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After Inauguration Day, Conflicts Of Interest Continue To Plague Trump

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, a team of legal scholars and former government ethics officials filed suit in federal court alleging that President Trump's many business interests violate the constitution. We'll hear from one of those lawyers in a moment.

First, with an overview of the various allegations that continue to dog the new president, NPR's Jim Zarroli joins us now. Hi, Jim.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Since the beginning of the campaign, really, ethics experts have warned that Trump's businesses create a thick web of ethics issues. So as of now, what has President Trump done to address those issues?

ZARROLI: Well, he has done different things at different times. I mean sometimes he says Presidents can't have conflicts of interest. Other times he said, you know, I'm going to make an announcement; I'm going to take care of this. On January 11, he had a press conference. You might remember. He stood next to a big pile of documents that he said severed ties between him and his companies.

You know, today, his spokesman, Sean Spicer, said Trump has actually taken steps to resign from his companies. And we are starting to see some evidence today that he is filing papers to do that to relinquish control of his companies. But I think, you know, even that doesn't go far enough to satisfy his critics on this issue. I mean what they want is to see him sell the properties altogether and then put the money that he makes in a blind trust. And he hasn't done that.

SHAPIRO: Instead he's given the company's charge to his sons. When the president says a president cannot have conflicts of interest, it's a little more complicated than that, right? Explain what the laws actually say in this context.

ZARROLI: Well, there is a statute that deals with conflicts of interest. And it says that employees of the executive branch can't profit from serving in office. And now it does exempt the president, so Trump is right about that.

But I think the counter-argument would be, you know, there are other things like the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution which bars presidents from taking money from foreign governments or entities. And you know, Trump does business with banks and companies that are, you know, partly owned by foreign governments, so - which means, you know, you have the prospect of Trump the businessman negotiating contracts with governments when he's also, you know, president and he's supposed to be acting in the best interests of the country.

You know, in those situations, even if a president is trying his hardest to act in good faith, I mean you can never really separate your own interests from those of the country as a whole. It's just too difficult. And that's the issue.

SHAPIRO: When we look at this overview of possible conflicts, there are also the various lawsuits that Donald Trump has faced. Where do those stand now that he's president?

ZARROLI: Well, you know, Trump has often said he doesn't settle lawsuits. But in fact he has. He settled a lawsuit over Trump University. He also settled a dispute with the National Labor Relations Board over unionization efforts at his - at hotels in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. And the timing of that suggests, you know, he understands this is - would be a distraction. He wants to get these cases behind him.

But he still faces other suits. You know, there's a celebrity chef that he sued for breach of contract. The chef was supposed to open a restaurant in his hotel in Washington, but he backed out after Trump made all those comments about Mexicans. And that suit is still going on.

SHAPIRO: One piece of the Trump business empire that's gotten a lot of attention is the Trump International Hotel...

ZARROLI: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...In a historic building in Washington. And people have said that the day he takes the oath of office, he would be in violation of the lease. Explain what has happened now that he is in office.

ZARROLI: Well, you know, the building is owned by the federal government, and the General Services Administration holds the lease on it. And the lease says it can't be held by a sitting politician. So Trump appears to be in violation of that.

But I think, you know, more than that, there is this issue of whether Trump is going to profit personally from the hotel, you know? Are foreign diplomats and companies going to use it because they want to curry favor with the president? And that really goes to the heart of this whole issue about conflicts of interest.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Jim Zarroli - thanks a lot, Jim.

ZARROLI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.