Journalist On Trump's Potential Conflicts Of Interest: 'They're Everywhere' The New York Times' Eric Lipton says that Donald Trump could take actions as president that would benefit his business holdings. But Lipton doubts congressional Republicans would probe such conflicts.
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Journalist On Trump's Potential Conflicts Of Interest: 'They're Everywhere'

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Journalist On Trump's Potential Conflicts Of Interest: 'They're Everywhere'

Journalist On Trump's Potential Conflicts Of Interest: 'They're Everywhere'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Donald Trump tweeted yesterday that he will be taking himself out of his business operations and will announce the details of his plan on December 15. But that hasn't eliminated concerns that the Trump Organization's business interests in the U.S. and in at least 20 countries around the world could lead to conflicts of interest when Trump becomes president. In response to Trump's tweets yesterday, the Office of Government Ethics tweeted, as we discussed with your counsel, divestiture is the way to resolve these conflicts. As we're about to hear, divestiture is different from Trump taking himself out of his business operations. Also in response to Trump's tweets, 16 Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee requested that the committee hold hearings to examine conflict of interest provisions that might apply to Trump when he becomes president.

My guest Eric Lipton has been investigating Trump's business interests and the conflicts they may pose. Lipton is an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. Last Sunday, he contributed to a major article in the Times titled "Potential Conflicts Around The Globe For Trump, The Businessman President." Last year, Lipton won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles investigating how lobbyists were pressuring state attorneys general to make decisions favorable to their clients.

Eric Lipton, welcome to FRESH AIR. So President-elect Trump tweeted this week, I will be leaving my great business in total order to fully focus on running the country in order to make America great again. While I am not mandated to do this under the law, I feel it is visually important as president to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses. Hence, legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations. The presidency is a far more important task. And he says he'll have an official announcement about this on December 15. So you've been covering conflict of interest, does that eliminate the conflict of interest issue?

ERIC LIPTON: We won't know until December 15 exactly what he's going to propose. But if you read the language of those series of tweets quite closely, what he specifically says is that he's going to take me completely out of business operations. You know, and he doesn't say that he's going to divest of his ownership in the Trump family enterprises. And so that's a big, important distinction. If he were going to be selling off his assets, liquidating them and then turning that money over to someone else to invest, then he could perhaps eliminate his conflicts of interest. But if he is simply going to remove himself from the business operations and let his children run the business, then the conflicts will most likely continue to exist.

GROSS: Well, if he turned his business interests over to his children, his children have been on his tran - some of his children have been on his transition team.

LIPTON: Right. I'm not saying that simply, like, turning the ownership over to his children and the management of it to his children would eliminate the conflicts of interest. It would certainly improve the situation. And the problem is that he has said that he's going to let his children run his business, that he doesn't care about his business, the country is much more important.

But at the same time, his children have - he appointed them to a transition committee. His children have been present from his daughter and his sons were present for, you know, a meeting or greeting with the prime minister of Japan. His daughter Ivanka has participated in telephone conversations that the president had with the president of Argentina and with the president of Turkey. And there may be many others we just don't know about. So he's already been mixing the roles of dad and president-elect and CEO in a way that would compromise any suggestion that it would not present a conflict for his children to be running those businesses.

GROSS: So what are the laws or regulations involving presidential business conflict of interest?

LIPTON: So the president has a special privilege unlike any other federal employee with the exception of the vice president, and the president is exempt from most provisions of the federal law that prohibit him from taking an action that will benefit his own financial interest. So, for example, say he owns a hotel and he were to designate that hotel as the preferential hotel for, you know, federal employees to use. He could actually take such a step and that would not be a conflict of interest. And it's just a quirk in the law that presumes that the president has so many responsibilities that he shouldn't be subject to conflict of interest provisions.

So, I mean, he has - therefore, as Donald Trump says, you know, he's not mandated in fact to separate himself from his businesses. He could legally continue to operate them and to even take actions as president that would benefit those businesses and it wouldn't be an ethics - a formal ethics violation. Now, that's not to say in the broader definition of the American public and in most people who study ethics these actions would still represent a conflict of interest, but they wouldn't be a legal conflict of interest.

GROSS: So tell us more about the 1978 Ethics in Government Act and why it does not seem to apply to President Trump's potential conflict.

