The supposed wall between President Donald Trump and his business empire continues to crumble.
Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s adult sons who took over the Trump Organization as their father took control of the White House, hit the morning show circuit this week to promote Trump Hotels’ newest line: a budget-friendly chain inspired by the sons’ time on the campaign trail with their father.
But they often sounded more like surrogates for the White House.
The two sons weighed in on the FBI’s ongoing Russia probe — “It’s the greatest hoax of all time,” Eric Trump told “Good Morning America” in an interview that aired Tuesday — as well as the president’s revived spat with London’s mayor — “Maybe he should do something to fix the problem rather than just sit there and pretend there isn’t one,” Donald Trump Jr. said about Sadiq Khan. And they offered unsparing criticism of the media that their father also loves to bash.
While the sons earlier this year agreed to be barred from discussing company operations and the inner workings of the U.S. government with their father, they have continued to serve as strong public advocates for their father’s presidency and have boasted about the company’s increased brand value since the inauguration and kept him in the loop on the Trump Organization’s bottom line.
It doesn’t appear that Eric and Donald Trump Jr. are running afoul of any laws, but critics warn that the never-before-seen dynamic with the 70-year-old president and his business executive sons threatens undoing traditions of the presidency, which the president has already shattered as a candidate by refusing to release his tax returns.
“It’s hard to describe what they’re doing in polite words,” said Mark Foster, a lawyer who specializes in ethics at the firm Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, about the arrangement between Trump and his sons.
“If he — and this is a loaded term — if he gets away with it, then obviously he sets a new standard for future presidents: ‘It’s OK to do this,’ which I think would be extremely regrettable because it’s never been the standard and it ought not to be the standard,” Foster continued. “But if he does it and gets away with it, then, you know, what president down the road is gonna feel constrained not to set his own standards? There are no standards.” In the interviews that aired on Tuesday, Trump’s sons defended the roles they are playing and their communications with their father about business matters.
Eric Trump, who told Forbes in March that he apprises the president of his empire’s bottom line and profitability reports “probably quarterly,” insisted Tuesday that doing so “doesn’t blur the lines” of the ethics agreement announced at a January news conference.
Eric Trump said he doesn’t discuss any business activities with his father, and when it comes to profit reports, “You’re allowed to show that.”
“Remember, though,” he said, “the president of the United States has zero conflicts of interest. Zero.”
Donald Trump Jr. said the new hotels have “nothing to do with politics” but delved into the subject nonetheless, expressing satisfaction with the president’s staff while also speculating that there are “without question” holdovers from President Barack Obama’s administration who “aren’t necessarily working in his best interests.” But critics say the blurred lines are obvious and troubling.
“Look, they have a First Amendment right to comment, but when they do things like that, they are also making it clear that the president’s business interests and duties as a president are blended, and that’s the problem for me,” said a former White House lawyer. “It’s not that somehow there’s some law against it, but it’s a further blurring of what I thought he said he was gonna put in place to make sure that there’d be a separation between him and his business interests.”
Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, a government accountability and transparency nonprofit, called the arrangement between Trump and his adult sons a “sham.”
“This latest disclosure from Trump’s son that he’s talking about these things is confirmation that the attestations that the president made back in January regarding there being complete separation are a sham,” said Howard, who argued that sacrifice is required of businessmen who enter politics.
Foster, the lawyer who specializes in ethics, also said Trump needs to do more to insulate himself from foreign interests who are doing business with the Trump Organization.
A spokesperson for the Trump Organization announced its intent to donate to the Treasury Department at the end of the year money it received in payments from a lobbyist working for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The president and his campaign were critical of Hillary Clinton and money that her Clinton Foundation accepted.
Foster, however, rejected the notion that the Trumps can’t and won’t be influenced by money if they don’t do more to put in place a firewall between the national interest and the president’s business interests.
“Look, I don’t care what you say: Money influences the way you think,” he said. “You know, I tend to think favorably of my clients because they pay me a lot of money. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just human nature — except if I were president of the United States, you wouldn’t want people influencing my thinking by giving me money either directly or indirectly. You’d rather I was thinking about the national interest.”
A spokesperson for the Trump Organization declined to comment beyond pointing to the prior statement on the Treasury donations. A White House spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.