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The Ethics Of Trump Hosting Japan's Shinzo Abe At Mar-A-Lago


Things got testy last night when Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz held a town hall meeting. The Utah lawmaker runs the House committee responsible for investigations.


Now, up till yesterday the Republican's lead watchdog insisted there was nothing to investigate in President Trump's many business conflicts of interest. In his home state of Utah, Chaffetz tried to explain why as citizens were making themselves heard.


JASON CHAFFETZ: Now, the other thing, most people - you're - let me tell you something you're really not going to like. You want to hear this. Hold on. You're really not going to like this part. The president under the law is exempt from the conflict of interest laws, easy as that.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Yelling, unintelligible).

CHAFFETZ: He is required to do a financial disclosure, which he did twice...

INSKEEP: Some of the sound from a town hall meeting last night. Now, Congressman Chaffetz is correct that one federal ethics law excludes the president. Ethics lawyers say other laws, including a clause in the Constitution, do apply to the president and to his staff.

GREENE: Yesterday, Chaffetz went on the record with one concern. He questioned a White House adviser's promotion of Trump products on television. And that's one of several developments in the president's conflicts between his public duty and private interests.

INSKEEP: We talked them all over with an ethics specialist. This weekend, the president hosts the prime minister of Japan at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's Florida resort. The president says he will pay the prime minister's hotel bill to avoid profiting from the Japanese prime minister's visit. But Kathleen Clark of Washington University in St. Louis says that by using his own resort, the president still profits.

KATHLEEN CLARK: Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago establishment is a commercial establishment, and he has a financial interest in promoting that business.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is publicity.

CLARK: Free publicity.

INSKEEP: The fact that everybody in the world, every media organization in the world is going to mention Mar-a-Lago because the Japanese prime minister is there with the president.

CLARK: It's product placement.

INSKEEP: Is something illegal happening here?

CLARK: If Donald Trump does not...

INSKEEP: The pause there is remarkable, but go. Go on.

CLARK: (Laughter) If Donald Trump does not accept any payment from the Japanese government, then the Constitution's Emoluments Clause is not at issue here.

INSKEEP: Oh, that forbids payments from foreign leaders and so forth. OK.

CLARK: From foreign governments, that's right. And yet at the same time, I just want to acknowledge that this is just yet another example that we don't know whether he was motivated by his own financial interest or his concern about the American public.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about another bit of news. We found out that Ivanka Trump, his daughter, is having a little bit of trouble with her business because Nordstrom among other stores has been downplaying the promoting of Ivanka Trump fashion apparel. The president has been very unhappy about this, has tweeted about it. It's been retweeted on the official POTUS Twitter account. And now Kellyanne Conway, presidential adviser on the government payroll, went on "Fox & Friends" yesterday and encouraged people to shop Ivanka.


STEVE DOOCY: Thirty seconds.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: Go buy Ivanka's stuff is what I would tell you. I'm going to - I hate shopping.

DOOCY: Well, there is that...

CONWAY: I'm going to go get some myself today.

INSKEEP: Has anything like that happened before?

CLARK: I can't think of any example of something like that, which is a clear violation of a government ethics regulation.


CLARK: Government officials are prohibited from using public office for private gain - for their own private gain, their own financial gain or the gain of some other person or enterprise. And what Kellyanne Conway was doing was giving a free commercial to Ivanka Trump's enterprise.

INSKEEP: Now, the president has said ethics rules don't apply to me, which is true. There was a law that passed that doesn't appear to apply to the president. Does it apply to the president's staff?

CLARK: It does apply to the president's staff. When the Office of Government Ethics wrote these regulations, including the one that Kellyanne Conway apparently violated yesterday, the Office of Government Ethics exempted the president and the vice president from most of the provisions including this one. But that general standard that the president, like other government officials, shouldn't use the presidency for his own personal financial gain or that of his daughter, that general standard exists even apart from that regulation.

INSKEEP: Let me raise one more item that's been in the news and play a bit of tape. Because we did hear many weeks ago from Sheri Dillon, a lawyer for the president, who said the president was taking steps to manage the conflicts of interest with his business empire. And one thing she said the Trump Organization was doing was limiting the kinds of new deals it would do around the world. Let's listen.


SHERI DILLON: No new foreign deals will be made whatsoever during the duration of President Trump's presidency. New domestic deals will be allowed, but they will go through a vigorous vetting process.

INSKEEP: OK, no foreign deals, so the effort there to avoid foreign influence from foreign money. Is foreign money being kept out of the Trump Organization?

CLARK: No, it's not. It wasn't clear when Sheri Dillon made this announcement what they meant by a deal or what they meant by a foreign deal. Is it the location of the deal? Is it the location of the property? Is it the location of where the deal was signed? It was undefined.

INSKEEP: Or what if it's a deal in the United States with money from China or money from Japan or wherever? You don't know that exactly. So what's happening?

CLARK: Well, but what we now know is that the Trump Organization plans to go forward with hotel deals, among others. But hotel deals on, for instance, one in Dallas that involves foreign money, money from, among other places, Kazakhstan. And so there's a legitimate concern about whether the president is going to be influenced in how he acts as president by the prospect and by receiving benefits from investors - domestic and foreign - as the Dallas deal is an example.

INSKEEP: Kathleen Clark of Washington University in St. Louis, thanks very much.

CLARK: Thank you.


INSKEEP: She's a lawyer who studies government ethics. One more note on this story - in his daily exchange with the citizens who work as reporters, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Kellyanne Conway was, quote, "counseled over her promotion of Ivanka Trump products on television," but Spicer did not say exactly what that meant.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVIONICS' "FOREST2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.