Last week, I wrote about the many financial conflicts of interest President-elect Donald Trump will face as president. People are right to be concerned that he will not abide by the traditional rules that every president in the modern era before him has chosen to honor. Presidents are not subject to Congressional oversight of conflicts of interest, and Trump has shown little interest in voluntarily disclosing any potential conflicts related to his global business interests. For clarity, here are five big areas of potential conflicts of interest that will almost certainly expand over time.
1. U.S. Properties
At the top of this list is the Trump International Hotel, a few blocks from the White House. Once the Old Post Office building, Trump’s organization renovated it and turned it into a luxury hotel to compete with others in downtown Washington. The most expensive suite could sell for as much as $20,000 a night. A five-night stay in that suite by those seeking an audience with the president-elect in the Oval Office would cost $100,000.
The Washington Post recently reported considerable interest in booking Trump’s Washington hotel as a deliberate way for foreign visitors to show their support for the incoming Trump White House. Two legal experts—Richard Painter, who was former President George W. Bush’s chief ethics counsel, and noted constitutional legal expert Lawrence Tribe—both say that this appears to be an “emolument” (a gift) that a president isn’t allowed to accept. The Constitution doesn’t allow presidents to receive expensive gifts from foreign agents.
The “emoluments clause” is the only conflict of interest law that applies to the presidency. It is designed to keep foreign interests from essentially buying influence with U.S. government officials, including the president. Trump may tread on this clause literally during the first week of his presidency as foreign agents pay vast sums to stay at his hotel during inauguration week. Here’s the exact language from the “Emoluments Clause” in the Constitution: “No person holding any (U.S.) office of profit or trust…shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present…of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”
The central question will be this: if foreign agents spend $5 million—or $500 million—to stay at Trump properties as a way to curry favor with the White House, does this constitute an emolument given to directly benefit the president-elect? The clause’s applicability to a president has never really been tested in court. It might during a Trump presidency if he chooses not to sell his assets, or set up a true blind trust that shields him from knowing if anything valuable is offered to him.
2. Foreign Interests
While American voters largely know Trump from his American real-estate properties and his stint as a reality network television star, his organization has any number of business deals that are connected either directly with foreign governments or individuals with deep ties to those governments. Any one of those business deals is likely to come under intense scrutiny when administration proposals affect governments involved in those business deals.
More than 100 Trump companies have done business in 18 countries. One extraordinary conflict of interest is an effort by eight mysterious Trump companies established on the eve of Trump’s campaign to develop luxury real estate projects in Saudi Arabia—a country that Trump explicitly said he hopes to protect as president.
The Trump organization also has business deals or properties in Scotland, Azerbaijan and Uruguay. He has marketing deals in Turkey, the Philippines, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. The Bank of China is a lender to at least one of Trump’s properties. Representatives of his organization carry the Trump brand to dozens of other countries on a regular basis—raising the distinct possibility that Trump’s business brand will essentially be promoted right alongside the Trump White House and American national interests in many of these places. The Trump organization, for instance, describes the role of his son, Donald Jr., as business development and acquisitions that range “from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia, the Middle East to South America, (and) mainland China.”
It’s also clear that Trump may not be shy about mixing and matching official White House duties with those involving foreign business interests. Just last week, Trump met with three Indian business partners at Trump Tower to discuss a luxury apartment complex they’re developing together near Mumbai, the New York Times reported. For this meeting, at least, there was no apparent effort to separate his business dealings from his work as the President-elect, though a spokeswoman for the Trump organization described it as nothing more than a courtesy visit rather than a business meeting. Those Indian executives, however, have told Indian newspapers that they had been discussing the possibility of expanding their business deals with the Trump organization now that he was the President-elect, the Times reported.
Regardless of whether any sorts of business partnership expansions were discussed, legal experts say that such meetings alone raise conflict of interest questions for Trump because there is at least the appearance that he could be using the White House to advance his own business interests. Ivanka Trump joined a Trump White House transition team meeting with Japan’s leader, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, last week, which prompted even more questions about how closely aligned Trump’s business interests will be with affairs of state.
3. Family Matters
Relatives and family members who are currently making important decisions about what a Trump administration will look like will come under intense media scrutiny—especially for those who choose to work in the White House or take on official advisory council posts. Trump’s closest advisors have said in recent weeks that they would like to see his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, become a senior White House official, reflecting his clear and obvious role in major decisions the President-elect has made since the election.
Kushner, for instance, has been widely credited with the decision to replace Gov. Chris Christie as the head of the Trump transition efforts. There is, however, a large, potential conflict of interest looming. After former President John F. Kennedy made his brother, Robert, the attorney general, Congress passed an anti-nepotism law. That 1967 law is still on the books, and there isn’t an easy way around it—even if Kushner chooses not to take a salary as a senior White House official. It bans public officials, especially presidents, from hiring their relatives for jobs in federal agencies and Cabinet posts.
Trump advisors, however, believe the anti-nepotism law doesn’t apply to the White House—a conflict that could be tested early in Trump’s presidency if he allows his son-in-law to operate out of the West Wing. “This falls right in the bull’s eye of the statute. I think it’s illegal,” Norm Eisen, who was President Obama’s chief ethics counsel, told Politico. Other legal experts, though, feel Kushner can serve as an unpaid advisor in the White House.
Republicans, likewise, don’t see any conflicts at all in Trump’s family members managing the national government. “For goodness sake, JFK put his brother over at the Justice Department. It’s not like these things are new and unprecedented,” Rep. Tom Cole said. And if Trump wants to give Kushner or his daughter, Ivanka Trump, access to intelligence briefings, he could appoint them to White House councils like the intelligence advisory board without any oversight from Congress or intelligence agencies providing classified briefings.
4. Ongoing Legal Disputes and Union Fights
One potential area where conflicts of interest between Trump’s business interests and his role as president overseeing the entirety of the national government’s activities seem certain to collide are in a series of ongoing legal fights with unions—a core constituency of the Democratic Party—as well as in a handful of lawsuits involving his business deals. Trump settled his biggest, most publicized legal fight (a class action lawsuit against Trump University) recently, but more are waiting in the wings.
For instance, a labor dispute with the culinary workers union at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas (where he is a co-owner) could ultimately be settled by the National Labor Relations Board. The president appoints all five members of NLRB. Lawsuits involving employees at other Trump properties are also pending. Union officials have said they’ll be watching closely to see whether the president-elect uses his office in an effort to tip the scales in those disputes. “Will he as president of the United States of America use the power he has to interfere — given that he has a financial interest in the outcome of these matters?” Bethany Khan, a spokeswoman for the 57,000-member Culinary Workers Union Local 226 of Nevada, told the Times.
5. Lending, Financial Institutions and Economic Policy
Finally, the Trump organization has many financial ties to lenders outside the U.S.—including Russia and China. Decisions he makes on economic policies that directly affect international financial lending institutions, interest rates and monetary policy will have a direct bearing on the hundreds of millions of dollars his organization owes to financial interests abroad. Any one of those international lending arrangements is likely to come under media scrutiny when he weighs in on decisions that will directly affect them.
And, in the U.S., economic and monetary policy discussions at a Trump White House will have a direct impact on federal institutions like Treasury, the Federal Reserve and the Internal Revenue Service—all of which impact, audit or affect both his domestic and international business interests. The question of whether Trump is taking his own business interests into White House consideration on financial and economic policy considerations is one that critics and others are almost certain to raise repeatedly during his presidency.
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