When Americans talk about corruption in politics, they usually mean the outsize influence corporations and the wealthy can exert in politics through campaign donations.
But President-elect Donald Trump’s administration risks a much more direct type of corruption, where the end goal is not donations to a reelection campaign but personal enrichment for the president himself. Trump’s massive business empire — towering skyscrapers and sprawling golf courses, menswear and furniture, and his licensing of his personal “brand” around the world — promises endless entanglements of business and politics.
And we do not know the extent of the problem. Trump refuses to release his tax returns or disclose information about his debts. He’s structured and nested his companies to make it difficult to determine who owns something as simple as a helicopter. For every obvious conflict, there could be many more that aren’t even public.
The most positive outcome of these entanglements could be that Trump pursues win-win deals that enrich both the country and himself. But these same relationships could lead him to act and react in ways that distort the economy, tilting it in favor of his own interests, and changing the United States’ foreign policy to benefit him rather than the country. It could also distort the economy, rewarding allies at the expense of other companies, stifling growth.
Even if the worst-case scenario doesn’t come true, Trump has clearly demonstrated he has little interest in meaningfully separating his businesses from his presidency. He has said he will hand control of his businesses to his adult sons, Eric and Donald Jr., and that they will do “no new deals” while he’s in office. He’s also pledged to shut down the charitable foundation bearing his name.
But Trump will still be aware of how his policy decisions could affect his business and, by extension, his personal wealth. And the Trump name will still be on developments and hotels around the world.
This is not how being president is supposed to work. The president is not supposed to be weighing the interests of his businesses against the interest of the country — and picking the interests of the country is supposed to be automatic, not laudable. The president’s job is to lead the country in a way that puts all Americans first, and to be transparent about where his own financial interests lie. There is little sign that Trump will live up to this, and we’ll update this list as more conflicts emerge.
Foreign conflicts: Trump’s business dealings could affect his relationships with other countries
Trump’s business empire touches at least 18 countries, presenting leaders around the globe with a tempting avenue to win favor with the next president and Trump with a way to use the power of the presidency to help his businesses.
What these investments are, though, isn’t always clear. Since brand licensing is such a big part of Trump’s business, it’s obvious when he’s lent the Trump name to real estate developments in other countries. Trump himself hasn’t been transparent about what all of his international holdings entail. A week after the election, for example, Trump dissolved four of his companies named after the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah, but the Trump Organization’s general counsel didn’t elaborate on why those corporations were created in the first place.
There’s no guarantee of a quid-pro-quo between foreign governments and the new Trump administration. Smoothing the path for a Trump-branded property abroad or booking a room at a Trump hotel might not mean Trump will do anything in return. But the mere possibility has ensured that governments will try — as they already are. And as long as they do, Trump will profit off that hope.
- Argentina: Three days after the election, the YY Development Group, the developer of a long-delayed Trump tower in Argentina, announced that the project would move forward. A controversy immediately erupted about whether Trump had put in a word for the project with the president of Argentina, also a personal friend of his, in their post-election call, as some local journalists reported. The president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, denies the conversation took place.
- Bahrain: The Kingdom of Bahrain is hosting the celebration of its 45th national day at the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington, DC, which held a reception for foreign diplomats selling them on the recently opened property.
Bahrain and the US are allies, but that alliance has been occasionally tense in recent years amid internal political unrest and concerns about human rights in the region, and Bahrain has good reason to want to influence the US government. In 2011, the US suspended aid to Bahrain after it cracked down on protests and dissidents, and still won’t provide aid to its Interior Ministry, which handles domestic security, due to human rights concerns.
- China: The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China’s state-owned bank, is the single largest leaseholder in Trump Tower, and the lease is scheduled to expire while Trump is in office. One of Trump’s biggest campaign promises was to get tough on China, including labeling it a “currency manipulator” and putting a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. But if Trump is in a business relationship with China’s state-owned bank, that gives the country some leverage over him in return. Trump Hotels also hopes to one day open hotels in China — and whether the company succeeds depends, in part, on the future of US-China relations, which Trump will control as president.
- Dubai: Trump built a golf club (Trump International Golf Club), a spa (Trump Spa and Wellness Center), and luxury housing (Trump Prvt mansions and villas) in Dubai in partnership with Damac Properties. Hussain Sajwani, the founder and chairman of Damac, said he hoped to do more deals with Trump while he was in the White House. At a New Year’s Eve party at Mar-a-Lago, which guests paid more than $500 to attend, Trump noted that Sajwani was present and praised him: “Hussain and the whole family, the most beautiful people, are here from Dubai tonight,” he said, according to a video obtained by CNN. “And they're seeing it and they're loving it.”
- India: Trump has five projects currently underway in India, involving partners who are themselves closely tied to Indian politicians. That leads to a wide web of possible conflicts, but the New York Times laid out one of the clear ways Indian politicians could use it to curry favor. It’s common there for politicians to lean on bureaucrats and banks to ease the way for new developments through lending and permits, and Indian politicians could do this for the Trump family in hopes of gaining favor even if they’re not specifically asked to do so.
- Indonesia: Trump has planned two resorts in Indonesia. The highway to one of them is being built, through a contractor, by the Indonesian government. Trump’s local partner in the deals, Hary Tanoesoedibjo, has political ambitions of his own, including a possible run for national office in 2019, according to the New York Times. Trump also met and interacted with Indonesian politicians through the project. Meanwhile, one of Trump’s advisers, billionaire Carl Icahn, is one of the largest shareholders in an American mining company, Freeport-McMoRan, that is Indonesia’s largest taxpayer.