LIPTON: I think the notion is that the president's agenda and responsibilities are so broad that to some extent anything that he or she would do would represent a potential conflict of interest. And so they couldn't own - the president couldn't own anything and therefore - and not have a conflict, so the president was given this exemption. Again, though - based on the presumption though that the president was not going to be a billionaire with assets in - across the United States and around the world.

And the thing that - the reason we're writing all these stories and that we're so consumed with this topic is that there's never been anything like this in American history. There's never been a president who has financial holdings as diverse, you know, and as large as Donald Trump and come into office. And for the last four decades, any president that has come into office, even those that were wealthy, has put their money into a true blind trust. And that means that they - and for the most part, they liquidated their financial holdings into treasury bonds and then someone else managed that money. And so even if they were wealthy, that money was being managed by someone else.

Now, Jimmy Carter had a peanut farm that a friend of his managed. Then people wrote stories during Jimmy Carter's tenure about maybe that peanut farm is a conflict of interest. But we're talking about a single peanut farm in Georgia versus, you know, hotels and branding agreements and marketing rights and golf courses and office buildings and apartment buildings in 20 countries around the world and deals that involve foreign governments. And it's just - you know, the complexity of it is such that we're compelled to write about it constantly.

GROSS: So there's no laws that prevent the president from using his power to take advantage of his business or financial interests?

LIPTON: No. I mean, the president is exempt from - he's not allowed to take a bribe, to take an action that - you know, that's a criminal offense. But he is allowed to take actions that specifically benefit his commercial interest, and that's the law. I mean, Congress could change that law and make the president subject to it. But for now, that's the law of the land.

GROSS: And there is the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. And before we go any further, would you just define what an emolument is?

LIPTON: An emolument essentially means like a payment or gift. And it's a provision, obviously, that dates back to the birth of the United States and has rarely been discussed. I mean, it's sort of like - it's like the Webster's word of the week because no one's ever heard of it and suddenly we're all looking it up in the dictionary to understand what it means and myself included. But what - it dates back to the birth of the United States, when there was a desire to make sure that the president and other government officials would not be subject to undue influence by foreign players.

And so therefore it said that the president or federal employee shall not accept any gift or payment from a foreign entity or a foreign government or from a royalty. And the idea was just to separate the American government from influence by foreign powers. I mean, there's almost no precedent in American history that has been tested. There's been no serious court cases that have been built around it. There are a bunch of opinions from the Department of Justice and other federal agencies that give guidance to federal employees as to what might represent a violation of that provision.

But, you know, it looks clear that there - this is something that will be tested. I mean, already people are throwing out examples for - say someone stays at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue a couple of blocks from the White House, say a foreign diplomat stay there while they're visiting the president, the foreign government pays the bill. Say the Bank of China, which is a tenant in his building at Trump Tower in New York is making payments to the Trump Organization because it's a tenant or say the Bank of China is one of the lenders to another office building that he's a part owner of in New York City. I mean, are those violations of this act? Those are open questions that actually no one can truly answer right now, and it's going to have to be tested.

GROSS: So that would go through the courts.

LIPTON: Another question that is pending right now is that who might have standing in the courts to file litigation asserting that the president is violating this act? That's unclear. The legal experts that I speak with say that it may be hard to convince a federal court that an individual citizen has the right to file such a lawsuit. So that has to be decided or maybe Congress would be asked to take up the question. But then would Congress take up the question? Republicans are in control of the House and the Senate - certainly would not be in their interest to even - to form a committee, to charge a committee, to investigate that question. And so these are a lot of questions that will be answered in the coming months and years.

GROSS: So what are the - any other, like, legal considerations for conflict that you've been investigating?

LIPTON: You know, the conflicts - I mean, it's pretty extraordinary and truly unprecedented in American history this situation that we're now in. And it's difficult for reporters because we're compelled to examine these potential conflicts to - you know, to speak to legal experts about them, to look at the legal, you know, rights and wrongs and to write stories about them, but they're everywhere. I mean, you know, you just sort of walk around the country or around the world and everywhere you look - you know, the Post Office building a few blocks from the White House that The Trump Organization is leasing to build - to operate the new International Trump hotel, that building is owned by the General Services Administration, essentially the federal government, and it's leased to the Trump family. And the president is going to appoint the head of the GSA and - at the same time as his family is leasing the building from the GSA. So - and there's a provision in the contract that The Trump Organization signed that no federal employee shall benefit from this lease. I mean - and so how can he simultaneously be the tenant and the landlord in this contract essentially because he appoints the guy who oversees the agency?

