Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner's real estate firm Kushner Cos. owns 17 complexes in Maryland (Baltimore Sun video)
Maryland Congressman Elijah E. Cummings and two U.S. senators Wednesday called for the White House to clarify which financial assets Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior adviser to President Trump, has divested to avoid potential conflicts of interest with his role in the administration.
In a letter that cited news reports including a Baltimore Sun article last month , Cummings and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Tom Carper said it is currently "impossible" to determine if the adviser has properly recused himself from governmental matters that may benefit him financially.
"Neither the White House nor Mr. Kushner's attorneys ... has confirmed which financial assets Mr. Kushner still controls — rendering oversight of Mr. Kushner's recusals and compliance with conflict-of-interest law impossible," the letter from the three Democrats said.
The White House said Kushner was fully complying with ethics rules, had divested of substantial assets and recused himself in the case of interests that he still owned.
The lawmakers noted that it appears from a Sun article on Feb. 25 that Kushner's real estate holdings "required him to recuse himself from at least one policy matter." The article revealed that some of the 17 apartment complexes that Kushner owns in Maryland receive federal Housing and Urban Development funds through what was previously known as Section 8 vouchers. A spokesman for Kushner said his family's company had no plans to sell its Maryland properties, and the White House said Kushner would recuse himself from policy discussions related to federal housing assistance for low-income tenants.
In their letter, the legislators also sought more information on the assets of Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and Kushner's wife, who while holding no formal position in the administration has attended staff meetings and participated in official functions. They asked which issues the White House counsel would advise Kushner to recuse himself from to avoid benefitting his wife's financial holdings.
The question of how how Trump, his children, Kushner and Cabinet appointees, would navigate federal conflict-of-interest laws dates back to before the new administration took office in January. On Nov. 18 of last year, for example, Walter M. Shaub, Jr., director of the Office of Government Ethics, expressed concern in a letter that the Trump transition team was not seeking his advice.
"We seem to have lost contact with the Trump-Pence transition since the election," Shaub wrote to a Trump transition official posted on the OGE website. "As we discussed prior to the election, announcing cabinet picks without taking OGE up on the offer to take an early look at financial disclosure poses the risk of embarrassment for the President-elect (and the individual candidate for nomination) in the event that the individual walks away from the nomination after learning what he or she will have to do with his or her financial interests."
"We would genuinely like to help you prevent that undesirable outcome," he added. "As we also previously discussed, the same offer applies to possible White House appointees. The risk is even higher for them because OGE would not normally receive their financial disclosure reports until after they have been in office for weeks or even months. By that time, they run the risk of having inadvertently violated the criminal conflicts of interest restriction at 18 USC 208."
Kushner, who during the campaign emerged as one of Trump's closest confidantes, began inquiring in December about how to handle potential conflicts. In January, in anticipation of joining his father-in-law's administration, he announced he would step down as CEO of his family's business, Kushner Cos., which has vast commercial and residential holdings, including about 20,000 apartment units in Maryland and other states.
"Mr. Kushner must not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that to his knowledge has a direct and predictable effect" on his financial interests until he has divested, the office's director, Shaub wrote in a Jan. 6 letter to Kushner's attorneys, also posted on the agency's website. "Mr. Kushner would be well advised to obtain ethics counseling from the office of the White House Counsel prior to entering government and, after assuming the duties of his new position, to complete all new employee ethics training required under" federal law.
A day later, Shaub replied to an email from Kushner's lawyers who had alerted the ethics official to an article in the New York Times detailing Kushner's links with Chinese businesses. His note contained a warning to be overly transparent early on because of how busy the White House counsel's office can get once the administration begins to govern.
"Ethics issues arise unexpectedly, and they don't come with the label 'Caution! I'm an ethics issue.' For this reason, we encourage folks to set up ethics arrangements that put senior officials two steps back from the line between what is permissible and what is not," Shaub wrote. "As things are currently shaping up, it's not clear that this new White House will have a fully functioning ethics office of its own on the first day. For that reason, caution is advisable. The further you can put him back from the line, the better you will protect him."
Members of Congress, including Cummings, the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, have been raising concerns as ethics concerns as well. Carper, the Delaware senator who is ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that oversees OGE, wrote the office on Nov. 20 to ask about potential conflicts.
"President-elect Trump has reportedly expressed interest in obtaining security clearances for his three oldest children and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner," Carper wrote. "What guidance has OGE provided to President-elect Trump's oldest children and Mr. Kushner concerning the management of their conflicts of interest while participating in executive branch deliberations?"