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Is there a line between Trump’s business and political interests?

November 28, 2016 at 6:45 PM EST
Donald Trump’s business dealings with companies around the world have raised questions of possible conflicts of interest once he takes office. The New York Times recently published a lengthy piece on potential issues; William Brangham speaks with one of the investigation's reporters, Eric Lipton, for details on separating political and economic power, Trump-branded properties and more.
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JOHN YANG: Next, to a closer look at President-elect Trump’s business interests and potential conflicts that may arise when he takes office.

William Brangham has more. William?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Thanks, John.

Indeed, many analysts believe we are in unprecedented territory here, where a man with active financial dealings in at least 20 different countries is about to become president of the United States.

The New York Times just did a deep dive into Donald Trump’s global businesses and how it could intersect with his presidency.

Eric Lipton is one of the reporters on that story, and he joins me now.

Eric Lipton, thank you very much for being here.

I mentioned this term unprecedented. Is that a fair characterization, in your mind, where we have a businessman who is so well connected in so many nations moving into the White House?

ERIC LIPTON, The New York Times: I think so.

I have spoken with quite a number of presidential historians who say that they see nothing like this in American history. And it’s not just the assets he owns, because the list of properties that he owns 100 percent is not that huge, but it’s the relationships that he has with businesses globally through branding arrangements in which he is paid a fee or a commission for those deals.

And so he still has a financial relationship and business partners in many countries, particular in the developing world. And the concern, I think, is more in the developing world, where you have a history of oftentimes corners being cut to powerful people with economic interests.

That’s where the real problem is, less so in like Western Europe, for example.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well, let’s talk about — before we get into the details of some of the countries specifically, broadly speaking, what do you see as the main conflicts of interests here? What’s the problem?

ERIC LIPTON: To me, there’s two primary things.

One is sort of a broad thing, which is that the United States for decades has played a leading role globally to try to encourage nations to separate their political from economic power, so that there is greater transparency, that everyone has an equal shots at contracts, and that there aren’t payments for permits or contracts.

It’s been something that both Democrats and Republicans have really rallied and pressured other foreign governments. There is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. There’s been all kinds of prosecutions of companies that have been involved in any type of a payment to get a contract.

And the United States has been a preacher on this. And the fact now that you have a president who is mixing the financial matters with the political matters and that his business interests are going to overlap with U.S. foreign policy really undermines that message that the United States has worked so hard across bipartisanly.

The second thing is that no matter how ethical the Trump family is and President Trump himself, there is going to be intense pressure on officials in these foreign places to do things for him even if he doesn’t ask for it in a way to try to impress President Trump or his administration or the White House to get some type of special treatment.

They may not succeed in that, but there is an incentive for them to accelerate a permit, to grant access to a piece of land that he really wants that’s going to help his company, to buy memberships at a golf club, to do various things.

Now, he says, well, how can you blame me if people are doing things I don’t ask them for? But he and his family potentially are going to be enriched by these favors that will be granted to them, even if they don’t request it.

And so even if they’re completely moral, given that there’s these relationships, it seems like it could present a problem.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You document so many different interesting examples of where these possible conflicts could arise.

Let’s talk about one of them, specifically the Philippines. In your piece, you introduce us to man named Jose E.B. Antonio. Who is he and why is he important in this story?

ERIC LIPTON: So, he is essentially the brand representative for the Trump family in the Philippines.

Often, when they have major projects in certain countries, they have essentially a person who helps represent their whole business enterprise there. So he is in charge of building a major new skyscraper in — and outside Manila.

So he is — but the problem for Donald Trump and for these questions about potential conflicts is that he was recently appointed by the president of the Philippines to simultaneously serve as the Philippines’ envoy to the United States.

So here you have a guy who is the partner, business partner of Donald Trump, and the government official that is helping represent the government of the Philippines in its relationship with the United States. And the Philippines’ relationship with the United States is a very complicated one right now.

You have got a president who’s ordered essentially the extrajudicial killing of drug dealers in that country to try to crack down on crime. And, again, you certainly want drug dealers to be arrested, taken of the streets, but you don’t and go kill them before they have a trial.

The State Department has been incredibly critical of what’s been happening in the Philippines with respect to these people simply being shot down and killed on the streets.

And what’s going to happen when you have President Trump, where his business partner is an official in the government of the Philippines? Is Trump still going to be as willing to potentially alienate his business partner and complicate his business deals in the Philippines and challenge the government of the Philippines?

That’s an open question. But at least in the back of his head, you wonder, will that be a factor? Will that influence foreign policy because he’s a business associate there? It seems like, how’s that not going to be a factor?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Eric Lipton of The New York Times, really incredible piece of reporting. And there’s many more examples in the story that you ran. They can find that on The New York Times Web site.

Thank you so much for the reporting and thanks for being here.

ERIC LIPTON: Thank you.

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