In Las Vegas, the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, there's a dispute going on right now with the culinary union. The Culinary Union - the members of the employees at that hotel voted to organize and Trump - The Trump Organization and its partner in Las Vegas refused to recognize that as a legal union formation. Then there was - there was an appeal filed with the National Labor Relations Board accusing them of unfair labor practices.

And in two occasions recently, the National Labor Relations Board has has ruled against the Trump Hotel and saying essentially that it's violating federal labor laws. But the president is going to appoint the members of the National Labor Relations Board. I mean, how is that going to be? How's the National Labor Relations Board simultaneously going to be hearing labor appeals against The Trump Organization, even if his kids are running it, and have its members appointed by the president? So, I mean, that's - those are just two examples in the United States.

I mean, you know, on Sunday, we did a story involving, you know, five foreign correspondents from places across the world in which we examined conflicts that appear to be emerging in nations as, you know, distinct as Brazil or the Philippines and India. I mean, it - just wherever you look, we seem to be running into potential for conflict of interest. I mean, these aren't necessarily real conflicts, but there's the potential. And I think that's why Donald Trump is tweeting about this. He realizes this is a problem that he's got to confront. The question is how is he going to confront it?

GROSS: Let's look at what the Democrats are doing. Senator Ben Cardin has proposed a resolution calling on President-elect Trump to convert his assets to simple conflict-free holdings and adopt blind trusts or take other equivalent measures. And this resolution was introduced by nearly two dozen Senate Democrats under the resolution if Trump doesn't convert his assets, Congress would consider any transactions between Trump-owned companies and foreign governments as potential violations of the Constitution. House Democrats have asked the chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to investigate potential conflicts of interest. So what do you think the chances of any of these things moving forward?

LIPTON: I don't see why the Republicans have any interest in empowering a committee, giving its subpoena power, giving its staff to investigate potential conflicts by the president. I just - you know, the notion that the Republicans would create their equivalent of a Benghazi Committee to investigate their president at the same time as they want to try to move an ambitious political agenda to remake, you know, the environmental and financial laws of the United States, you know, I don't see that happening politically. Now, there will be pressure on them that will be put by Democrats. There'll be lots of letters written by Democrats asking them to do this. But I don't see why they would do it, honestly.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Lipton. He's an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. He's been focusing on conflict of interest in government, more specifically President-elect Trump's potential conflicts. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter with The New York Times who covers conflicts of interest in government and has been focusing on possible conflicts posed by President-elect Trump's businesses around the world.

So, you know, we started this conversation by talking about the tweet that a lot of us woke up to on Wednesday morning from Trump about how he would be taking himself completely out of business operations to end any concern of conflict of interest. So what's it been like for you to have to follow Donald Trump's tweets? And some of these tweets happen in the middle of the night. I mean, like, how are you covering - we'll talk about covering other stuff later - but just, like, the tweets.

LIPTON: I mean, Trump is a brilliant communicator. And, you know, I tweeted this morning that he puts out his first tweet - you know, he seems to get up in the morning and read the newspaper and then react or read the blogs or whatever it is he's reading. But, I mean, you know, the - Politico, the online and newspaper in Washington, you know, when it was started, it's whole notion was it was driving the day. And what Trump seems to be capable now of doing is by sending out, you know, 140 characters or maybe three sets, you know, of 140 characters in the morning, he can attempt to sort of drive the day.

You know, it's about flag burning. It's about, you know, voting irregularities. It's about his - you know, eliminating the conflicts of interest. He writes out these tweets, and then all the newspaper reporters, myself included, are compelled to write stories about this. We try to write these stories in a balanced way. But he's setting the agenda with 140-character, you know, blurbs, that is.

And now what we have to do is write those stories and be responsible about them but that makes sure at the same time that we're not being too consumed by those stories and spending time digging in more deeply into his financial interests, into who he's appointed to the transition and who is - who he's appointing to his cabinet and what their interests are. And so we had to do both things. And it's a lot of work. We've been - all of us have been working very hard. But we're committed, and we know how important this is. And we know our readers are really looking to us to help bring them greater transparency on this administration.