- Ireland: Proposals for a barrier to protect a Trump golf course in County Clare, Ireland, from the ocean must be reviewed by local officials and could, if the Trump Organization disputes their decision, end up before a national planning board. The barrier had been the focus of a dispute between the Trump Organization and environmentalists about whether a planned sea wall would threaten a protected snail, but the company averted that dispute by changing plans to focus on a smaller barrier instead.
- Japan: Ivanka Trump joined a meeting between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Trump Tower, although Trump has her own business interests in Japan: She’s close to closing a business deal with Sanei International, a Japanese apparel company, the New York Times reported. The Japanese government, via a state-owned bank, is Sanei’s largest shareholder.
- The Philippines: Jose E. B. Antonio, a real estate developer who partnered with Trump on the $150 million Trump Tower in Mataki City is now the country’s special envoy to the US. Although Antonio was named to the post before the election, the Philippines likely hopes that a friend and business partner of Trump’s will have sway over US foreign policy toward Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, whose drug war in the country has killed thousands of people.
- Scotland, United Kingdom: In a meeting with Nigel Farage, the British politician who backed his candidacy, Trump urged Farage to oppose wind farms — which he dislikes because he believes they spoil the view from his golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland. Scotland is also considering a second referendum on independence in the wake of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, which Trump supported. It’s unclear how his business interests in the country might interact with his foreign policy in that situation.
- Turkey: The Trump Towers in Istanbul have become a tool that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used in his relationship with the president-elect. After Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, Erdoğan said he wanted Trump’s name off the buildings. After Trump defended Erdoğan in the wake of a coup in Turkey, Erdoğan backed down — suggesting that foreign leaders could try to tie Trump’s business fortunes to their approval of him and his policies.
Domestic conflicts: Trump could help his businesses and build his brand
Domestically, the entanglement of Trump’s business and political interests could lead him to make appointments and policy that influence the economy in favor of Trump’s businesses and those of his political allies.
And while Trump’s brand was worth $3.3 billion during the campaign, according to its estimate, he’s already looking for ways to expand it — as are members of his family.
- Trump’s Washington hotel: Trump’s new hotel in the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, DC, worth $212 million, could be the biggest symbol of the conflict of interests he’ll face. As president, Trump will also appoint the head of the General Services Administration, which manages the hotel. The same desire to curry favor that foreign diplomats expressed when discussing booking rooms there could also apply to domestic groups, although so far, it’s mostly been the venue of choice for conservative organizations. Meanwhile, a controversy has arisen about whether he’s even allowed to hold the lease in the first place — a clause forbids any elected or government official from doing so.
- Labor disputes: As president, Trump will appoint members to the National Labor Relations Board. It’s common for Republican presidents to pick less union-friendly appointees, but the board could end up hearing disputes from Trump hotels during Trump’s presidency. Days before the election, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that a Trump hotel in Las Vegas had violated labor law by refusing to recognize and negotiate with a newly formed union. (The Trump Organization provided a union contract to those workers December 21, and on the same day announced it would not block a union election at its DC hotel, lessening the likelihood of a dispute at that property — but not eliminating the possibility of conflicts of interest at other properties in the future.)
- The stock portfolio: Trump says he sold his stock portfolio, including stocks worth as much as $40 million, back in June. But so far, he hasn’t provided proof. It’s standard for presidents to sell their stock and put it in a blind trust, so they’re no longer aware what companies they own — and Trump owns small slices of big players in industries his policies will affect, from pharmaceuticals to technology companies.
- The trademarks: Before Trump secured the Republican nomination, he tried to trademark the phrase “American Idea.” Melania Trump has tried to trademark her name for use in a jewelry line. And after Ivanka Trump appeared in a 60 Minutes interview, reporters were notified that she was wearing a $10,800 bracelet from her own line of jewelry.
- Celebrity Apprentice: Trump will remain an executive producer on the reality television show, according to Variety, meaning that he’ll continue to receive income while in the White House. While presidents, including President Obama, have made money from royalties on books during their time in office, the TV show is just one small part of Trump’s ongoing business empire.
The big conflict between Trump’s financial interests and his presidency — the fact that he is not selling his business or putting it into a blind trust — hasn’t changed at all. But the particulars of a few individual situations have altered, whether because of decisions the Trump Organization made or because the facts on the ground have changed:
- Brazil: The Trump Organization cancels a licensing deal with a hotel under investigation. A Trump hotel in Rio de Janeiro was part of a broad investigation into whether two pension funds that invested in the project were bribed to do so. The Trump Organization announced December 13 that it will take its name off the hotel and no longer manage it, according to the Washington Post. The reason the company gave: the project is behind schedule.
- Azerbaijan: The company ends a project with the son of a corrupt official. The Trump Organization canceled a licensing deal that would have opened a Trump-branded hotel in Azerbaijan. The company’s business partner for the project was the son of the country’s transportation minister, an official known for his corruption. Trump earned as much as $3 million from the deal. The Trump Organization said the move was not made to avert conflicts of interest but was a routine business decision.
- Deutsche Bank: The Obama administration averts a conflict for its successors with a settlement. Deutsche Bank, one of Trump’s biggest lenders — his most recent financial disclosures say he owes the bank at least $364 million — reached a $7.2 billion settlement with the US Department of Justice on December 23. The settlement concludes an investigation into the bank’s packaging and sale of mortgage-backed securities before the recession, and averts a conflict in which Trump’s administration would have to punish a bank to whom the president-elect owes lots of money.
- Georgia: The Trump Organization cancels a project in Batumi. The Trump Organization pulled out of a project to build a Trump Tower in Batumi, Georgia, a Black Sea resort. The project had previously stalled, but after the election, its developer suggested that the process might begin moving forward again.