From the moment Donald Trump was elected president, questions started arising about his ability to separate his private business deals from his official duties. Critics became especially alarmed about his overseas holdings, fearing they could influence his foreign policy decisions.
In the year since taking office, has he found ways to address the ethical questions that could taint his foreign policy credibility?
Just before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20 2017, Trump tried to tackle the issues by holding a press conference. He promised he’d sign no new foreign deals while in office.
In a show of good faith, he said he had just been offered a $2 billion deal to open a golf course in Dubai, “and I turned it down!”
But Trump didn’t mention that he already has two golf course deals in Dubai with the same developer.
That sort of omission of fact and blurring of ethical lines has characterized his approach to handling his business ties and overseas deals. For example, presidents traditionally have put their holdings into professionally managed blind trusts. Trump too created a trust — but he made his revocable, and put his two older sons in charge. And he named himself sole beneficiary of the profits.
So while it appears Trump has not personally signed any new foreign business deals as president, his company continues to have stakes in resorts, hotels and golf courses all over the world. And Trump’s sons, Eric and Donald Jr., are working with local developers to expand some of those projects, according to Carolyn Kenney, a senior policy analyst with the Center for American Progress.
“As the Trump Organization moves forward with some of its major unfinished developments such as those in Indonesia [and] India, they certainly seem to be stretching the spirit of the promise to not undertake any new deals,” she says.
Kenney says many of these unfinished projects do involve new contracts for infrastructure projects such as sewers and roads.
“There’s a recent example of a Chinese state-owned construction company being contracted to develop a road for Trump’s Dubai development,” she says. Also, she says, “The local government in Bali plans to construct a toll road to Trump’s property on the island directly from the airport.”
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, says foreign government involvement with Trump properties runs the risk of affecting the president’s foreign policy decisions.
“If foreign governments provide permits or easements or build roads that help the president’s businesses … all of those are things that could send a signal to the president that these are foreign governments who … want to impress him or get favor from him by helping his businesses,” he says.
NPR requests for comment from the Trump Organization did not receive a response.
Bookbinder says there’s no telling if any of Trump’s policy decisions have been swayed or could be swayed by his business concerns, but he says the perception can be as damning as the reality.
He points to China, where Trump spent more than a decade unsuccessfully trying to register trademarks. Before Trump was sworn into office, he created a foreign policy uproar by suggesting he would reject the so-called “One China” policy, wherein the United States acknowledges Taiwan is part of China and has no official ties with it.
But then after Trump became president, he reversed himself and agreed to honor the One China policy. Bookbinder says shortly thereafter, Trump was awarded about three dozen valuable trademarks.
“We don’t know if there was a link between the change in the president’s policy choice and a benefit to his companies,” Bookbinder says. “But as long as he has those companies and is receiving those benefits, we’re going to have to question what his motivation was.”
And they will continue to question the motivations of other countries that may be trying to curry favor with America’s businessman president.
Take the example of the Philippines, home to the Trump Tower Manila, a 57-story residential building in the capital city. Sarah Chayes, with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says a few months ago, the Philippine government created a new position for Trump’s local business partner in that project.
“Trump’s business partner, Filipino business partner, is now Philippines trade representative to the United States,” she says. “So you have a complete overlap between the business relationship and the state-to-state relationship in the case of the Philippines.”
In other words, the concerns raised about Trump’s foreign holdings have not been addressed in any meaningful way, according to the ethics watchdogs.
Chayes says the only way to prevent conflicts of interest would be for Trump to divest himself of all his business interests. And that is something the president has repeatedly said he won’t do.