President Donald Trump's attorneys initially wanted him to submit an updated financial disclosure without certifying the information as true, according to correspondence with the Office of Government Ethics.
Attorney Sheri Dillon said she saw no need for Trump to sign his 2016 personal financial disclosure because he is filing voluntarily this year. But OGE director Walter Shaub said his office would only work with Dillon if she agreed to follow the typical process of having Trump make the certification.
The Associated Press obtained the letters under a Freedom of Information Act request.
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Trump led his family's private company until becoming president, and even now maintains financial ties to it. He has avoided full transparency about his finances by breaking the long tradition of major-party political candidates making their tax returns public.
Trump has routinely pointed to his previous public financial disclosures to justify his billionaire status and to dismiss calls for him to provide more information to the public. The filings are self-reported, though, making the personal certification all the more important to show the president is attesting for their accuracy.
The documents indicate that after OGE pushed back, Trump now plans to certify the information by mid-June. But his attorney's effort to sidestep certification of his personal financial disclosure marks another departure from the norm. Each year, the OGE processes thousands of those forms, all of which are certified.
"This is not at all typical; in fact I've never heard of anyone trying this," said Marilyn Glynn, an OGE employee for 17 years before retiring in 2008. Her positions included acting director and general counsel. "It would be as unusual as not signing your taxes."
The certification means that if a person knowingly included incorrect financial information, the OGE can seek a civil penalty such as a fine, or even make a referral to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.
Glynn said OGE has indeed used those tools to enforce the integrity of certification.
The letters indicate Shaub and Dillon talked through the importance of Trump presenting true information and signing off on it as such. OGE typically works with federal employees and their representatives and also certifies the financial disclosures.
"As we discussed, OGE will provide this assistance on the condition that the President is committed to certifying that the contents of his report are true, complete and correct," Shaub wrote in a May 10 letter. "When we met on April 27, 2017, you requested that he be excused from providing this certification."
In her letter to Shaub, Dillon said the president will "sign and file" documents regarding his 2016 financials by mid-June — an indication that she agreed to the requirement.
Dillon also stressed in her letter, dated May 9, that Trump is under no obligation to file a financial disclosure this year and is doing so voluntarily. "President Trump welcomes the opportunity to provide this optional disclosure to the public, and hopes to file it shortly," she wrote.
A person familiar with the matter said Dillon expressed concern in a meeting with OGE officials about the certification process because virtually everything on the new personal financial disclosure is now held in and managed by a trust overseen by people other than the president.
Dillon questioned how Trump could certify something he wasn't supposed to have "direct, contemporaneous knowledge" about, the person said. Shaub assured her that other wealthy employees had certified as true their reports even though they didn't independently verify every single underlying asset in them, said the person who demanded anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss the interactions between Dillon's law firm and OGE.
Personal financial disclosures include an accounting of a person's personal income, assets and liabilities. Trump's 2016 form will span his general election candidacy, election and transition to power — potentially shedding light on the immediate impact his Republican nomination and election had on his Trump Organization.
Last May, then-candidate Trump's disclosure form showed his business empire had grown in value while he was running for office. His new filing is expected to outline what specific assets have been transferred to a trust overseen by one of his adult sons and a longtime Trump Organization executive.
However, the information is no substitute for tax returns, which Trump has chosen not to release. Tax documents would show his effective rate of income tax and detail the extent of his charitable giving.
Trump's decision to file a personal financial disclosure puts him in the company of past Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and others. The law gives presidents a reprieve from filing financial disclosures in their first year, but citing transparency, they typically file anyway on or before May 15.
Shaub references that history in the first line of his letter to Dillon: "Thank you for your letter dated May 9, 2017, regarding the President's decision to adhere to the longstanding tradition of voluntarily filing a public financial disclosure report in the first year after taking office."