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SEAN SPICER: This will be something that comes up at the press conference the president-elect will now be holding in January.

OVERBY: Meanwhile, lawyers and advocacy groups are talking quietly about an organized push on ethics issues. Daniel Bryan is the head of a watchdog group called the Project on Government Oversight, or POGO.

DANIELLE BRIAN: This is about sort of preserving the integrity of the government and the Constitution.

OVERBY: Such an effort would likely use freedom of information requests, lawsuits and similar tools aimed at specific cases. And the long range goal? Get Congress to take up the ethics issues. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.