President Donald Trump promised in January that his company would commit to no new foreign deals while he’s in office. That promise, however, excludes the dozens of deals the Trump organization already had in the works — a pipeline that makes the promise functionally empty.
One of the first of these ongoing deals came out of the pipeline over the weekend, with the lavish Dubai opening of the Trump organization’s first golf course in the Middle East.
Trump’s sons Eric and Don Jr. attended as the “guests of honor,” as they were dubbed in a Trump Organization promotional tweet.
As members of the first family, they are afforded round-the-clock secret service security — meaning that international business trips like these rack up hefty, taxpayer-funded security bills.
— Trump Organization (@Trump) February 21, 2017
The Trump International Golf Course in Dubai had been in the works since 2013. It is set to be at the heart of a development of luxury apartments and villas, about 100 of which are Trump-branded, selling from $1.3 million to $4 million. The course pro shop plies Trump-branded baseball caps and golf balls.
Because it had been in the works had been in the works before Trump’s election, it’s not technically a violation of his promise.
That does not mean, however, it was a done deal by the time Trump took office.
Guests at the opening, for example, sipped soda and other non-alcoholic offerings. The club is dependent on the government of the United Arab Emirates for a liquor license, and doesn’t yet have one. It is also reliant on the government for all services to the club, from water to roads.
Each of these negotiations presents a conflict for Trump as both the owner of the Trump organization and the President of the United States.
And, deals shift in the course of development. The Trump organization’s partner in Dubai, Hussain Sajwani, has previously indicated his eagerness to do more deals with Trump.
“All his three children are very much involved, and I think under their leadership we will have no issue in expanding and growing and maintaining our business relation…” Sajwani told NBC news. “Naturally, I think we will benefit from the strength of the brand going forward.”
Sajwani made part of his fortune through U.S. government contracts, starting with supplying U.S. forces during the 1991 Gulf War. He already has another deal with Trump in the pipeline: Another Trump golf course, to be built near the one that just opened in the next few years. That course is early in the planning stages, where details can be easily shifted.
Materially, there’s little difference between Trump entering into a new deal with Sajwani, and the Trump organization renegotiating an existing deal with him — perhaps building more Trump-branded villas, or increasing the price.
“They can take the tiniest little past involvement in something and then extend it into an enormous new deal.”
Trump’s ongoing entanglements extend far beyond Dubai. Trump has deals still moving forward all over the world, in India and Indonesia, Uruguay and Canada, where the Trump sons are expected on February 28th at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new Trump hotel and condo project. That project is doubly international — it’s funded by Malaysian tycoon Tiah Thee Kian and his son.
The Trump organization can also revive deals that were previously dormant. On February 2nd, Eric Trump visited a beachfront property in the Dominican Republic that the Trump organization had reached a licensing deal with nearly a decade earlier. After the financial crisis of 2008, the project died.
Still, the Trump Organization’s general counsel Alan Garten, told the AP that the deal was never truly dead, despite the fact that there had been no developments over a decade.
“They can take the tiniest little past involvement in something and then extend it into an enormous new deal,” Richard Painter, George W. Bush’s chief ethics counsel, told the AP about the Dominican deal. “There’s no way to distinguish between new business and old business.”
The Trump organization’s roster of existing deals is unknown to the public. Without Trump’s tax returns, the Trump organization’s statements are impossible to verify.
That means that, despite Trump’s public promise, his company still has a likely endless pipeline of deals in the works that can contract or expand, and that will be impacted by Trump’s actions as president. Each of these ongoing projects will depend on foreign governments for tax negotiations, permits, subsidies, and services. Each is thus an occasion for conflict and corruption.
Trump’s international deals may also just be the tip of the iceberg: Many of Trump’s projects, domestic or international, obtain their financing from foreign banks.
Trump’s new downtown DC hotel, for example, was funded with a multi-million loan from Deutsche Bank, one of the few banks that will still lend to Trump because of his habit of making risky investments. Deutsche Bank is currently under investigation by the Justice Department — which could put Trump’s line of credit at risk.
Ethics experts have repeatedly said that Trump’s continued ownership of his company creates massive conflicts of interest. Instead of following their advice to divest, however, Trump took only half measures — such as his vaunted deals promise, and turning the management of his company over to his sons.
But those measures fall far short of the standard — putting Trump on a direct collision course with the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits the U.S. president from obtaining gifts or payments from foreign governments.