Keeping Track of Trump’s Conflicts of Interest [Updated Dec. 5]

Since the election, there has been a firehose of news: President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet picks, rumors about Trump’s cabinet picks, a Neo-Nazi conference in Washington, a $25 million dollar settlement to resolve a series of lawsuits concerning Trump University, Twitter fights, to name just a few of the things grabbing headlines. Mixed up in there are stories about how Trump is already using the presidency to help his business. Journalists are documenting a handful of instances where Trump, or the Trump Organization, is cashing in on his new powerful role as future president of the United States. There are also stories of business contacts or foreign officials trying to sweeten him up. To help Just Security readers keep track of this reporting, which this week and last was coming fast and furious, I’ve included a list at the bottom of this post (The Washington Post is also keeping track).

Tied to all of this is the debate about whether the law constrains this type of behavior. Is he required to create a blind-trust (a true one, not simply handing the family business over to his children, who remain trusted political advisers serving on the transition team)? And what does the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution require of him? These are two very separate issues, although they’re increasingly conflated in the news.

On the blind trust issue, Trump was right when he told The New York Times that, “In theory, I can be president of the United States and run my business 100 percent.” He said he was surprised to find out that he was not legally required to divest it or set up such a trust.

This is true. He is not legally required to create one because the conflict of interest laws do not apply to the president. But as several commentators have noted, not breaking the law is an awfully low bar for the president of the United States. As The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza writes, “Just because something isn’t illegal doesn’t make it right.” If he chooses to continue to run his business, or allow his children to run it, while simultaneously including them in his political life, he will always be under suspicion of making decisions for the country that are motivated by what’s best for his business.

So far, it’s not clear how he’ll separate himself from the Trump Organization, if at all. He has his children will start signing checks on his behalf, again not all that reassuring because they remain intimately involved in the White House transition team. As for a trust, Trump said, “I would like to do something. I would like to try and formalize something, because I don’t care about my business.” As with all things Trump, we’ll have to wait and see if his words are translated into action. He plans to hold a press conference on Dec. 15 — with his kids at his side — to explain how he’ll separate himself from his business.

But based on what he told the Times yesterday, Trump seems to think this is where the story ends. “The law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” he said. This is not true, and ignores perhaps the most important body of law in the country: the Constitution.

The foreign emoluments clause (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8) of the Constitution does apply to the president and if Trump continues business as usual, he’s poised to run afoul of it. If he accepts any payment or gift from a foreign state, he’s breaking this law. Why is this law in place? As Noah Feldman, a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard Law School, writes for Bloomberg, “The idea behind the clause is pretty intuitive: If federal officials can be compensated by foreign governments, they can be bought.”

This constitutional rule could apply to foreign officials helping Trump secure permissions to build in foreign capitals to heads of state staying in his hotels (and perhaps tipping his staff a little extra). Laurence Tribe, also a professor of constitutional law at Harvard, said on Twitter that the Emoluments Clause will be “incurable unless ALL Trump family holdings are sold for cash entrusted to fully independent trustee to invest.” The tricky thing is enforcing the constitutional provision, and as Feldman argues this would most likely be left to Congress, “which could treat the receipt of foreign emolument as a high crime or misdemeanor and therefore as grounds for impeachment.” 

As for the emoluments or gifts themselves, Trump’s business dealings and properties around the world create ample opportunity for foreign states to use them to curry favor with the president-to-be, as the reporting below reveals.

Trump International Hotel in DC
Following the election, the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., hosted an event for the diplomatic community that included Trump-branded champagne and a sales pitch on the new hotel, reported The Washington Post. Meanwhile, Politico reports that the Kingdom of Bahrain will observe its 45th national day at the hotel. Azerbaijan’s embassy is hosting a Hanukkah party at the hotel, reports The Jerusalem Post. 

UK Wind Farms and Trump’s Golf Course in Scotland
Trump encouraged British politician Nigel Farage and other Brexit leaders to oppose offshore wind farms when he met with them in New York following the election, according to The New York Times. Trump is worried that the windmills will ruin the view at one of his golf courses in Scotland. At first the Trump team denied that such an exchange took place, but yesterday Trump admitted he “might have brought it up.” In another worrying move, Trump tweeted Monday, “Many people would like to see @Nigel_Farage represent Great Britain as their Ambassador to the United States. He would do a great job!”

Indian Business Partners
Three Indian real estate executives flew from India to congratulate Trump and meet with his children last week, the Times reported. They are building a Trump-branded apartment complex south of Mumbai. During the meeting, Trump praised India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, The Economic Times reported. According to an investigation by The Times, Trump has five projects underway in India.

Trump Tower at Century City in Manila
A new $150 million tower, branded with the Trump name, is set to open next year in the Philippines. Jose E.B. Antonio, chief executive and controlling stakeholder of Century Properties, the company behind the tower, was appointed last month to serve as a special government envoy to the US for President Rodrigo Duterte, reports Bloomberg. Since taking office, Duterte has killed thousands of Filipinos as part of his “anti-drug” campaign.

Trump Project in Buenos Aires
The Trump camp and President of Argentina Mauricio Macri both deny that they discussed permits for Trump’s project in the country when they talked on the phone after the election. But three days after the phone call, Trump’s associates in Buenos Aires — the YY Development Group — announced Trump Tower in Buenos Aires would be moving ahead. Felipe Yaryura, an executive partner of YY Development Group, was with the Trump family at the  the New York Hilton on the night of the election and was photographed celebrating with Eric Trump. President Macri told a Japanese newspaper that he also spoke with Trump’s daughter on the congratulatory call (hat tip: Huffington Post).

