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How Trump's Administration May Get Caught Up In Entanglements


Let's explore the wealth of the top officials in the Trump administration. Late Friday, the White House disclosed information about the personal finances of some of its employees. One estimate says the president and his staff may be worth a combined $12 billion, which the White House considers a selling point - they're successful - and our next guests consider perilous because of the business conflicts that come with their new jobs.

Two ethics lawyers who have challenged the administration are questioning the business of Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and top adviser. They are Richard Painter and Norman Eisen, top ethics lawyers for Presidents Bush and Obama. They're back once again.

Gentlemen, good morning.

RICHARD PAINTER: Good morning, Steve.

NORMAN EISEN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's wrong with Jared Kushner? I thought he was the guy who actually took some pretty solid steps to separate himself from his business.

EISEN: Well, there's a number of unusual features that were revealed in the White House's Friday night document dump of financial disclosures, above all relating to Jared and his wife Ivanka. Both professor Painter and myself, when we were serving in White Houses of different political parties, required people to give up, very broadly, their financial holdings, their companies, their business.

INSKEEP: But that's what I'm asking about. Hasn't Jared Kushner resigned from his positions for the most part, more than a couple hundred different positions that held?

EISEN: He's resigned quite a bit, but he's also hanging on to business interests, as is Ivanka. And that creates a plethora of conflicts. Take for example his loans. He has indebtedness to some 10 financial institutions. That means, Steve, that he is not going to be able to work, at a minimum, on real estate issues relating to financial regulation, maybe more broadly on financial regulations. So when you have issues like Dodd-Frank, he's going to have to recuse himself.

INSKEEP: Richard Painter, you pointed out that he didn't disclose who these loans are to. But reportedly, they've included Goldman Sachs, The Blackstone Group, Deutsche Bank, a French bank, an Israeli bank. But frankly, everybody's got a mortgage or something. Is this really a problem?

PAINTER: Well, he has a very extensive real estate empire. And real estate always has a lot of debt on it. That's the way the business works. You use a lot of debt. And he is going to have to recuse from any aspect of bank regulation that affects the real estate industry. And that's an awful lot of it because we know the 2008 crisis was triggered by problems in the mortgage industry, and we are anticipating there could be serious problems in the commercial real estate industry as well.

So he's going to be out of Dodd-Frank, a banking repeal, because it's all one big bill. It's not going to - he's not going to parse through this, the conflicts. Out of banking reform - also tax reform because there's tax aspects of real estate. And there are special tax goodies in the tax code for real estate developers, and those will be on the table. So he'll be out of tax reform. And then finally, they're going to have to be out of trade because Ivanka has a business making clothing abroad - I believe in China, a number of places - and then bringing it up - to the United States, over here, and putting a big markup on it. So she's out of trade. So those are three big areas that both of them are having to stay out of - banking reform, tax and trade. But they can do it.

INSKEEP: I'm glad that you mentioned China because the president of China is in the United States this week. Jared Kushner, according to multiple reports, has been deeply involved in setting up the visit. But you point out that there are business interests for Kushner and Ivanka Trump in China. The Financial Times, in fact, reported over the weekend - involving the president as well - since the president's inauguration, China has approved dozens of pending trademark applications by the Trump Organization and, quote, "the volume of applications to market Ivanka Trump's brand in China has also soared."

What's happening there, Norm Eisen?

EISEN: Well, it's another indicator of the ways in which the Trump family views the White House as a giant marketing opportunity. But in terms of the White House service of Ivanka and Jared - and spousal conflicts are attributed from one partner to the other, so Jared is saddled with this too. It's concerning that China has these trademarks that operate as a lever on - they have something that Ivanka wants very badly, the power of trademark approval. So it casts a cloud over the negotiations with China. It raises the question - will the Trump family really be as tough as they purport to be in these negotiations? Or will they be subject to influence by China? That's concerning to us.

INSKEEP: Would each of you take your best shot at the thing that we do hear from the president's supporters, who essentially will say - well, they're successful. That's not a bad thing. And we understand that you're raising all these ethics concerns, but they're already rich. Why would they go and steal money and take advantage of the country when they're already rich? This is something that is said.

PAINTER: Well, the problem is they have to follow the law. And it's a criminal statute that says you may not participate in a government matter that will have an effect on your financial interests, regardless of what your motives are. It's a criminal offense. So there's a big problem here.

For example, with China - when China acts up or does something we don't want or now maybe doesn't help us enough with North Korea, President Trump may very well threaten to cut off trade. That is the one way that we think we can tell China what to do - say we're not going to have good trade relationships.

Well, immediately then, Jared and Ivanka are out of the discussion because she's importing clothing from China. President Trump - this law does not apply to him, so he can run around furthering his own business interests in these negotiations. But they would commit a criminal offense, so they have to step out of the room and leave him alone.

INSKEEP: Norm Eisen, you've got about 20 seconds.

EISEN: Richard, although of course the statute doesn't apply, Constitution does apply to President Trump - forbids foreign government cash. His son has said they're getting a lot of Russian money in their businesses.

INSKEEP: He said years ago, yeah.

EISEN: And so we still need to see Trump's own tax returns. To answer your question, rich people, in my experience, sometimes want more.

INSKEEP: Norman Eisen And Richard Painter, thanks to both of you.