How the Trump Administration Could Be a Conflict-Ridden Nightmare, A C – Vanity Fair
Donald Trump’s behavior in the weeks since his unanticipated victory over Hillary Clinton has belied the New York real estate mogul’s campaign promise that, if elected, he would separate himself from his global namesake business through an arrangement he has, incorrectly, likened to a “blind trust.” And while the now president-elect told the New York Times last week, that he still intends to relinquish control over the Trump Organization to his three adult children—Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric—Trump has already begun to blur the lines between his business interests and the office of the presidency, leading to the potential for many, many conflicts.
As Trump refused to release his tax returns throughout his insurgent bid for the White House, the true scope of the Trump Organization’s international business dealings remains a mystery. With business deals in at least 20 countries—and ongoing development projects in a number of them—the Trump Organization’s global footprint is extensive, and a Times investigation into the president-elect’s business reveals a minefield of potential conflicts of interest abroad. Take for example, the Philippines. In October, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appointed Jose Antonio, a partner of Trump’s on a $150 million luxury development in Manila, as special envoy to the United States. Unsurprisingly, the appointment has already incited scrutiny, especially considering, as the Times reports, the heightened tensions between the United States the Southeast Asian country, which have flared amid Duterte’s calls for American troops to leave over the next two years and after the Obama administration criticized the Philippine government’s controversial executions of thousands of suspected criminals without trial. The relationship has prompted concerns that under President Trump, the U.S. might soften its stance to ongoing events such as the summary killings in the Philippines.
Trump faces more scrutiny in Turkey. The president-elect has reportedly pocketed up to $10 million since 2014 in a licensing deal for two Trump-branded towers in Istanbul. The owner of the properties is a vocal proponent of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime, which has drawn the ire of the Obama administration amid a crackdown on the free press in the months since a failed military coup in July. Even the president-elect has admitted the licensing deal posed a “little conflict of interest,” during a 2015 interview with Breitbart News, Mother Jones notes. And while Erdogan previously called for the “Trump” name to be removed from the property after the then presidential hopeful suggested a ban on Muslims entering the United States, Trump praised Erdogan’s response to the insurrection and appointed Mike Flynn, a retired general who has faced scrutiny for consulting work tied to the Turkish government, as his national security adviser.
Many are also concerned that the Trump family’s now elevated profile will encourage foreign governments to make things easier for the Trump Organization abroad. “The working assumption on behalf of all these foreign government officials will be that there is an advantage to doing business with the Trump organization,” Michael Fuchs, the former deputy assistant secretary at the bureau of East Asian and Pacific affairs, told the Times. “They will think it will ingratiate themselves with the Trump administration. And this will significantly complicate United States foreign policy and our relationships around the world.” There are already a number of ongoing situations where this conflict of interest could come to a head. For example, according to the Times, the Trump Hotel Rio De Janeiro—another Trump Organization licensing deal—is under investigation by the Brazilian government over allegations of bribery and illicit commissions; executives from Trump Organization owned golf courses are engaged in disputes with both the Scottish and Irish governments; and the president-elect’s namesake real estate company has five development projects in India, many of which reportedly have ties to the country’s most powerful political family. (Last week, President-Elect Trump was photographed with three Indian business partners in Trump Tower.)
But Trump has dismissed the growing concern, arguing that “the president cannot have a conflict of interest.” During an on the record meeting with the Times last week, the president-elect said, “In theory I could run my business perfectly and then run the country perfectly. There’s never been a case like this,” adding, “I’d assumed that you’d have to set up some type of trust or whatever and you don’t.” And while Trump is correct in that unlike other government officials, the president is not legally obligated to sever business ties or separate himself from financial interests, some have questioned whether the Emoluments Clause—a constitutional provision that prevents the president from accepting any “present, emolument, office or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince or foreign state,” without Congressional approval—can be applied to Trump’s international business dealings. Others have raised the possibility that “faithless electors” could block a Trump presidency unless the real-estate mogul curtails his involvement in the Trump Organization. (In a statement to the Times Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks said, “Vetting of various structures and immediate transfer of the business remains a top priority for both President-elect Trump, his adult children and his executives.”)
This unique and unprecedented situation leaves Trump’s secretary of state choice even more fraught. As the country’s top diplomat, the secretary of state would be in the best position to check President Trump from making decisions based on his business interests, a dynamic that lends itself to a Mitt Romney appointment. The former Republican nominee—who was a vocal critic of Trump throughout the election—could serve as a counterbalance to the president-elect and keep any conflicts of interest at bay. But Romney’s emergence as a frontrunner for secretary of state has reportedly incited turmoil among the Trump camp’s ranks. Politico reports a number of people within the president-elect’s inner circle argue that by appointing Romney—a figurehead of the G.O.P. establishment—over someone like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani—who is also reportedly in the running for the job—would anger Trump’s most ardent supporters.
Giuliani has already made his stance on Trump’s potential conflicts of interest pretty clear. During an interview with CNN earlier this month, when Jake Tapper asked the former mayor about whether the president-elect would move forward with a blind trust, Giuliani responded, “Well, first of all, you realize that those laws don’t apply to the president, right? So, the president doesn’t have to have a blind trust. For some reason, when the law was written, the president was exempt,” before adding that “there’s no perfect way to do this,” and “This man didn’t run for president because he wants to get rich. He’s rich already.”