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Ethics experts: Trump’s ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ role is trouble for White House, NBC

President-elect Donald Trump throws a hat into the audience while speaking at a rally in a DOW Chemical Hanger at Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Word that Donald Trump will retain his executive producer title on “The Celebrity Apprentice” during its coming season has reinforced concerns among government ethics experts that the president-elect will bring unprecedented conflicts of interest with him to the White House.

Trump’s transition team has confirmed he still has a “big stake” in the popular program, but they have released no other details. Produced by MGM Entertainment, the eighth season of “The Celebrity Apprentice” premieres on January 2 on NBC with host Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Variety reported Thursday that Trump will continue to be listed in the show’s credits and will likely receive a per-episode fee in the low five-figures.

Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway dismissed complaints over his involvement with the show, comparing it to President Obama’s golfing in an interview with CNN Friday.

“Were we so concerned about the hours and hours and hours spent on the golf course of the current president?” said Conway, although Trump has often been quite concerned about the hours Obama spent on the golf course in the past.

A bipartisan group of government watchdogs and ethicists released a letter Friday urging Trump to divest all of his business enterprises into a true blind trust.

“This is the kind of approach that has been taken by your predecessors for four decades to protect the integrity of the presidency and the interests of the American people,” said the letter, released by the nonpartisan organization Democracy 21.

The signers of the letter warn that steps Trump is reported to be considering, such as handing off control of his companies to his children, will not go far enough.

“By combining your presidency with your family business enterprises, you will create ongoing conflict of interest and credibility problems for your presidency,” they write. “Questions will regularly arise as to whether your domestic and foreign policy positions are being taken on behalf of the interests of the American people or the financial interests of the Trump family, which will necessarily diverge on numerous occasions from those of the nation as a whole.”

Trump has announced he will hold a news conference on December 15 to lay out exactly how he plans to separate himself from his family business during his presidency. Some reports suggest he will hand the reins off to his adult sons while preserving a stake in the company himself.

Experts who signed the letter say many of the potential pitfalls that have arisen regarding Trump Organization business would also be present in Trump’s continued involvement with “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

“It’s yet another serious business conflict for him,” said Norm Eisen, former chief ethics lawyer for President Obama. “He will be tempted, consciously or otherwise, both to favor NBC, MGM, and their affiliated entities, not to mention major sponsors for his program, and as well to use the White House to promote these sources of his personal revenue.”

Beyond the potential for corruption and bribery, Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, said a business relationship between the president and a company that operates a media outlet undermines the independence of the press.

“How close of a relationship do you want between the president and a favored media organization?”

If the Variety report is accurate, Trump’s pay for this season’s eight episodes will far exceed the legal caps placed on outside income for members of Congress and White House executive staff. The president is not subject to those restrictions.

Trump has received support on his “Apprentice” credit from a surprising source: Hollywood liberals. “Conan” co-host Andy Richter said on Twitter that the small paycheck Trump will reportedly draw is “a grain of sand on a beach that’s about to be a disastrous oil slick of corruption.”

“He won't be doing any work for these checks. He co-created the show, & as long as it runs, he gets a taste,” Richter wrote. “Let's pick our battles wisely.”

David Simon, creator of “The Wire” and “Homicide: Life on the Street” and a frequent Trump critic, also came to his defense on Twitter, arguing that collecting royalties on a show he helped create does not mean he is still actively involved in production. He equated it to President Obama receiving royalties for his books while in office.

“Compare: BO wrote a bestselling autobio before his election. Did he refuse the royalties from continued book sales? No,” he wrote.

The current president did publish another book while in office, “Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters,” but his payment for that went to charity.

Kathleen Clark, an attorney and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis who also signed the letter to Trump, noted a difference in compensation structure and potential for influence with book sales.

“There is very little reason individual people would buy copies of the book to curry favor with a public official,” she said. For the TV show, which will be broadcasting new episodes during Trump’s presidency, the concern is more with advertisers and sponsors than consumers.

“Are the advertisers attempting to curry favor by directing money to the president indirectly through this television show?”

Clark emphasized that the answer to that depends in part on the exact nature of Trump’s deals with MGM and NBC, which the public does not know. Would he profit directly from increased ad sales for the show? If the series brings more ad revenue for NBC, does that increase the likelihood of the network renewing it and paying Trump more royalties next season? Do ratings affect his payments at all?

“If he goes through with this, we won’t know whether he’ll be motivated by a natural inclination to accommodate those who are helping him financially,” Clark said.

She has backed calls for him to divest all of his business assets in order to eliminate such suspicions.

“What would be best is for him to ensure that he’s not in a position where people can curry favor with him, where people can try to pay him in an effort to get a favorable attitude.”

Trump’s role in “The Celebrity Apprentice” during his presidency will mark the latest chapter in an increasingly fraught relationship with NBC. The network publicly distanced itself from him last year after his offensive remarks on the campaign trail first sparked controversy.

Although NBC cut ties with his beauty pageants, Trump was still invited to host “Saturday Night Live” last October, and the network went forward with production on the upcoming season of “The Celebrity Apprentice” with Schwarzenegger taking his place in the board room.

Earlier this year, NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt said Trump would never again host the show, regardless of the outcome of the election. However, NBC has no say in MGM’s decision to grant him a producer credit or pay him for his involvement.

Trump has bickered with NBC’s news division throughout his campaign, frequently directing his ire at MSNBC correspondent Katy Tur. He has also singled out “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd and CNBC reporter John Harwood for criticism.

In recent weeks, the president-elect has complained about Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him on “Saturday Night Live,” declaring the sketch comedy show “biased” and calling for its cancellation.

If President Trump is producing one of the network’s top-rated shows in 2017, some observers fear he could hold sway over NBC’s news division, or he may see an advantage in treating the network’s reporters more positively.

“It’s really a question of independence of journalists,” Painter said.

He said it appears undignified for a network to make financial deals with an incoming president who its news operation is supposed to be covering aggressively. In that sense, this may be a bigger problem for NBC than for President-elect Trump.

“What is NBC doing to protect their journalistic integrity?” Painter asked. “I think they should be the ones who are trying to wiggle out of this.”

With Trump’s favorability slowly rising and voters signaling patience while he gets his complex financial affairs in order, his continued involvement with his own reality show might stir up more consternation in the media than it does in the general public.

“This won't be a problem with the law or the people. It's not a lot of money, it's a domestic source, and it does not conflict with his official duties,” said Michael Cornfield, research director for the George Washington University Center for Political Management.

Trump’s international financial dealings and his family business could be more precarious politically.

“People hate it when they think an elected official has profited from being in office. Ask Clinton,” he said. “And the emoluments clause of the Constitution puts Trump at risk of committing impeachable offenses.”

Despite his harping on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s possible conflicts of interest on the campaign trail, Trump has shown relatively little urgency to curtail his own since the election. He faces little risk of consequences for that with Republican control of the House and Senate.

Angering the public may not matter much at the moment either, as long as Democrats lack the power to act on their dissatisfaction.

“They don't get to vote again for four years, so we're just talking opinions, which frankly is not that important,” Cornfield said. “Congress and the courts are what matter now.”

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