Sen. Elizabeth Warren and another top Democratic lawmaker on Wednesday urged the Government Accountability Office to conduct a review of President-elect Donald Trump's cabinet and White House transition, calling the progression chaotic and charging that it was rife with conflicts and violations of protocol.
"Mr. Trump's apparent conflicts of interest-and his behavior during the campaign and after his election-· raise questions about the use of taxpayer funds during the transition, and about the decisions made during the transition that will affect federal government policies under the Trump Administration," according to a letter submitted by Warren and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., to the GAO.
Warren has not shied from criticizing Trump or his early cabinet secretary picks in the wake of the historic election earlier this month. Last week she urged Trump to reverse his decision to pick Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to serve as Attorney General. With Wednesday's letter, Warren and Cummings sought to put a spotlight on comments made by Trump's attorney, Michael Cohen, earlier this month about how the president-elect's business holdings will be placed in a blind trust with his three oldest children put in charge. Warren and Cummings cited a section of the Ethics in Government Act noting that an officer or employee "involved in the management or control of a trust" not be a "relative of any interested party."
Norman Eisen, a former special assistant and counsel to President Barack Obama for ethics and government reform, said Warren and Cummings are correct in raising concerns about how a blind trust should not have family relations as trustees, adding that what Trump is suggesting isn't really a blind trust. "Every president who has had a blind trust since [former president Jimmy] Carter have used independent trustees with no familial relationships," Eisen said. "If the childhood best friend not to mention the child of the beneficiary is a trustee it doesn't work. How can Trump can honestly take his oath of office? How can he agree to uphold constitution?"
However, Eisen, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, acknowledged that Trump is under no formal obligation to divest assets. He suggested that Trump should appoint an independent trustee that would liquidate his business holdings through an IPO or a management-led leveraged buyout. The proceeds from the LBO or IPO would then be turned over to the trustee to be managed, with investments placed in mutual funds, U.S. Treasury bonds and other diversified assets. "He's be safe from criminal penalties under the bribery laws if he if he did this," Eisen said. "He'd be totally insulated from any criminal investigation. Trump executives could raise the money to buy Trump out."
Trump told the New York Times reporters Tuesday that "the law is totally on my side. The President can't have a conflict of interest," essentially suggesting that conflicts of interest are not illegal if the president has them.
Eisen said that, at best, Trump's comments are only half true. He acknowledged that the president and vice president are exempted from some of the rules that prohibit executive branch employees from participating in matters where they have a financial stake. However, Eisen said that there are other laws, including criminal, regulatory and constitutional ones that regulate conflicts.
Warren and Cummings also asked the GAO to examine the "potential impact of his refusal to set up a qualified blind trust to prevent conflicts of interests?" The letter also asked whether Trump has "conducted Trump organization business during the transition" after reports that the president-elect recently met at his office at Trump Tower with Indian business partners. In addition, the letter asked whether Trump's family members maintained appropriate distance between the Trump business and the presidential transition. It also raised questions about security protocols after a report that Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke with Trump on the President-elect's personal cell phone.
At this stage it is unclear whether the GAO, an independent non-partisan agency, will accept the request. A spokeswoman said the congressional watchdog group prioritizes requests from congressional committee leaders with jurisdiction over a particular issue, and that the decision on whether to honor a request can take a few weeks. Cummings is the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform committee and as a result his request may carry more weight.
Eisen said the GAO officials will make their decision on whether to conduct a review based on whether they believe there have been substantial allegations raised. "I would hope they would do a report," Eisen said.
A Trump transition spokeswomen did not return a request for comment about Warren's letter.
Eisen said that Trump could try to recuse himself from a variety of policy decisions impacting his real estate holdings but that those recusals would raise their own problems. "We didn't hire him to be recusing himself," he said. "We don't want the president to step out of the Oval Office when there is a crisis."
The Congressional Research Service, in an October 14 report, noted that there is "no current legal requirement that would compel the president to relinquish financial interests because of a conflict of interest." However, the report goes on to say that public officials in the executive branch are subject to criminal penalties if they personally and substantially participate in matters in "which they or their immediate families" hold financial interests.