President Donald Trump prides himself on being a Washington outsider and has shown great willingness to ignore presidential norms. His business dealings are no different.
As he maintains a near-daily Twitter assault on former Vice President Joe Biden and son Hunter Biden’s business ties in foreign countries, questions about Trump’s own conflicts fester.
For example, as the president pulled U.S. troops out of northern Syria, allowing Turkish forces to begin a long-sought assault there, ethics watchdogs argued his personal business in Turkey could be influencing his foreign policy decisions.
Trump stands to earn between $100,000 and $1 million per year from Trump Tower Istanbul, according to a U.S. Office of Government Ethics report from earlier this year.
“This is exactly why it is super important for a president not to have foreign entanglements in the business world,” said Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, a policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight.
Nearly three years into Trump’s tenure, the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) has documented more than 2,000 instances that it considers conflicts of interest between his business interests and his duty to the country as president. The conflicts come, in part, because Trump has retained ownership of his international business operation, the Trump Organization, despite calls demanding he divest to avoid conflicts of interest.
“Americans should never be put in that position where there is any question of whether these politicians are acting in the interest of the American people who they are serving,” said Robert Maguire, research director at CREW, which is currently party to a number of lawsuits against the Trump administration, including two involving potential conflicts of interest.
The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the PBS NewsHour regarding Trump’s financial interests in Turkey and elsewhere. But Trump has made repeated allegations about Biden, a potential political rival in the 2020 election.
In a phone call that has since become the center of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, Trump asked Ukraine’s president to investigate Hunter Biden and the money he made while on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. Last week, Trump publicly called on China to look into the younger Biden’s business dealings in that country, too.
Trump has provided no evidence that either Biden acted inappropriately in either country. Media reports have likewise found no wrongdoing.
Trump’s business interests
In his first press conference as president, Trump stood beside stacks of paper that the White House said was documentation that he was turning operation of the Trump Organization over to his sons.
Critics argued Trump needed to go further, to put his interest in the company into a blind trust that would keep the president from knowing what was happening with his assets. (Historically, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both put their assets in a blind trust. President Barack Obama did not use a blind trust, but his assets consisted of mutual funds and other investments that did not have as much potential to create conflicts of interest.)
Trump pushed back, arguing federal law makes him immune to conflicts of interest.
“The law is totally on my side, meaning the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” Trump told The New York Times in 2016 after he was elected.
Public pressure led Trump to promise he would not make any new business deals while in office. But reports have shown Trump is not keeping that pledge.
In December, a London-based anti-corruption group found that that Trump Organization is pursuing a real estate project in the Dominican Republic.
In 2017, Trump’s real estate company sold a $16 million Manhattan penthouse to the owner of a consultancy company that helps U.S. companies establish a presence in China. In June, it was reported the Trump Organization sold a $13.5 million Beverly Hills mansion to Hillcrest Asia Ltd, a corporate entity connected to an Indonesian businessman.
Earlier this year, an Indonesian theme park that includes a Trump hotel and condos had to relinquish Chinese financial backing after critics warned that the deal could influence Trump’s handling of the U.S.-China trade war.
Legal scholars agree the question of emoluments — which a judge broadly defined last year as any gift or payment made to a public official — applies differently to presidents than other government officials, but exactly how has not been settled in court. In fact, it’s the subject of ongoing federal lawsuits between Trump and CREW, which allege the president is unfairly benefitting from political and foreign officials who are staying at his properties in an attempt to gain favor.
Legal definitions aside, Congress can impeach and remove from office a president who has not committed a crime. Impeachment is a political process and what are considered impeachable “high crimes and misdemeanors” is defined by Congress.
Obviously, and more significantly, the American public can always vote a president out of office. Even before Trump was inaugurated, 65 percent of Americans said they were concerned about Trump’s potential conflicts of interest.
Questionable business dealings make Americans guess whether politicians are acting in the interest of the American public, watchdog groups say. That is especially true when business deals are made with investors in countries that do not share U.S. democratic ideals.
“The more authoritarian and less transparent a country, the more the opportunity of grand-scale corruption and the less likely we are to know about it,” said Francis Fukuyama, a senior fellow in international studies at Stanford University.
Even domestic business deals can lead to conflicts of interest, which is why past presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, have often divested their business interests even though they were under no legal obligation to do so.
How Trump’s children are conducting business
Trump family members have had regular business dealings with foreign governments and investors for years. Past comments from Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, have come under scrutiny this week amid Turkey’s assault on Syrian Kurds.
In 2012, before she was an adviser to the president of the United States, Trump tweeted her thanks to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then the Turkish prime minister, for celebrating the launch of Trump Tower Istanbul.
Thank you Prime Minister Erdogan for joining us yesterday to celebrate the launch of #TrumpTowers Istanbul!
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) April 20, 2012
Amid trade talks with China last year, Ivanka Trump gained initial approval from that country for 16 new trademarks on a variety of products, from handbags to voting machines, which also raised concerns.
In August, an asset management company that has backing from Qatar agreed to a 99-year lease on a New York building owned by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law who is also his adviser. The deal gave Kushner’s company a lifeline as it was facing $1.4 billion mortgage payment on the property.
Watchdog groups say conflicts of interests, and the perception of conflicts, in Washington politics is hardly new.
“There is this implicit access or proximity to power with having the last name of a Biden, or a Clinton or a Bush or a Trump,” said Hedtler-Gaudette.
But ethics experts warn against drawing too close a comparison between Hunter Biden’s business and the Trump family’s.
“The unavoidable difference is the fact that Donald Trump right now has two adult sons who are traveling the world and the country, running a business that not only they benefit from, but that the president of the United States is profiting from,” Maguire said. “There is no parallel for that.”