Sen. Wyden's bill would force Trump to reveal foreign interests in deals

WASHINGTON — The top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee will introduce a bill this week that would force President Trump to disclose his income, assets and liabilities in a foreign country before he embarks on new trade negotiations, his aides tell USA TODAY.

The measure from Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden also would require similar disclosure when the president takes other actions on international trade, such as reducing tariffs to give developing countries better access to U.S. markets.

“Americans have a right to know if the President is looking out for the good of the country or just his own bottom line when he negotiates a trade deal, decides whether or not to enforce our trade laws, or decides whether to cut tariffs on imports from a developing country,” Wyden said in a statement. “Trump has business interests around the world, but he continues to keep the full nature of those ties secret.”

Wyden’s proposal marks the latest push by Democrats on Capitol Hill and independent watchdogs to pressure the Trump administration, as they clamor for investigations into a top White House aide and search for novel ways to force the new president to disclose more information about his vast business interests and the ethics questions that have dogged him since his Jan. 20 swearing-in.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and five other Democratic senators recently wrote to White House counsel Don McGahn, asking him to rein in possible ethics violations after top White House aide Kellyanne Conway touted Ivanka Trump’s clothing line during a television interview. Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., have sought the membership list for Mar-a-Lago, Trump's private resort in Palm Beach, Fla. On Monday, the head of the House's tax oversight committee, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, shot down a Democratic proposal to use a little-known 1924 law to demand the Treasury Department turn over 10 years of Trump’s tax returns to lawmakers.

White House officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump's real-estate and branding empire does business from the Philippines to Uruguay. Later this week, his adult sons are set to attend the opening of a new Trump-branded golf course in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

As president, Trump has moved quickly on trade deals, taking executive action during his first week in office to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal pushed by President Obama. He also has pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Trump has transferred day-to-day management responsibilities of his international real-estate and branding empire to Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump and a longtime Trump executive. But he has refused to release his tax returns — citing an IRS audit — or to relinquish ownership of the Trump Organization, prompting continued scrutiny about the government's entanglement with the Trump brand.

Over the weekend, for instance, he hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago, which he has dubbed the winter White House. On Saturday night, other diners at the club looked on as Trump and his aides worked on their response to North Korea’s missile test. A club member posted pictures of their interactions on Facebook. White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters that no classified information was reviewed during the dinner on the resort's patio.

Democrats face long odds of their efforts gaining much traction in a Republican-controlled Congress, but they increasingly feel emboldened by the fury of Democratic activists who have taken their protests to the streets and into congressional town hall meetings in the first weeks of the Trump administration, political observers say.

"The Democrats, driven by their supporters, are determined to inquire into all of these open questions," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.  “There is a very broad sense among the people who are not die-hard supporters of Donald Trump that there are so many unanswered questions and so many ethical strings to be pulled, that the sweater will unravel."

Questions mount

Trump's allies have said that liquidating his business is not a realistic option and would pose its own problems, such as buyers paying more than fair-market value for pieces of the empire in an effort to curry favor with the president. The Trump Organization's new management structure includes an internal chief compliance counsel and an outside ethics adviser, veteran Republican lawyer Bobby Burchfield, who reviews and signs off on significant business transactions that could pose conflicts of interest.

But in a little over three weeks in office, Trump and his family have had to navigate a myriad of questions about the connections between his official duties and the Trump family’s business interests.

Some examples:

  • First lady Melania Trump’s contention in a recently filed libel lawsuit against The Daily Mail that the newspaper’s unfounded allegations about her past jeopardized her ability to garner “multi-million dollar business relationships for a multi-year term during which the Plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world.”
  • The promotion of Ivanka Trump and her fashion line by Trump and his aides. After Trump took to Twitter last week to castigate Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s clothing line, two White House staffers swiftly voiced support. Spicer told reporters department store chain's decision amounted to a personal attack on Ivanka Trump because of her father’s policies. "He has every right to stand up for his family," Spicer said. Conway, in an interview from the White House briefing room, went further, encouraging viewers of Fox & Friends to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff.”
  • Donald Trump, Jr. and Eric Trump also have maintained high profiles. Earlier this month, Trump’s sons made a front-row appearance during their father’s televised announcement of Judge Neil Gorsuch as his Supreme Court nominee. In addition, The Washington Post recently reported that a January business trip to Uruguay by Eric Trump cost taxpayers nearly $100,000 in hotel expenses for the Secret Service and embassy staff.

“I understand the need for Secret Service protection for an adult child, but to outsiders, but it looks like it’s the force of the United States government that’s with him, and it’s a reminder that his father is president,” said Larry Noble, a former Federal Election Commission official who is now general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit watchdog group.

In recent interviews with The New York Times, the Trump sons say they do not cross ethical lines by discussing Trump Organization matters with their father. They said they were in Washington the day of the Gorsuch announcement for business at the Trump International Hotel and visited the White House to say hello to their father and enjoy the historic occasion.

Conway’s promotion of Ivanka Trump’s fashion line last week prompted a rare rebuke from a Republican, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who called her remarks “wrong, wrong, wrong” on Twitter. Chaffetz and the committee’s top Democrat, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, also sent a letter to the federal government’s top ethics regulator, questioning whether Conway broke federal rules that bar public officials from promoting products.

In a letter released Tuesday, the head of the Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub said Conway's comments likely violated ethics rules and asked the White House to investigate her conduct and report back to his office by Feb. 28.

Conway pushed back, noting in a recent tweet that she has the president's support and that "millions of Americans support him and his agenda."

(© 2017 KGW)


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