GROSS: So you can't be completely sure what President-elect Trump has because he hadn't made his tax filings public. So how are you and your team even going about trying to get a hold of, get a grasp of all that he owns and all the potential conflicts?

LIPTON: The single best document we have comes from May of 2016 which you're required as a candidate for president to submit a financial disclosure report to the Federal Election Commission. He did that in May of 2016. That report details, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of debt and assets around the world. It goes on and on for pages and pages of all of these corporate entities that he owns, and that is our guide right now. That is our single best guide to what his assets are and where his potential conflicts are.

And so that shows us that he has business operations in at least 20 countries across the world and that these countries are focused, you know, largely in the developing world, countries like the Philippines and Indonesia and in India and Brazil and Argentina, you know - countries that - where there's rapid economic growth, not surprising you would make investments there, you'd have branding deals there - but also countries where there's been a history of issues relating to real estate projects that can sometimes become caught up in demands for payments to get permits. So that's one of the reasons, again, that we're looking at these deals so closely.

GROSS: Demands for payments to get permits - what are the potential problems with that?

LIPTON: Well, the United States in the last, like, 30 years at least has been the global preacher about the need to separate the government's powers from the financial powers of the truly rich and that there shouldn't be a single, you know, class of oligarchs that have both political power and economic power. And in a lot of foreign countries, you have political leaders who are also, like, controlling real estate and are controlling corporations and so, like, for example, in India right now, Donald Trump's partners in India that he is building new towers in Mumbai and in Pune, a city outside of Mumbai - a number of them are - the investors in those entities that he's partnered with - are members of the leading political party in India.

And there's already, for example, an investigation going on in Pune with - based on an allegation that the - some of the permits that were issued before this - these new towers were built, which are now completed and being sold - these units with the Trump Towers Pune - that, perhaps, that permit was fraudulently issued. So there's an ongoing investigation by local authorities there. Our reporter Ellen Barry spoke with the individual who filed the complaint. She also spoke with the investigator who's looking into it. And, I mean, again, imagine the situation. You have a guy who's president-elect. His name is on these towers. When you go to the website, that they're selling these units, there are photographs of him and Ivanka Trump.

And they're selling the lifestyle of the Trumps essentially to people in India. They want them to spend $2 million on an apartment in India which is an incredible amount of money for India. And that is - that apartment building is being investigated by authorities based on an allegation of potential fraud. Now, there's lots of allegations like that in India. Almost every building project has some allegations like that because India - it's a complicated place to do real estate transactions, and it almost always generates someone who's claiming something wrong happened.

But that - how do we not investigate that? And that - and he is doing business in parts of the world where there is essentially a tradition of making payments in order to accelerate permits or to get the land that you want or to get the government to sign off on the project that you want. And the Trump Organization says that for most of these projects, it is simply - it is selling its name. It's - it gets a fee or a commission or a combination of a fee and commission to allow them to be called the Trump Tower and then its local partner is getting the permits. It's not involved in that permit process, so it can't be held responsible for anything that happens with that permit process. But his name is on it. He's profiting from it. So we're going to have to evaluate how those permits are issued and if they're being issued appropriately.

GROSS: My guest is Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter with The New York Times who's been reporting on Donald Trump's businesses around the world and the conflicts of interest they may pose when he becomes president. After we take a short break, we'll talk about the biggest potential domestic conflict of interest. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review the new album by guitarist Mary Halvorson. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Eric Lipton who has been reporting on the potential conflicts of interest facing President-elect Donald Trump because of his businesses in the U.S. and at least 20 other countries. Lipton is an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. Last year, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his series of articles on how lobbyists were trying to influence state attorneys general. So Trump has golf courses in both Ireland and Scotland. In the one in Ireland, he wants to build a seawall to prevent erosion, and his people filed an environmental impact statement arguing on behalf of building this seawall. And this environmental impact statement highlights the risks of climate change and its influence on coastal erosion rates. That's really interesting since he has denied climate change. He said that it's like a Chinese-perpetuated hoax. So I'm just wondering what you make of that.