ICBC and Trump Tower in Manhattan
The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), whose majority owner is the government of China, leases office space at Trump Tower in Manhattan.

Taiwan
Conflicting reports surfaced after Trump’s now infamous Dec. 2 phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen about whether the Trump Organization is looking to drum up business in the country. In November, the mayor of Taoyuan said Trump is interested in building luxury hotels in Taoyuan City, a suburb of Taipei, and that a female representative of the company visited Taiwan in September. The Trump team immediately pushed back on the report, saying, “There have been no authorized visits to Taiwan on behalf of Trump Hotels for the purposes of development, nor are there any active conversations.” But as The Wall Street Journal reports, it appears at least one informal meeting may have taken place.

Trump Towers Istanbul
Opened in 2012, Trump Towers Istanbul is not owned by Trump, but like other properties around the world, a local company leases the Trump brand name. In June, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for Trump’s name to be removed from the towers, citing the presidential candidate’s Islamophobia, The Wall Street Journal reported at the time. In his call with President Erdogan on Nov. 9, Trump mentioned one of his Turkish business partners, who is part of the company that owns Trump Towers in Istanbul and pays the Trump Organization to license the name and brand. On the call, Trump referred to his business partner as a “close friend” and passed on that he is “your great admirer.”  Trump’s business partner had attended the President-elect’s victory celebration in New York the night before, writes the Huffington Post.

GSA and the Trump Organization’s lease of the historic Post Office Pavilion
In 2013, Trump signed a 60-year, $180 million lease with the federal government to take over the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, D.C., now the site of Trump International Hotel, which opened in September. This means that when Trump becomes president in January, he will essentially become both landlord and tenant, a situation that “presents unprecedented and intolerable conflicts of interest,” reports Government Executive. When he takes office, he will also be breaching the contract, which reads, “No … elected official of the Government of the United States shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom…”

The Next FBI Headquarters
Two New York City developers with close ties to Trump are bidding on a more than $2 billion project to build a new headquarters for the FBI, according to The Washington Post. The GSA is expected to choose the winning development team and location in March.

Investigation into Trump Hotel Rio de Janeiro
In its exhaustive investigation on Trump’s business holdings and properties, The Times reported that this hotel in Brazil, which pays for the Trump brand, is part of a criminal investigation “by a federal prosecutor who is examining whether illicit commissions and bribes resulted in apparent favoritism by two pension funds that invested in the project.”

Trump International Golf Links in Ireland  
The Times investigation also showed that Trump is fighting to build a seawall to protect his golf course in County Clare, but has been stymied by environmentalists trying to protect a snail and the sand dunes, as well European Union rules that protect the dunes. A national planning board is expected to decide on the issue soon.

The Trump Children

Trump has said that when he becomes president his children will run his business for him, falsely calling this a “blind trust.” But their roles in the upcoming administration remain unclear. On the campaign trail, they were both his business partners — traveling to golf course and hotel openings — as well as his trusted political advisers and surrogates. Since winning the presidency, little has changed. Below is a growing list of how they too mix politics with profit, as well as examples of how they remain core to Trump’s fledgling administration.

Donald Trump Jr.
The Wall Street Journal reported that last month Donald Trump Jr., executive vice president of The Trump Organization, “held private discussions with diplomats, businessmen and politicians in Paris last month that focused in part on finding a way to cooperate with Russia to end the war in Syria.”

Ivanka Trump
“I’m going to be a daughter,” Ivanka Trump told 60 Minutes when asked what her role would be in a Trump administration. As far as the transition team goes, Ivanka is a very hands-on daughter. She, along with her husband Jared Kushner, were with her father when he met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan after the election. The New York Times later reported that her company “is nearing a licensing deal with the Japanese apparel giant Sanei International,” of which the Japanese government has a stake. She was also on her father’s phone call with Macri and Erdogan, reported The Times. Along with her brothers, she has also met with Antonio, the Philippine developer and special envoy to the US, since the election.

After appearing on 60 Minutes, Ivanka Trump Fine Jewelry sent a “style alert” to journalists drawing attention to the fact that Ivanka had been “wearing her favorite bangle from the Metropolis Collection on ‘60 Minutes.'” the night before. Her company also promoted the dress she wore during her speech at the Republican National Convention in July.

Now, it appears that Ivanka and her family may be moving to Washington, DC. CNN reported that she’s looking for a house there.

Jared Kushner
Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, played an outsized role in Trump’s presidential campaign, as this profile in Forbes makes clear, but it is still unknown exactly what role he’ll play in a Trump White House. Trump has requested he receive “top-secret clearance to join him for his Presidential Daily Briefings,” NBC News reported. When asked by The Times what role Kushner could play in his administration, Trump said, “Maybe nothing.” But then he went on to say that he could see Kushner helping him make “peace with Israel and the Palestinians.” Future White House chief of staff Reince Priebus told NBC’s “Today” show that he thought Kushner “is going to be very involved in decision-making.” Meanwhile, like Trump, Kushner’s real estate company poses a number of conflicts of interest should he join government, and the conflict of interest laws that don’t apply to the president would apply to him.

Just Security, along with others, will continue tracking this and provide further legal analysis in the weeks, months and, quite possibly, years ahead.

Image: Andrew Milligan/AP Images – Security watch Donald Trump chat with the media while on a tour of Trump International Golf Links, Scotland

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council; previously senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).