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Reince Priebus calls questions about Trump’s conflicts of interest “ridiculous”

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The first 12 days of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition have raised grave concerns about conflicts of interest between his business and his presidency. Even the business-friendly Wall Street Journal editorial page concluded that only solution was for Trump to sell his businesses entirely — something Trump has no intention of doing.

But in TV interviews on Sunday morning, both Vice President-elect Mike Pence and future Chief of Staff Reince Priebus shrugged the matter off, saying, essentially, that Americans should just trust them.

The potential conflicts already seem rampant:

  • Trump met with business partners from India, where his company is working on five business deals worth about $1.5 billion, after winning the election.
  • The Philippines announced its new ambassador to the United States would be Trump’s business partner in the country.
  • Trump’s children, who are running the businesses in what’s been described as a “blind trust,” are also participating in political decision-making. His daughter Ivanka sat in on a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
  • Foreign diplomats are booking rooms at Trump’s hotel in Washington, DC, hoping that sending business the president’s way will help them curry favor with his administration.

But in an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, Priebus dismissed these concerns. The meetings, he said, were just part of Trump’s desire to meet with people “from all walks of life.” He called a question about “pay to play” politics in the Trump administration “ridiculous” (emphasis added):

Priebus: Donald Trump has been very clear from the very beginning that his family is very important to him. And I think that while it’s unique, it’s certainly compliant with the law. And obviously we will comply with all of those laws, and we will have our White House counsel review all of these things, and we will have every "i" dotted and every "t" crossed, and I can assure the American people that there wouldn’t be any wrongdoing, or any sort of undue influence, over any decision-making.

The truth of the matter is, and I can just tell you this even from the four days that -- or five days or so that I’ve been in a different role. Donald Trump makes the decisions in this operation. And while there are meetings that place, it’s Donald Trump that makes the decisions, and nothing should be further from the truth. And so I can assure you and everyone out there that all of these things will be followed and they’ll be done properly.

Tapper: During the campaign, you put out a statement saying that the Clinton Foundation represents a, quote, “pay to play culture that would be on full display should Hillary Clinton be elected president.” Are you at all concerned that Mr. Trump now could be depicted at somebody engaged in pay-to-play politics?

Priebus: No, not at all, Jake. I mean, we’ve been at this for a few days. I mean, this is ridiculous. Let’s just kind of a take a deep breath. Let’s look at what’s going on. He made the call to bring all Americans together. He then met with many, many people from all walks of life -- Safra Catz, General Mattis, Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney. The list goes on and on. The point is, what Americans should see from President-Elect Trump is someone who, by deed and action, from the moment he was declared the winner, he was on a mission to bring everyone together.

Pence was even more blunt: “Who cares?” he said on Fox News Sunday, quoting Trump on the campaign trail. He elaborated: “The President-elect of the United States, Donald Trump, is completely focused on the people’s business, and I promise you and I can assure the public that they’ll have the proper separation from their business enterprise.”

Neither of them gave any further details about how that separation would be assured, or about why it hasn’t happened yet. One way for Trump to show he’s serious about separating politics and business would be to release his tax returns, so that Americans can understand where the conflicts might lie. But so far, he hasn’t done so.

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