LIPTON: I think that Donald Trump, depending on the audience, says different things at different times. So when he's meeting with The New York Times, and he's asked about the Paris Accords and whether or not the United States might pull out of them, then he says that he's still considering it and hasn't definitively decided he's going to pull out.

But when he's speaking before a conservative audience, then he might question whether or not climate change even exists as a real issue. So, you know, the notion that he then cites - his organization cites climate change as a reason that they need to build a wall in Ireland to protect their golf course from the rising seas and flooding, it doesn't surprise me because to some extent it's, you know - it seems as if whatever is the most expeditious thing, he - his - him - or - he or his organization seems to say.

GROSS: So Trump has had a very confrontational relationship with Muslims. He has proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country, but he has holdings in several Muslim countries including Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan. So, like, how does that strike you that he has all these business relationships in Muslim countries and is obviously profiting from the Muslim world, yet maintains such a kind of skeptical and confrontational attitude about Muslims in the United States?

LIPTON: It's something that Trump himself, I think, has already struggled with because - for example, in Turkey where he recently completed the Trump Towers there with - through his partners and then also at Trump Mall with, you know, a very high-end retail - after Trump made the statements during the campaign that he was going to ban Muslims from entering the United States because of potential terrorist threats that - the operator of the Trump Mall and even the president of Turkey proposed removing Trump's name from those buildings because it was a disgrace to Muslims to suggest that they were all potentially, you know, suspect and needed to - should not be allowed to enter the United States.

So, I mean, that caused a real backlash, but then once the president of Turkey faced a coup attempt, Donald Trump was coming to the defense of the president of Turkey suggesting that he, you know, was within his privilege to take a really aggressive action against dissidents and that we shouldn't be second guessing his actions. And, at that point, the criticism of Trump's comments regarding Muslims sort of, you know, dissipated and the calls for the removal of his name from the Trump Mall dissipated. So, again, you know, from a reporter's perspective, how do you evaluate, you know, whether or not Trump's real estate holdings in Turkey influenced his remarks regarding the president of Turkey and his crackdown on dissidents following the coup attempt? You know, was it a factor in him coming to the defense of the Turkish president? Was it not? I mean, we don't really know, but we at least have to openly wonder because he has real estate interests there.

And, in fact, what was reported by the media in Turkey and has not been disputed by Trump or by the president of Turkey is that after Trump was elected, he had a telephone call with the president of Turkey. And in that telephone call, he praised his business partner in Turkey in a conversation with the president of Turkey. And now, I mean, is that appropriate for the president-elect in what is essentially an official conversation with another head of state to be talking about his - the Trump Organization's business partner? Again, it's a very odd circumstance.

GROSS: And there's a lot at stake now between the United States and Turkey between that relationship and between the relationship of Turkey and NATO. Can you talk about that a little bit?

LIPTON: Yeah. I mean, Turkey is a central - I mean, it - just its location by definition. I mean, it's in between Asia and Europe. It's right there in the Middle East as well, essentially. I mean, in terms of its role with - in terms of Syria, in terms of its role in combating ISIS and its relationship with the Kurds who are just next door and all kinds of tensions with the Kurds and - these are all, you know - and its role in supporting NATO efforts, and, I mean - each one of those is hugely delicate and hugely important to the United States interests.

And we want a president to be simply thinking about what are the interests of the United States and having zero consideration for his or her, you know, financial interests in any conversations with leaders there. We don't know that it's a factor, but we know that he has the Trump Tower in there in that country and at Trump Mall.

GROSS: Is there an example that you consider to be one of the clearest conflicts of interest?

LIPTON: I think that the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue a couple blocks from the White House is like the poster of conflict of interest. I mean, it's a building that is owned by the United States government. And he is renting it, and he has a lease with the United States government, and the lease itself says that no federal employee shall financially benefit from this lease. I mean, there's - I don't see how that lease can continue. And when I asked the General Services Administration about the apparent conflict of interest, they responded in a statement to me saying we know that there's an issue here, and we're going to need to address it.

So now what the resolution is going to be is unclear. Now, again, maybe you could argue that because it's probably owned through some LLC that isn't actually personally controlled by Trump but it's through some legal entities that isn't - perhaps separate him in some way that he isn't directly financially benefiting, but the LLC is benefiting. And so maybe there's some legal distinction that will allow him to argue that he can continue to have this financial relationship with the federal government and still appoint the head of the General Services Administration.

