Donald Trump indicated Tuesday he was unlikely to disentangle himself from his business empire as fully as he previously suggested, raising questions about potential conflicts of interest while president.
Mr. Trump and his representatives said during the campaign he would have nothing to do with his businesses if he became president, promising a “total and complete separation.”
But since the election, Mr. Trump has met with foreign business partners and involved daughter Ivanka Trump in such discussions, even though he has said his children will run his companies during the presidency as a way to separate their operations from the White House.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump told the New York Times that “the law’s totally on my side” and that “the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
Mr. Trump’s comments came after the Republican contended with other concerns overhanging his transition. Trump University disclosed a $25 million settlement Friday to resolve litigation involving allegations of fraud at the defunct organization. And Mr. Trump’s charitable foundation said in a tax filing that it had engaged in self-dealing in 2015 and prior years that resulted from payments to “disqualified persons,” or foundation insiders.
The president and vice president are exempt from laws that make it a crime for all others working for the executive branch to use their public office for their own enrichment.
But the blending of Mr. Trump’s business and the office of the presidency contradicts what Mr. Trump and Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s general counsel, told The Wall Street Journal in interviews before the election.
“Creating total and complete separation—so that there is not even the appearance of any impropriety—that is sort of the idea,” Mr. Garten said in a September interview.
“He would not be involved in the business,” Mr. Garten said, stressing that Mr. Trump’s children would run the company. Mr. Garten didn’t respond to requests for comment on this article.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump told the Journal that he would separate the business from the presidency. “I’ll do whatever makes people comfortable,” he said in the summer. “It’s very easy.”
Richard Painter, former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, said that even if Mr. Trump operates within the law, without putting further restrictions on himself the conflicts could be “endless.”
“The issue is how is he going to manage public expectations that he will be president and not be engaged in self-dealing and that private interests will not be ingratiating themselves to him through business dealings,” said Jan Baran, a lawyer who specializes in government ethics laws and has advised past Republican presidents. “That’s going to be a challenge.”
Several members of Congress this week criticized Mr. Trump for his business dealings. Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.,) pointed out that Mr. Trump had criticized Hillary Clinton because her family’s foundation accepted foreign donations, which Mr. Trump called “pay for play.”
“If you have contracts w/ foreign govts, it’s certainly a big deal, too. #DrainTheSwamp,” Mr. Amash tweeted.
Trump spokesman Jason Miller wouldn’t say Tuesday whether or when Mr. Trump might separate his business interests. Mr. Miller said that “as soon as the lawyers have worked through that and gotten that figured out with all parties involved, then we’ll go ahead and get that out.”
While little would legally prevent Mr. Trump from using his office as president in a way that enriches him and his family, antibribery laws could apply, though they require proof of a direct quid-pro-quo, Mr. Baran said.
Mr. Painter believes there could be a constitutional restriction if Mr. Trump’s businesses accept any money from foreign officials, such as payments for rooms at the businessman’s hotels.
Among other potential conflicts, Mr. Trump owns hotels and condos in the U.S. overseen by federal regulatory agencies. He also has licensing deals with wealthy property owners in foreign countries with extensive business interests of their own who, in some cases, also have political involvement in their countries.
Of the 29 countries whose leaders Mr. Trump has disclosed speaking to since the election, he has real estate-related business deals in eight, including Azerbaijan and Turkey, and has sought deals in the past in several others.