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Law Professor: Trump's Plan Fails To Adequately Address Conflicts Of Interest


For more now, we're joined by law professor Kathleen Clark of Washington University in St. Louis. She studies ethics for government officials. Thanks for coming in.

KATHLEEN CLARK: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Obviously Trump's attorneys, his organization has put a lot of effort into what they presented this morning. What's your reaction to what you saw?

CLARK: I think what we saw this morning was essentially an exercise in smoke and mirrors to give the appearance of doing something about the ethics problems, the Emoluments Clause problems. But I don't think he's actually addressed the problems that he has.

CORNISH: Handing it over to the kids, creating a wall which includes, like, this kind of in-house ethics adviser on the business side, a chief compliance counsel - it doesn't sound like you think those things make a difference.

CLARK: I think it would be a mistake to characterize it as a wall. It's more like a screen with the wind and financing going through the screen. There's no indication that other parties to transactions won't be able to inform Mr. Trump either through the media or directly of what kind of funds they have provided the Trump Organization.

CORNISH: Now, again Trump said he would not be releasing his tax returns. And one thing that they would show, which is still unclear, is what his liabilities are, right?

CLARK: Yes. In my mind, that is the single most important question. How much does the president-elect owe? To whom does he owe it? We do not know the answers to those questions. Those questions were not addressed in the press conference today.

CORNISH: So when he says, I don't owe Russia anything; I don't have any loans with them...

CLARK: President...

CORNISH: We don't have a way of verifying that.

CLARK: Of verifying that - President-elect Trump has been known to say things that are not accurate.

CORNISH: We also heard a word we've heard a lot over the last couple months, which is the Emoluments Clause, which is a provision in the Constitution which does try and address the idea of foreign governments giving gifts to American officials.

CLARK: Yes, a gift is one example of an emolument. Emolument can also be a payment of some sort. And we heard very little today about what the Trump organization is going to do to deal with the Emoluments Clause problem that President-elect Trump faces. Essentially, he cannot accept any payments from foreign governments. That's what's necessary to deal with the Emoluments Clause.

Instead, my understanding is that hotel transactions that come from foreign governments - it will donate those profits to the Treasury. But the Emoluments Clause isn't just about profits. It's about any compensation, any payment. So to try to isolate it to profits is problematic, A, because it's too narrow. But in addition, who's going to define the profits? Profits is a concept that's very susceptible to manipulation.

CORNISH: At the end of the day, there is this issue of who will hold Trump accountable if there are conflicts of interest, how that's done. It's not clear to me how going forward this will be policed in any way. Is it your sense this is something that will mostly be done in the court of public opinion?

CLARK: It's the court of public opinion and Congress. Congress has responsibility under the Emoluments Clause.

CORNISH: The Republican-led Congress.

CLARK: That's correct. But as we saw last week, even the Republican-controlled House of Representatives could be responsive to the public when it attempted to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. The public rose up, and the House Republicans backed down. If the public rises up and demands a president who will be conflict-free, then Congress will listen. But it'll depend on public action.

CORNISH: That's Kathleen Clark, law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Thank you for coming in to speak to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CLARK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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