What Senate ethics chief Johnny Isakson makes of Trump's conflict of interest plans

Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson speaks in Atlanta last year. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Tamar Hallerman

Credit: Tamar Hallerman

Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson speaks in Atlanta last year. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

WASHINGTON -- As chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, Georgia's Johnny Isakson thinks the best way for a member of Congress to manage their assets is through a blind trust.

But the three-term Republican senator was careful not to criticize then-President-elect Donald Trump and his plan for avoiding conflicts of interest in an interview shortly before the inauguration.

Isakson said he would not judge Trump's ethics arrangement since he didn't know the details of Trump's assets or business deals.

“I can’t comment on whether what he did was the most transparent thing he could have done to satisfy people ... I can tell you that as chairman of the Ethics Committee, the best way to comply as thoroughly as you can with the ethics disclosures is to do a blind trust that the lawyers on the Ethics Committee will sign off on," he said.

Trump resigned from his company and affiliated entities last week, according to NBC News, transferring the title and authority into a trust managed by his adult sons and a top Trump Organization executive. The arrangement had been panned by ethics watchdogs, including the typically reticent federal Office of Government Ethics, which said it would leave Trump open to conflicts of interest.

The president and vice president operate under a much different set of ethics rules than members of Senate do. The two top executives are essentially exempt from such conflict of interest guidelines, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Senators, meanwhile, are encouraged to open blind trusts, which put a lawmaker's investments in the hands of a trustee that makes decisions on their behalf and without their direct knowledge.

Isakson repeatedly described ethics as an "eyes of the beholder-type of issue," and was careful not to suggest what the president should do, saying "I’m not Donald Trump.”

Most of Isakson's own holdings are in a blind trust, according to the senator's 2015 financial disclosures, the most recent that are publicly available. That trust, created in April 2012 -- after The Wall Street Journal raised questions about some of his stocks, Isakson said -- is valued between $5 million and $25 million.

“I said I need to be as patently pure and patently clean as anybody, and the best way to do that is a blind trust," Isakson said of his own holdings after the Journal's report ran. Now "I don’t know what I own.”

Outside of the trust, Isakson also disclosed holding stock in Bank of America, First Citizens Bank of North Georgia, Vinings Bank and Trust and Preferred Apartment Communities, the property management company where his son serves as an executive.

Isakson said calls for Trump to completely divest from his business holdings may not be realistic, given the complicated nature of the president's assets.

“It’s important that it be transparent in terms of what somebody owns, transparent in terms of how they earn their income," he said, "but don’t make them do something that you really cannot do or you should not do."

But when asked about Trump putting two of his adult children in charge of his assets, Isakson also said it was a "legitimate question."

When asked about Trump appointing his son-in-law Jared Kushner to be a personal adviser, Isakson compared the move to President John F. Kennedy, who named his brother Bobby attorney general in 1961.

“You’re transparent about it, you disclose and the people make the judgment," Isakson said. "I don’t think anybody would judge that Bobby Kennedy was a mistake. I’m not saying his son-in-law is a Bobby Kennedy but he may be.”

Since the interview, the Justice Department blessed Kushner's appointment, saying it did not run aground of a federal anti-nepotism law because White House positions are exempted.