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Experts Agree Trump's Ethics Plan Falls Short

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump appearing at a campaign roundtable event in Manchester
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump appears at a campaign roundtable event in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., October 28, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File PhotoCarlo Allegri / Reuters

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Experts agree: Trump ethics plan falls way short

Out of all the news from Wednesday -- Trump’s comments on Russia, Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, the Senate taking its first major step to repeal Obamacare -- the biggest might have been ethics experts saying that President-elect Donald Trump’s announced plan to separate himself from his business doesn’t go far enough. And as a result, they say, Trump is potentially triggering a constitutional crisis. His plan includes handing over business operations to his sons and placing his assets in a trust, but not a blind one controlled by an independent actor. The problems with Trump’s plan?

  • "Foreigners and others will continue to be able to ingratiate themselves by doing business with Trump organizations, which enriches Trump," Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University specializing in ethics, told NBC’s Benjy Sarlin. "It's really quite simple."
  • "Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective. The presidency is a full-time job and he would've had to step back anyway,” said Walter Shaub, director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. “The idea of setting up a trust to hold his operating businesses adds nothing to the equation. This is not a blind trust -- it's not even close."
  • “He has all of the conflicts of interest that he had before,” Richard Painter, the chief ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, told Forbes. “We don’t know who his business partners are, we don’t know who he owes.”
  • "The president-elect's disregard for ethics and precedent and the Constitution in his press conference today is going to precipitate an ethics and a constitutional crisis from the day he's sworn in," Norm Eisen, who served as President Obama’s ethics lawyer said on MSNBC.

"I don't think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the president of the United States of America," says head of U.S. Office of Government Ethics

Eisen was referring to Trump violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which states that no person holding federal office can receive a fee or profit from a foreign government or entity (so foreign delegations staying at Trump hotels). Trump’s lawyer said that, to avoid this, Trump’s hotels would donate any profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury. But that practice wouldn’t necessarily eliminate this concern. (“As soon as he receives the payment, he will have benefited, even if he later decides to give it away,” Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law told the New York Times.) On “Today” this morning, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway defended the president-elect’s ethics moves. “He has agreed to step away from everything associated with the Trump Organization,” she said. “Why always the presumptive negativity when it comes to Mr. Trump?” But according to these ethics experts, the best -- if not only -- way for Trump to eliminate any conflicts of interest or potential violations of the Emoluments Clause is to sell off his business and put the proceeds in a blind trust. "I don't think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the president of the United States of America," said Shaub, the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.

Balz: No incoming president has faced so many problems and unanswered questions

Wrapping up Trump’s news conference yesterday -- including his plan to separate himself from his business -- the Washington Post’s Dan Balz writes, “No president in memory has come to the brink of his inauguration with such a smorgasbord of potential problems and unanswered questions, or with the level of public doubts that exist around his leadership… Has he been compromised by the Russians, the most explosive and newest of allegations? (He denied all as fake news.) Are he and his party in conflict over U.S.-Russia relations? Will he truly separate himself from his sprawling business empire in a way that avoids conflicts of interest? Can he and Congress find common ground on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act? Will he live up to the promises he made as a candidate?” Balz concludes, “All presidents come to the Oval Office with questions about their ability to handle the complexities of the job. Obama arrived with limited experience on the national stage. George W. Bush took the oath after a contentious recount and controversial Supreme Court decision. Trump makes those situations look mild in comparison.”

Tillerson’s confirmation hits a roadblock

The reason? Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who asked Trump’s secretary of state nominee tough questions on Wednesday, wouldn’t commit voting for him -- which means that Tillerson’s nomination might not even make it out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The New York Times: "Leaving the hearing after his third round of questioning, Mr. Rubio would not commit to supporting — or opposing — Mr. Tillerson, telling reporters that he was ‘prepared to do what’s right’ even if fellow Republicans lined up behind Mr. Trump’s nominee." NBC’s Andrew Rafferty wraps up the rest of Tillerson’s hearing from yesterday.

Today’s three confirmation hearings: Mattis, Carson, Pompeo

Here’s the Senate confirmation hearing schedule, per NBC’s Frank Thorp:

  • CIA: Mike Pompeo -- Jan 12
  • HUD: Ben Carson -- Jan 12 / 10am
  • Labor: Andrew Puzder -- (Delayed until February?)
  • Defense: James Mattis -- Jan 12 / 9:30am
  • Interior: Ryan Zinke -- Jan 17/10am
  • Education: Betsy DeVos -- Jan 17 / 5pm
  • Commerce: Wilbur Ross -- Jan 18 / 10am
  • UN Ambassador: Nikki Haley -- Jan 18
  • Treasury: Steven Mnuchin -- No announcement expected until next week, per aide (Finance Cmte Jurisdiction)
  • HHS: Tom Price -- No announcement expected until next week, per aide (Finance Cmte Jurisdiction)

GOP-led Senate takes first step to repeal Obamacare

Here’s the other big activity on Capitol Hill from yesterday: “The U.S. Senate took the first major step toward repealing the Affordable Care Act after a marathon voting session that started Wednesday evening and extended into early Thursday,” NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell says. “The vote does not repeal President Obama's signature achievement, but it does set the stage for Republicans to clear the first procedural hurdle for repeal of the massive health care law. The bill will now go to the House of Representatives for a vote expected to take place on Friday.” More from Caldwell: “Democrats who opposed repealing Obamacare staged a protest during the vote, breaking with procedural rules by attempting to orally dedicate their votes to people they say would be harmed by repealing Obamacare.”

Intelligence chief says leak of Russia-related dossier didn’t come from intel community

NBC News: “Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he spoke with President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday and told him the intelligence community did not leak information about an unverified memo that sparked a firestorm of controversy when it was published online. ‘I emphasized that this document is not a U.S. Intelligence Community product and that I do not believe the leaks came from within the IC,’ Clapper said, referring to the intelligence community. ‘The IC has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions.’”

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell interviews Biden

Finally, be sure to tune in to MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” at noon ET, when she interviews outgoing Vice President Joe Biden.