But, I mean, if there's a single example in the United States that the fact that, I mean - that this essentially - the extension of the White House just a couple blocks away is - and that his family controls it is - I mean, that's an obvious conflict of interest.

GROSS: Do you get to brag that this is your hotel and then say, but it's not really mine when you want to?

LIPTON: Yeah. I mean, you know, The Washington Post had a really good story that after he was elected, the the Trump Organization invited foreign diplomats to visit the hotel and encouraged them to take up rooms there when they were coming to visit the White

House. So, I mean, imagine that - you know, and the foreign government official who's coming to visit the president - why not buy up, like, 30 rooms and just, you know - even if the president doesn't know that you just enriched his family, I mean - you take such a step to at least hope that maybe he'll know and maybe you mention it. Oh, that's a great hotel you have when you walk into the Oval Office. And I love the, you know - the restaurant.

And, you know, I mean, just already Trump has been using his stature to help promote his assets. He - when he's going to be interviewing members potentially of his cabinet, he goes to a golf course in New Jersey that he owns. When he goes out to dinner earlier this week with folks that he's interviewing again for his cabinet, he goes to a restaurant Jean-Georges that - which is at the Trump International Hotel at Central Park West. For Thanksgiving, he goes down to the Mar-a-Lago, the resort that he owns in Florida.

And, you know, again, he owns these places. Of course, he has the right to go to these places, but it's only bringing more attention to these places, places in which people are invited to also come themselves and to spend their money. How does he avoid that problem? I don't know.

GROSS: So you've reported that one of Donald Trump's sons is currently hunting in Turkey. So does that raise any red flags to you? Or is that - he's just hunting in Turkey?

LIPTON: It was Donald Trump, Jr. that was in Turkey with a friend. And he apparently went hunting according to the Turkish media. And The Trump Organization has now confirmed that that trip did occur. But this is the situation that we're in. And the problem the media faces and, honestly, the problem that Donald Trump faces is that something as simple as his son taking a trip for a few days off to Turkey becomes a potential news story that we have to write about because he also has business dealings in Turkey. And so, you know, everything becomes the potential conflict. Is this a business trip that involves the government of Turkey? I mean, did he get any special treatment there? You know, again, I wish that we didn't have to be writing all these stories. And that's the reason why Trump needs to take a step to do something significant to stop all these stories and - because otherwise, it's going to be the equivalent of the Hillary Clinton email or the Clinton Foundation for the Trump administration because these stories are never going to stop. And it's going to eventually undermine his ability to be an effective president if he doesn't somehow stop these stories. And - because we will have to keep writing them because his interests are so broad that every time he does something, it creates a question.

GROSS: But if the Republicans aren't willing to take action and if Trump can continue to do more or less what he's doing with minor revisions, do you worry that there's going to be, like, all these potential conflicts or actual conflicts and no one's going to do anything to stop it?

LIPTON: I mean, I really do think he is sensitive to newspaper coverage, and it does bother him. And that's why when he tweets in the morning when he reads something that - he wants people to like him. He wants, you know, the acclamation and support of the public. And he reacts angrily when people are not supportive of him. And so, psychologically, I think he wants some way out of this. And that's why he tweets out, you know, one day this week that he's going to have this bold pronouncement on December 15 about his investments. Because he wants the public to think that he's doing the right thing.

Now whether or not that will compel him to actually take this significant enough of a step to confront these issues is unclear. And whether or not Congress will say - you know what? - this is actually serious enough that we need to accept the potential political consequences of creating a committee to investigate it. That's unclear. There will be pressure on Congress for sure. And I know - I already have seen it. I've seen that the Democrats are organizing to write letters and that they're getting their allies in - through grassroots organizations to do phone calls and emails to Republicans who are in control of these various oversight committees pressing them to take action.

Will these committees do it? You know, that's an open question. I think that only once it becomes a political liability for these - the members of Congress to not take action, at that point, they might actually consider it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER'S "MIGHTY MIGHTY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter with The New York Times who covers conflicts of interest in government and has been focusing on possible conflicts posed by President-elect Trump's businesses around the world.

