Sheri A. Dillon, the Morgan Lewis tax lawyer who drafted President-elect Donald Trump’s trust documents and spent 10 minutes explaining how they would shield him from conflict-of-interest charges during a nationally televised news conference Wednesday, is a partner in the firm’s Washington office who for years has toiled in relative obscurity.
But she is quite prominent now.
Dillon proved an impassioned advocate for Trump when, during the news conference, he turned over the microphone to her and she described the steps that Trump’s legal team had taken to head off conflicts between his duties as president and his vast entertainment, real estate, and hotel empire.
Working with her on the trust documents was another Morgan Lewis partner, Bucks County native Fred Fielding, a well-known Republican who served as White House counsel for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Morgan Lewis is a large Center City-based firm with 2,000 lawyers and offices around the globe.
Sometimes Dillon sounded more like a campaign spokesman than a legal advocate, arguing that rather than being concerned that Trump’s business interests might affect his decision making, voters chose him because of his business success.
“We believe this structure will serve to accomplish the president-elect’s desire to be isolated from his business and give the American people confidence that his sole interest is in making America great again, bringing back jobs to this country, securing our borders, and rebuilding our infrastructure,” said Dillon, who declined through the firm to speak beyond what she said at the news conference. “The American people were well aware of president-elect Trump’s business empire and financial interests when they voted for him. Many people voted for him precisely because of his business success. President-elect Trump wants to bring this business success to all Americans.”
Dillon’s description of the trust arrangement, however, brought swift criticism.
Walter Shaub Jr., director of the federal Office of Government Ethics, said the proposal fell far short of what other federal employees typically meet. Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had come forward with a far more effective plan, divesting himself of all of his ties to ExxonMobil, where he had been chief executive, Shaub said.
“Should a president hold himself to a lower standard than his employees?” Shaub asked during a talk at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think divestment is too high a price to pay to be president of the United States of America.”
In essence, Dillon said that Trump proposed placing his holdings in a trust, that the companies would be operated by his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, that an ethics officer would examine transactions with an eye toward avoiding conflicts, and that a chief compliance officer would have the task of ensuring that the companies would adhere to ethics rules and laws.
All profits from overnight stays by foreign government employees in Trump hotels would be paid to the U.S. Treasury, she added, The provision seemed aimed at guarding against breaches of the so-called emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bars federal employees from receiving payments from foreign governments.
Advising on arcane business structures seems to track well with Dillon’s career path. At Morgan Lewis, she specializes in tax litigation and advises clients in the financial services, private equity, real estate, energy, manufacturing, and consumer products industries.
She is a 1999 graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, and of the University of Missouri, Columbia, where she did both graduate and undergraduate work.
She joined Morgan Lewis in 2015, coming to the firm from Vinson & Elkins.
Dillon asserted at Wednesday’s news conference, in opposition to critics such as Shaub, that divestment of such an enormous business empire would create insurmountable tactical problems, while generating ethics issues of its own since questions could be raised about whether Trump was receiving a fair market price for his assets.
While some have urged Trump to place his holdings in a blind trust, an entity whose operations would be invisible to the public and presumably Trump, Dillon argued the companies are so prominent that shielding them from public view would be impossible.
“President-elect Trump wants the American people to rest assured that all of his efforts are directed toward pursuing the people’s business and not his own; toward that end he has directed me and my colleagues ... to design a structure for his business empire that will completely isolate him from the management of the company,” Dillon said.