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Federal ethics watchdog tweaks Trump with tweets about his business deals

The usually strait-laced Office of Government Ethics tweeted a series of posts at President-elect Donald Trump praising him for steps not yet taken. 

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, accompanied by (l. to r.) Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Trump, Melania Trump, Tiffany Trump, and Ivanka Trump, holds up a ribbon during the grand opening ceremony of the Trump International Hotel- Old Post Office, in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26, 2016. Several experts in government contract law say that President-elect Trump will have to give up his stake in his prized Washington hotel if he wants to be president.

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On Wednesday, the typically secretive and formal Office of Government Ethics (OGE) surprised many with a candid series of tweets aimed at President-elect Donald Trump regarding potential conflicts of interests posed by his real estate business.

The OGE tweets were in response to Mr. Trump’s own four Twitter posts on the same day when he said that “I will be leaving my great business in total” because he thinks it is “visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest,” with legal documents currently being crafted to “take me completely out of business operations.”

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In response, the Office tweeted nine posts stating that they were delighted that he “decided to divest your businesses. Right decision!”

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But observers pointed out that Trump did not say that he would divest his businesses. He has only said that he will put his dealings in a blind trust run by his children and take himself out of daily business operations. That left many wondering: Do the OGE's tweets hint at confidential negotiations they’ve had with Trump’s team, or is it merely a sarcastic attempt to get a message across?

To some, the unusual move by the federal ethics watchdog almost seems to be playing on Trump’s affinity for using Twitter as a platform for formal announcements rather than press conferences, which he has not held since winning the election.

The OGE’s response to several news organizations’ inquiries didn’t give anything away. As reported by NPR, Seth Jaffe, the OGE spokesman, said that they “don’t know the details of their [Trump's] plans” and that they were “excited this morning to read the President-elect’s Twitter feed indicating that he wants to be free of conflicts of interest,” a goal that is consistent with an OGE opinion issued in 1983.

“Divestiture resolves conflicts of interest in a way that transferring control does not,” Mr. Jaffe wrote. “OGE’s tweets were not based on any information about the President-elect’s plans beyond what was shared on his Twitter feed. OGE is non-partisan and does not endorse any individual.”

As The Christian Science Monitor previously reported, Trump is not the first wealthy president, but the potential conflicts of interests he brings are unprecedented.

It’s the combination of those things, added to a third: Trump’s a dealmaker who’s still dealing. Other presidents have had extensive land holdings or been the beneficiary of established family fortunes. The nation’s 45th chief executive is still out there in the marketplace at the moment.

Ethics experts are concerned that even if Trump leaves his businesses in a blind trust run by his children, it doesn’t completely remove him from having a stake in the businesses. The concerns become particularly pronounced as his children still play a role in his presidential transition team, with his daughter Ivanka Trump even sitting in on a meeting with a foreign head of state.

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“Although it is of course important that he have no involvement in Trump business operations, in order to avoid conflicts he must also exit the ownership of his businesses through using a blind trust or equivalent,” Norman L. Eisen, a White House ethics lawyer in the Obama administration, and Richard W. Painter, an ethics lawyer in the Bush administration, said in a joint statement to The New York Times.

Past presidents have opted to take their personal holdings and put it in a blind trust with assets handled by an independent party. Some cabinet members have also sought out a certificate of divestiture from the OGE in the past by selling their assets for a huge tax advantage.

“Unless his solution is to sell the business outside the family and put the proceeds in a blind trust, he’s not really doing anything to solve the problem. Just because you say something on Twitter doesn’t make it so,” Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal nonprofit group that promotes ethics in government told the Times.

Trump has said in a tweet that he will hold a news conference on Dec. 15 in New York City to explain details on how he will separate himself from his business interests.