Several of Donald Trump's children and his son-in-law have been advising him. They've been on the transition team. Some have been with Trump when he's met with foreign leaders. So what are some of the questions that Trump's children are raising for you regarding conflict of interest?

LIPTON: I mean, just look at Ivanka Trump. She seems like a very nice person - never met her, never spoken with her. Her position at the Trump Organization is to help coordinate international marketing and international searches for new venues for their hotel chain - among other things. She also has a jewelry line that is the Ivanka Trump brand. And so, I mean, for the person who is in charge at any corporation - hospitality corporation to be sort of on the lookout for potential future locations for your international hotel chain - imagine if you could meet with the president of a country and the doors that that would open for, you know, all kinds of businesspeople in that country if they knew that you had, you know, contact with the president of Turkey or the president of Argentina or the prime minister of Japan.

So, I mean, even her presence at those meetings brings her an advantage that, I mean, that Hiltons or that, you know, any other hotel chain was probably looking at and saying - is that fair? - when they're competing in different marketplaces. I mean, at the same time, she also runs a jewelry line. And so Ivanka Trump sits in on a "60 Minutes" interview with her dad and then, you know, that - immediately, one of her vice presidents at her company sends out an email to reporters, including one at The New York Times, saying, look at this gold bracelet that she was wearing. And you can buy this bracelet for over $10,000.

And now this is an interview with the president-elect, and she happens to be wearing the bracelet. And she's - her company immediately saw that as a marketing opportunity to make money by selling this bracelet. And, I mean, so she's not separating her financial interests from the political and...

GROSS: I'll just interrupt to say that the company said, oops, that was our mistake. We shouldn't have done that.

LIPTON: Yeah. I mean, they blamed their, you know, executive at the company for sending that out. But, I mean, you know, who knows exactly, you know, what role she played, if any, in that? But it happened, and we can judge them going forward. But that did happen. And, I mean, when I look at the Trump Organization globally - when I go onto the websites that are selling the apartment units in Pune, India, or the websites in Mumbai or, you know, just about anywhere, you see photographs of Ivanka Trump. She is, like, sort of their image maker. I mean, she's a sign of American affluence and beauty.

And her image, as a whole, has become as important as the image of Donald Trump himself. And so her simple presence in - as part of the entourage of the Trump administration is helping that brand promote itself. And so it's just this blurring of lines which we've never seen before in...

GROSS: So this isn't a - you know, a really complicated task that you're involved with, which is investigating Donald Trump's business interests and potential conflicts of interest around the world. And we're really talking, you know, around the world - in several different continents, including the United States. So tell us about The New York Times team that's doing this investigation and how you're all going about it.

LIPTON: It's a pretty, you know, overwhelming challenge because it's so complicated and far-reaching. And, I mean, I happen to be really lucky to work at The New York Times. And it's a news organization that, you know, that has such an international reach. And so, for example, when we first heard that President-elect Trump had met with real estate executives from India a few weekends ago, that same day, I was on the phone with our correspondent in India and we were working to investigate who these real estate partners were, what the ventures were that they had invested in. We filed a story that same evening, even though it was the middle of the night in India. And Ellen Barry was working through the night.

And that same - we made a decision immediately to send a reporter out to Pune, India, so that we could do another story the next day - datelined from Pune, so we had a correspondent on the ground there by the next morning. And, I mean, you know - and then the next - as soon as we filed that story, then we engaged with reporters in five different countries around the world - the Philippines, India, Turkey, Brazil and in Ireland. And in all those cases, reporters were sent out to investigate those business relationships and the potential conflicts of interest.

And, I mean, you know, we - it's quite an exhausting effort because, you know, you go to sleep and then, you know, Donald Trump is tweeting in the middle of the night or the moment you wake up and then there's a new direction the story has to go. And so what we have to do is we have to have reporters who are simultaneously focused on the daily things that are emerging because of tweets or because of actions by the administration and another group of people who are are continuing to press ahead on topics that dig in and that bring forward things that maybe he isn't tweeting about but that the public needs to know about.

GROSS: Eric Lipton, thank you for your reporting, and thank you for taking time out from your incredibly crazy busy schedule to talk with us. I really appreciate it.

LIPTON: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Eric Lipton is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by guitarist Mary Halvorson, which is now Kevin's favorite recording by her. This is FRESH AIR.

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