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Trump Continues To Brush Aside Conflicts Of Interest

Aug 24, 2017
Originally published on August 24, 2017 6:01 pm
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August has been a stormy month for the Trump administration. So stormy, in fact, that it's clouded over ethical issues involving the White House. Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: President Trump made headlines last week with some of his remarks after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va. But when a reporter asked if he would go to Charlottesville, he switched gears.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I mean, I know a lot about Charlottesville. Charlottesville is a great place that's been very badly hurt over the last couple of days. But I own...

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: I own, actually, one of the largest wineries in the United States. It's in Charlottesville.

OVERBY: The winery isn't really all that big, but it's valued between 11 million and $52 million, according to Trump's latest financial disclosure report. This presidential pitch got little notice compared with last February. That was when presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway plugged Ivanka Trump's merchandise in a live hit on Fox News.

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KELLYANNE CONWAY: I'm going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.

OVERBY: Conway got in a bit of trouble for the ethics violation, and it was a hot topic on cable news for days. Why was there more outrage back then? One reason is there weren't as many Trump controversies overall. Another reason...

KATHLEEN CLARK: We have become desensitized.

OVERBY: Kathleen Clark, a professor of legal and government ethics, speaking via Skype.

CLARK: We're so used to Trump conflicts of interest and abuse of office that when he promotes his vineyard and lies about it, it's just a blip.

OVERBY: There are many blips.

WALTER SHAUB: Remember, every president since the enactment of the Ethics and Government Act in the '70s has divested conflicting assets.

OVERBY: Every president until Trump, says Walter Shaub. As a former director of the Office of Government Ethics, Shaub urged Trump to separate himself from the hotels and resorts he owns. Instead, Trump uses the aura of the presidency to drive business, especially at his D.C. hotel and his clubs in New Jersey and Florida.

On another ethics front, here's billionaire investor Carl Icahn. In December, Trump designated Icahn as the unpaid unofficial special adviser to the president on regulatory reform. Icahn tried to change an EPA rule, a move that would have benefited a refinery he owns. He resigned last week as details of his campaign came out. Robert Weissman is president of the watchdog group Public Citizen, which was pushing for Icahn's removal.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Each time we're able to succeed in making things a little bit less bad, it's an incremental win.

OVERBY: The White House didn't respond to NPR's request for comment. Kathleen Clark, the ethics law professor, said every administration tackles ethical questions. But in the Trump White House...

CLARK: The question isn't, how can we use this to strengthen our hand politically? It's instead, how can we avoid application of any restriction, anything that would get in the way of our financially benefiting and exploiting government office? And that is unprecedented.

OVERBY: Then again, many aspects of this presidency are unprecedented. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEDESKI, MARTIN AND WOOD'S "END OF THE WORLD PARTY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.