President-elect Donald Trump continues to face ongoing criticism for the numerous conflicts of interest that now exist between his business deals and his presidency. But his adult children — who will likely be responsible for taking over his company once he heads to the White House — are learning that they, too, are now expected to abide by different rules. As a result of criticism from his most recent fundraising efforts, Trump's son Eric has announced that his charity, The Eric Trump Foundation, will no longer be directly involved in fundraising on behalf of the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Tennessee. That hasn't sat very well with the President-elect though, and on Twitter Friday, Trump said his son can't raise money for kids with cancer, and that the concerns about conflicts and paid access to the Trumps that influenced the decision was a "ridiculous shame."
From the way Trump worded his tweets, it's hard to disagree with him — who doesn't want to help sick children? But even though the money raised was going to benefit a children's hospital, the fact remains that Eric Trump really shouldn't be using his name to solicit donations now that his father is set to run the country. And the fact that Donald Trump has spoken out against his son's decision? That seems to suggest that he still may not be taking the significance of avoiding conflicts of interests seriously.
According to The New York Times, Eric Trump announced Wednesday that, although he has been raising funds for St. Jude for over a decade, he has "decided to stop directly soliciting contributions for his charitable foundation" now that his father is the President-elect, since it means that donors may use the opportunity as a way to gain access to his father and his family. Trump explained that while he thought it was "unfortunate," he "[understood] the quagmire" surrounding the potential for trouble, and made the call accordingly.
That's a pretty different strategy than his father. Since winning the election, Donald Trump has been criticized for his unprecedented potential for conflicts of interest as president, and although Trump announced on Twitter earlier this month that he would be "leaving his great businesses in total" to focus on his new role as president, he has yet to actually outline his plan to do so. A Dec. 15 press conference where he was supposed to discuss the issue was postponed indefinitely, but the expectation is that Trump's plan is to transfer control of his company to his adult children, and that isn't exactly the solution that many people were hoping for. But if Trump is serious about dedicating himself to being POTUS, then the fact that The Eric Trump Foundation will no longer be directly fundraising for St. Jude is actually something he should be supportive of.
According to Reuters, ethical questions about Eric Trump's fundraiser first arose when his foundation sponsored an online auction that let donors bid on a chance to have coffee with his sister, Ivanka Trump. Given Ivanka's prominence during her father's campaign, her role in running his businesses, as well as her rumored plans to be involved, formally or informally, in her father's administration (possibly even taking on a First Lady role, according to The Washington Post), it's no surprise that bids came pouring in — and also no surprise that, according to Reuters, "the top bidders were people seeking to influence Donald Trump's policymaking."
Then there was the recent fundraiser offering access to Eric Trump himself, along with his brother, Donald Trump Jr. According to NPR, a new Texas-based nonprofit called the Opening Day Foundation recently offered donors looking to make million-dollar contributions to their post-inauguration, "Opening Day 2017" event a chance to go on a hunting and fishing trip with the new president's sons. Both opportunities have since been canceled — which some ethics experts have looked at as a hopeful sign that Trump's children are gaining an understanding of how expectations of them are changing now that their father is about the be president.
According to The New York Times, former White House ethics lawyer Norm Eisen (who worked under President Obama) said he thought Eric Trump had made the right call to suspend his fundraising efforts, and said it was a sign that members of the Trump family "are responding appropriately to criticism." Similarly, ethics lawyer Richard W. Painter (who worked in the White House under President George W. Bush) said that, while Trump's children aren't entirely "used to the idea that [Trump] will be president and the public scrutiny that results," the way they have been responding to the backlash suggests that "they are realizing it now.”
Though that may sound encouraging, according to ABC News, an Associated Press investigation into the Eric Trump Foundation has found that ethical issues surrounding the foundation's operation aren't exactly limited to questionable auction items. For one, the AP has claimed that Trump "exaggerated the size of his foundation and the donations it receives," and that his charity has repeatedly opted to hold fundraising events at his father's golf courses and has paid them for their services, despite claiming that his charity is able to raise more money specifically because it doesn't have to pay to use the Trump family golf courses (according to the AP, The Eric Trump Foundation paid the Trump National Golf Club Westchester $881,829 from 2007-2014).
The investigation also found that a number of the foundation's board members also work for The Trump Organization or for Eric Trump's winery, and that those conflicts of interest were not disclosed, despite the fact that the IRS requires it. Furthermore, many of Trump's "friends, relatives and Trump employees" are board members at The Eric Trump Foundation, including "two Trump company executives who served as senior presidential campaign aides," despite the fact that it is a public charity, and is supposed to represent the public interest. Romper's request for comment to the Eric Trump Foundation was not immediately returned.
Still, Eric Trump (along with his supporters, like Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway) have insisted that his intention has always been to help sick children. Trump told The New York Times Wednesday that, while he understands "that people will try to use anything they can for their own interests,” he argued that “the reality is, I’ve been raising money for sick kids far longer" than his father has been in politics, and in an interview on CNN Thursday, Conway said that she knows the Trump children well, and thinks "that they will always do the right thing," according to NPR.
Of course, the notion of donors paying for access via charitable donations is something that both Conway and Donald Trump himself criticized former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her own family for during the campaign. Trump regularly criticized the Clinton Foundation for offering that sort of quid pro quo access to people seeking to influence Hillary Clinton while she ran the State Department. According to Fortune, Trump often took aim at The Clinton Foundation as being crooked, and at a rally in Texas in August, Trump said,
It is impossible to figure out where the Clinton Foundation ends and the State Department begins. It is now abundantly clear that the Clintons set up a business to profit from public office. They sold access and specific actions by, and really for, I guess, the making of large amounts of money.
Clinton denied the claim, and Fortune noted that she hadn't actually served on the foundation's board since 2015 (and was also not involved while she was Secretary of State). And in an email to foundation supporters in August, Bill Clinton wrote that if his wife did indeed win the election, the foundation would "immediately implement" a number of changes:
The Foundation will accept contributions only from U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and U.S.-based independent foundations, whose names we will continue to make public on a quarterly basis. And we will change the official name from the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation to the Clinton Foundation. While I will continue to support the work of the Foundation, I will step down from the Board and will no longer raise funds for it.
What wasn't clear prior to the election was whether Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, would also be expected to follow suit, or whether she still intended to carry on with her own work with the foundation. Either way, though, judging by the criticism Trump's sons are facing, it's likely the issue would have been raised, and she would have been expected to make a decision.
It's impossible to know for sure how much of the concerning information surrounding Trump's children's conflicts of interest is a matter of an adjustment to being held to a new level of scrutiny, or whether it was already widely understood and ignored. The reaction from Donald Trump — along with his seeming reluctance to actually lay out specific and clear plans for transparency with his business interests moving ahead — suggests that he may not, at this point, still think it's all that important. But the fact that Eric Trump has at least responded to the most recent criticism in a way that many have considered appropriate means that he does take it seriously. And hopefully that will continue to be the case for the Trump children after their father is sworn in.