"This is not the way we behave in the world's leading constitutional democracy."
President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly said that there would be no conflicts of interest during his administration because his vast business empire would be in a “blind trust.” But White House ethics lawyers in both parties have criticized that, noting that having his children run the company means it would be neither blind nor a trust.
The very first meeting that the President-elect held with a world leader, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is prompting further criticism—even alarm. According to photographs taken at Trump Tower in New York City and published this week, the session was attended by Ivanka Trump, who has no government security clearance and is an executive at the Trump Organization.
“This is not the way we behave in the world’s leading constitutional democracy,” says Norman Eisen, special counsel and ethics adviser to President Barack Obama between 2009 and 2011. “It’s like something out of a tin-pot oligarchy.”
Members of the press were also barred from the meeting, adding to building criticism that a President Trump will not honor White House traditions of transparency. Ivanka Trump’s presence apparently only became public because the Japanese government released photos; it is not clear whether she was present for the entire meeting.
Meanwhile the New York Times reports that Jared Kushner, Trump’s trusted son-in-law, consulted a lawyer to find out how he could join Trump’s forthcoming administration without running afoul of federal laws prohibiting nepotism. Kushner was also present at the Abe meeting, according to another photo published by Reuters and the Japanese government. He too lacks government security clearance. (A Trump campaign spokesperson did not immediately respond to a Fortune request for comment.)
In an interview with Fortune, Eisen says Ivanka Trump and Kushner’s apparent presence at Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with the leader of one of our key allies was “shocking” and unprecedented. “If you’ve got one member of the power couple—Jared Kushner, whispering in the President[-elect]’s ear—and if you’ve got the other, the wife and daughter, who is running businesses, it merges the Trump Organization and the United States into one huge conglomerate managed by the Trumps for their own interests,” he says.
He adds that the fear is that their involvement will turn “our intelligence community into a management consulting firm for the Trump family business. That can’t be right. Ivanka must go, and Kushner can’t stay.”
Eisen and Richard Painter, White House ethics adviser to President George W. Bush between 2005 and 2007, on Tuesday wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post urging Trump to put his “conflict-generating assets in a true blind trust run by an independent trustee.”
Unlike most other federal employees, the President of the United States isn’t bound by the federal conflict of interest law. But Eisen tells Fortune that several lawyers, including those who are part of the Republican party, are “worried about this unprecedented blurring of lines” and President-elect Trump should “expect massive litigation if he proceeds on this collision course.”
Update 2:30 pm: A source close to the Trump family claimed the meeting was informal but acknowledged that the Trumps needed to develop new protocols now that Donald Trump was assuming the presidency.