Donald Trump inauguration: Ethics concerns swirl around Trump team

Donald Trump talks to the media on 28 December. Image copyright Getty Images

Donald Trump will hold his first press conference in almost six months on Wednesday, to talk about plans to avoid conflicts of interest involving his sprawling business empire while he's president.

Meanwhile the US Congress is reviewing the nominations of a series of his top political nominees who are facing their own ethical questions, and concerns continue to swirl around several other high-level advisers.

While Mr Trump will dominate the headlines, here's a look at some of the controversies that could dog those poised to serve under him.


An ethical office thwarted

Walter M Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, has sent a letter to congressional leaders saying that his agency has been overwhelmed by the task of certifying Mr Trump's Cabinet nominees, some of whom have yet to provide investigators with preliminary paperwork.

"This schedule has created undue pressure on OGE's staff and agency ethics officials to rush through these important reviews," Shaub wrote. "More significantly, it has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings."

He says he can't recall another time in his office's 40-year history that a hearing has been held before the review process has been completed.

Democrats have pointed to the letter as grounds for delaying the series of hearings - six on Wednesday alone - for Mr Trump's nominees. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer went so far as to circulate a 2009 letter by then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stating that all Obama administration nominees must complete an ethics office review prior to Senate consideration.

Mr McConnell has rebuffed postponement requests so far, however.


Nominees with unresolved issues

The distress expressed by the ethics office official has exacerbated some of the concerns over a number of top-level Trump appointees who have sprawling financial interests that could lead to conflicts of interest as they pursue their government duties.

The review process is intended to identify areas where ethic issues may arise and aid the nominees in taking measures to address them before confirmation. If this process is short-circuited, those problems could instead present themselves after the official is already in office.

Although Shaub did not single out anyone by name, among the individuals drawing particular attention are super-wealthy business chieftians Rex Tillerson (State Department), Steven Mnuchin (Treasury), Andrew Puzder (Labour) and Wilbur Ross (Commerce). According to the New York Times, the standard government disclosure forms don't have enough boxes for these billionaire tycoons to list all their financial interests.

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Image caption Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson (right) will face questions about his business holdings

Details have begun to emerge on Tillerson's agreements with the ethics office, including a liquidation of $50m in personal stock from his employer, ExxonMobil, as well as his holdings in more than 150 other companies.

Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican activist whom Mr Trump picked for education secretary, was scheduled to appear before a Senate confirmation committee on Wednesday but had yet to detail any potential conflicts of interest with the ethics office. Her appearance has been pushed back to 17 January.

Congressman Tom Price, Mr Trump's choice for health and human services secretary, has also been criticised for trading $300,000 in healthcare stocks since 2012 while serving on congressional committees overseeing the healthcare industry. In one instance, he reportedly bought shares of a medical device manufacturer days before he introduced legislation that benefitted the company.

Trump transition officials say the move was made by Mr Price's broker without his knowledge and that he will sell any such financial holdings following his confirmation as health secretary.

Even Elaine Chao, wife of Senate Majority Leader McConnell and a Cabinet secretary in the George W Bush administration, has faced some conflict-of-interest allegations following her nomination to be transportation secretary. Her family owns a shipping business that relies on vessels that fly under the flags of Liberia and Hong Kong - a practice that a US transportation secretary is charged with discouraging.


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Image caption Donald Trump often turns to son-in-law Jared Kushner for political advice

An in-law with the president's ear

Jared Kushner, who is married to Ivanka Trump, will become a senior adviser in his father-in-law's White House.

Although Mr Kushner served as a close confidant to Mr Trump during his presidential campaign, an official position in the Trump administration was thought by many to run counter to anti-nepotism laws dating back to the 1960s.

According to media reports, however, Trump team lawyers believe they have found a way around those restrictions, which they say only covers government "agencies" and not the office of the White House. Kushner will also work in the White House without drawing a government salary.

Mr Kushner, who like Mr Trump is involved heavily in New York area real estate, has begun divesting himself of some business considerations in preparations for a possible ethics review.

That may be easier said than done, however, given his family's vast real-estate holdings, including ties to foreign nationals investing in the US.

Either with or without an official title, however, Mr Trump was always likely to turn to his son-in-law for advice and guidance - as he has since the early days of his presidential quest.

"Kushner is emerging as an important figure at a crucial moment for some of America's most complicated diplomatic relationships," the New York Times reports, citing individuals close to the presidential transition process.

"Such is his influence in the geopolitical realm that transition officials have told the Obama White House that foreign policy matters [needing] to be brought to Mr Trump's attention should be relayed through his son-in-law."


Accusations of plagiarism

Charges of plagiarism are usually enough to bury a political appointee - particularly an outsider who doesn't have close ties to the Washington establishment. The age of Trump is no ordinary time, however.

A recent CNN Money investigation revealed that Monica Crowley, named by Mr Trump to be senior director of strategic communications for his National Security Council, had committed more than 50 instances of plagiarism in her 2012 book, What the (Bleep) Just Happened. The article compared excerpts where she apparently drew entire passages word-for-word from newspaper articles, columns and online essays.

Crowley, who was an author, radio host and conservative television commentator prior to signing on to serve in the Trump White House, is not subject to Senate confirmation, so she is less vulnerable to direct political fallout from the plagiarism charges.

"HarperCollins - one of the largest and most respected publishers in the world - published her book which has become a national bestseller," a Trump spokesperson told CNN. "Any attempt to discredit Monica is nothing more than a politically motivated attack that seeks to distract from the real issues facing this country."

HarperCollins has since announced that it will cease selling digital copies of the book.

Politico has also published a report outlining instances of plagiarism in Crowley's PhD dissertation in 2000.

On 16 January, she released a statement saying that "after much reflection" she had decided not to join the Trump administration.

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