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FACT CHECK: Trump Lawyer's Claim And Comparison To Rockefeller Is A Head Scratcher

President-elect Donald Trump speaks as one of his attorneys listens during a news conference Wednesday at Trump Tower in New York.
Seth Wenig
President-elect Donald Trump speaks as one of his attorneys listens during a news conference Wednesday at Trump Tower in New York.

Among the unusual elements of President-elect Donald Trump's Wednesday news conference was a 15-minute interlude in which an attorney took the podium and described Trump's plan to address potential conflicts of interest between his businesses and the responsibilities of his office.

The attorney, Sheri Dillon, outlined an arrangement by which Trump would turn over "total control" of his worldwide business interests to his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, with whom he would not communicate about the family business.

Dillon said real divestiture — selling the business or committing its assets to a blind trust — would be forcing him "to destroy his business." She said the president-elect "should not be expected to destroy the company he built."

Gov. Nelson Rockefeller is shown in this undated photo.
/ AP
Gov. Nelson Rockefeller is shown in this undated photo.

Dillon went on to say that Trump's empire "is massive, not dissimilar to the fortunes of Nelson Rockefeller when he became vice president, but at that time no one was so concerned." [Emphasis added.]

It may have been the first time anyone has compared Trump's wealth to that of the Rockefellers, but that was not ultimately the point. It was the last eight words of her remark of that moment that raised eyebrows, because Rockefeller's wealth at the time was very much a concern to quite a number of people.

Dillon might not be expected to have any personal recollection of the Rockefeller confirmation process more than 40 years ago, but the record is widely available.

Rockefeller was picked to be the new vice president in September 1974, just weeks after President Gerald R. Ford was sworn in to succeed President Richard Nixon, who had resigned. Rockefeller, known as "Rocky," had been elected the Republican governor of New York four times and had run for president three times.

He was also a grandson of the legendary John D. Rockefeller, founder of the Standard Oil Co, and founder of perhaps the largest and certainly the most famous family fortune in America.

The mid-1970s was a time of hypersensitivity to money issues in national politics, an era when ethics and campaign-finance reform were front and center in Washington — partly because of the Watergate scandals that had driven Nixon from office.

Rockefeller's nomination was, in fact, the subject of extensive hearings that fall, not only in the Senate but in the House of Representatives as well. (The provisions of the 25th Amendment governing the presidential succession required a confirmation vote in both chambers of Congress.) Many conservatives saw Rockefeller as a liberal, especially on social issues, and did not fancy him a heartbeat from the presidency. Many Democrats saw his great wealth as a source of inevitable conflicts of interest.

His confirmation was far from assured, especially after it was revealed he had used $2 million in personal or family funds to make gifts to senior aides, including Henry Kissinger (who had moved on to serve both Nixon and Ford in the White House and as secretary of state), as well as to finance the publication of a biography critical of a Democrat who had opposed his re-election as governor.

Additional controversy arose over deductions he took on his federal income tax return, leading to an eventual settlement with the IRS for more than $900,000.

But Rockefeller disclosed his various assets and trust funds and placed all his assets in a blind trust — the kind of steps Trump has not been willing to take. And in a lame-duck session after that fall's election, Rockefeller was confirmed by both the House and Senate.

He served as Ford's vice president but was not made part of the ticket when Ford sought a full term in his own right in 1976. Buffeted by opposition within the Republican Party, Ford dumped Rockefeller for Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. The Ford-Dole ticket lost in 1976. Rockefeller retired from politics and died of a heart attack in 1979 at the age of 70.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.