Saturday 24 February 2018

Tangle of conflicting business interests set to dog presidency

New York Police officers stand guard at the entrance of Trump Tower, in New York. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
New York Police officers stand guard at the entrance of Trump Tower, in New York. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Rupert Cornwell in Washington

President Donald Trump will be without precedent for a host of reasons: for his outspoken style and lack of political experience, but also for the size and global span of his business interests - and the alarming potential they bring for conflicts of interest.

Mr Trump is not the first businessman to enter the White House. Both Bushes made big money during their business careers. But modern presidents have placed such interests in blind trusts, run by independent outsiders.

Less-rich presidents have also taken steps to insulate their more modest holdings, in the case of Barack Obama, by switching the family's assets into that most neutral investment imaginable, US Treasury bonds.

Not so, or at least not yet, Mr Trump. The early signs are that he means to keep his business growing.

A couple of events last week pointed in that direction: his meeting with an Indian businessman involved in a Trump venture in Mumbai and the attendance of his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner at his first meeting with a foreign leader, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The trust Mr Trump places in his immediate family as advisers is no secret. Nor is there anything wrong with the arrangement in itself.

The problem is the plan for his children, Ivanka, Donald Jr, and Eric, to take over the running of the Trump business empire, while their father attends to other matters in Washington.

By no stretch of the imagination is that a blind trust, given the ties that bind the Trump clan.

The 45th president's interests stretch across the world, from Ireland to Turkey, from Indonesia to Azerbaijan to India, South Korea and the Philippines.

According to 'The Washington Post', at least 111 Trump-related companies have done business in 18 countries. Only a few of these interests seem to be in the original Trump field of real estate. Most are branding deals. But the potential complication are no less.

Take Trump Towers Istanbul, from which Mr Trump has been paid $10m (€9.4m) in name rights since 2014 by the project's developers, who happen to be loud public backers of the increasingly repressive Erdogan regime.

As the 'Post' writes, this means the Trump-branded venture is "both a personal channel for dealmakers seeking to curry favour with the White House, and a potential target for attacks and security risks overseas".

With its concern for the bottom line, business tends not to over-discriminate between friend and foe. The Trump empire's tentacles range from the solidest of US allies, such as Britain or South Korea, to places like Azerbaijan, with autocratic regimes and dubious human rights records.

At home, too, problems arise. Among the biggest lenders to the Trump group are the Bank of China, owned by the government of an arch-rival of the US, and Germany's Deutsche Bank.

Again, there is nothing objectionable per se: property development involves big loans. Except that Deutsche Bank is currently seeking to agree a multi-billion-dollar fine by the US federal authorities for malpractice connected with the 2007-2008 housing crash. If a settlement is not reached by January 20, it will be a Trump Justice Department that has the final say.

Nor is there any law forcing Mr Trump to change course. Some experts believe he might unwittingly fall foul of the emoluments clause of the US constitution, that bars any US office holder from accepting "any present, emolument, office or title" from a foreign power. What, for example, to make of foreign diplomats, who make a point of staying in a Trump hotel (and thus pouring money into the Trump business coffers)? Is that not a present?

But the standard ethics and conflict of interest laws for top appointees like cabinet officers do not apply to the president. No need for concern, insists Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman who will be Mr Trump's White House chief of staff. The White House ethics counsel, assures Mr Priebus, will make sure everything is squeaky-clean.

But that raises a further problem, the opaque nature of the Trump Organisation, the umbrella group of the Trump empire. The company is not publicly listed, and the financial filings Trump operations are required to make tell but a fraction of the story. Meanwhile, Mr Trump, unlike every president or presidential candidate dating back to Richard Nixon, still refuses to publish his tax returns. These would shed real light on his financial and business dealings, and their international dimensions.

It is, even as some natural Trump supporters admit, a highly unsatisfactory situation. One solution would be a genuine blind trust, run by someone who has no contact with Mr Trump or his family. Better still, Mr Trump would simply sell off his business entirely.

As the arch-conservative editorial page of the 'Wall Street Journal' put it last week, liquidation is the only real solution to the conflicts of interests tangle.

"Millions of Americans have put their trust in him to succeed as president and improve their lives," it wrote, "not treat this as a four-year hiatus from his business."

Irish Independent

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