Worried about the corporate gazillionaires whom Donald Trump is naming to his Cabinet? Don’t fret – it could be months, if ever, before these people set foot inside the federal government. Trump’s transition team is seriously behind — some in Washington say they’ve gotten nowhere — on vetting his nominees for potential conflicts of interest. Whatever one thinks of his choices, this does not bode well for a smooth transfer of power.
Unlike his reality TV show, Trump doesn’t get the final say on hiring. Nominees face a long process to ensure they'll be working for the American people, not for their own enrichment. By law, they must submit hundreds of pages of financial disclosures, shed assets and jobs and take other steps to avoid conflicts of interest. They must undergo an FBI background check that looks back 15 years. That’s just the executive branch. The Senate, which has the power to confirm or reject nominees, has its own disclosure requirements.
Trump, as everyone knows, has yet to abide by the same procedures. Though not required by law to do so, past presidents have shed their business interests, partly to show they have nothing to hide and partly to demonstrate the same commitment to public service that the law demands from their teams. Trump has not only failed to divest himself of his principal holdings but is unwilling even to quit his job at “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
His nominees are mostly new to Washington, so they probably know little about the layers of screening and divestiture that lie ahead, or the laws behind them. The main law, enforced by the Office of Government Ethics, is 18 U.S. Code Section 208. This criminal conflict-of-interest statute prohibits an executive branch employee from participating “personally and substantially” in government matters affecting his or her own financial interests or those of a spouse or underage child, general partner, organization in which he or she serves as an officer, director, trustee, general partner or employee, as well as anyone with whom he or she is negotiating for or has an arrangement concerning prospective employment.
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That means Trump’s team members, whether paid or not, cannot hold any job with an overlapping interest. They must leave their companies and corporate boards; sell stock; and disclose payments, lawsuits or other arrangements that present a potential conflict.
So many pitfalls exist that most administrations don’t release potential nominees’ names until they’ve been preliminarily vetted. In the Obama administration that involved a 63-question survey designed to root out potentially disqualifying surprises. Even then some arose, like the $140,000 in unpaid taxes that sank the nomination of Tom Daschle for health and human services secretary.
The Trump campaign says it has been pre-vetting candidates, but it has provided no proof of that. A spokeswoman said the team has “procedures and protocols” in place but didn’t describe them or answer questions about the lagging progress.
Public disclosures for Penny Pritzker, President Barack Obama’s commerce secretary and an heir to the Hyatt hotels fortune, show how complicated the process can be for wealthy businesspeople new to government. Nominees begin with Form 278, an intrusive dive into financial holdings and history. Pritzker’s form was 184 pages long. She also filed a detailed ethics agreement letter pledging to sell off her financial stakes in 221 different entities.
Steven Rattner, the investment banker who oversaw the Obama administration’s auto industry rescue, spent $400,000 in lawyers’ fees to navigate this process for an unpaid job he held for less than a year. “The people who want to do this make enormous sacrifices,” said Rattner, who is a contributing writer to The Times. Trump, on the other hand, “is basically proposing to sacrifice nothing. He’s just going to do it his way, and it’s not compliant with what anyone else who goes into the government would have to do.”
Painstaking vetting is crucial to honest government. The low priority Trump is giving to this process, as well as his failure to disclose his own financial interests, signals that he either doesn’t understand why it’s important, or doesn’t care.