On Wednesday, Trump outlined his plan to separate himself from his businesses and the conflicts of interest they pose — which is, to not really separate himself at all.
Trump’s plan will take him out of management of his company, but Trump will not divest from his financial interests, as ethics experts have repeatedly urged him to do. Nor will his business be managed by independent trustees — instead his sons will be in charge.
Ultimately, his plan is one that ethics experts and the Office of Government Ethics say is woefully inadequate, and falls well short of the measures every other modern president has taken to ensure that they appear to be and in fact are working only in the interest of the public.
Trump, however, asked for kudos for doing anything at all. His general attitude toward the serious questions about his conflicts of interest is exemplified in this aside, where he bragged about being offered a billion-dollar deal in Dubai and turning it down, even though in his estimation, he didn’t have to.
“Now I have to say one other thing. Over the weekend, I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai with a very, very, very, amazing man, a great, great developer from the Middle East. Hussain — DAMAC — a friend of mine, great guy. And was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai — a number of deals. And I turned it down. I didn’t have to turn it down, because as you know, I have a ‘no-conflict situation’ because I’m president”
This comment took barely 30 seconds, but it is emblematic of the issues presented by Trump’s business dealings — and his failure to actually separate himself from them.
“I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai with a very, very, very amazing man”
In December, Trump promised that his organization would make “no new deals” during his presidency.
On Wednesday, he reneged on this promise: His lawyer clarified that “new domestic deals will be allowed, but they will go through a vigorous vetting process.” And, he bragged about turning a foreign deal down — which meant that he met with a foreign businessman to discuss his personal business after publicly promising to separate himself from it, and that he did it less than a month before taking office.
A spokesman for Damac backed up Trump’s account.
“Damac can confirm that the discussions took place as stated in the media briefing but the proposals were declined. These proposals were for a variety of different property deals,” Niall McLoughlin, senior vice-president at Damac Properties, told CNBC.
Trump already has a deal going with the man he was talking about, Hussain Sajwani, the billionaire chairman of Dubai-based DAMAC properties.
Sajwani, Trump’s “very, very, very amazing man” is personally close to the emir of the United Arab Emirates, though he told NBC he has no political influence. In Egypt, he was convicted of cutting a deal that would have swindled millions from the public — before his prison sentence was wiped away by an arcane legal system entwined NAFTA and the TPP, as highlighted in a Buzzfeed investigation. Trump frequently bashes both trade agreements.
Since 2013, Trump has been working with Sajwani and his company to open the first Trump golf course in the Middle East — The Trump International Golf Club. The course is the centerpiece of an opulent gated community outside Dubai, and is scheduled to open in February.
As part of the development , DAMAC also designed and sold 100 Trump-branded villas to surround the course, selling them for millions.
The Trump organization is also working with Sajwani on a second golf course: The Trump World Golf Club Dubai, slated for 2018 and currently in the design phase.
These deals were made before Trump took the presidency, but they are ongoing affairs. They can expand or contract based on demand and the global market.
Materially, what is the difference between Trump taking a new deal with Sajwani, and the Trump organization renegotiating their existing deal to build, say, more Trump-branded villas, or to charge more for them?
“There are people hoping to exploit the Trump brand for their own personal benefit, and in the long run, for Trump’s benefit too”
Trump, in addition, has not publicly disclosed what ‘deals’ he already has. He has yet to release his tax returns. As a result, much of the president-elect’s business remains opaque to the American public. When the shape of existing deals changes, it’ll likely happen behind the scenes.
That means that no new foreign deals or not, the door is still open for the Trump’s personal brand — and personal finances — to benefit from the office of the presidency.
A chief part of his brand’s value, as his lawyer Sheri Dillon said in the press conference, is his name itself — which now is indelibly associated with the U.S. presidency.
“Selling his assets without the rights to the brand would greatly diminish the value of the assets and create a fire sale. President-elect Trump should not be expected to destroy the company he built,” Dillon said.
Now, however, when his organization sells his name, there is at least the appearance that the presidency itself is part of the sale.
“Naturally, I think we will benefit from the strength of the brand going forward”
As President, Trump will also be making decisions that will affect tourism and security in the Middle East, and relations with countries like the UAE, where he has ongoing personal business.
“There are people hoping to exploit the Trump brand for their own personal benefit, and in the long run, for Trump’s benefit too,” Scott Amey, General Counsel of the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, told ThinkProgress about Trump’s remarks. Sajwani, for one, has already told the press that he considers Trump’s election to the presidency a boon to business.
“I would love to enhance the relation with the Trump Organization,” he told NBC earlier this month. “Naturally, I think we will benefit from the strength of the brand going forward,” he said, calling the election “definitely good news” for his — and Trump’s — business prospects.
Now, Sajwani has made an effort to trade on the newfound strength of the Trump brand — and Trump, in response, bragged about how he could have taken him up on it if he wanted to.
“I didn’t have to turn it down”
Trump’s existing deal in Dubai, absent divestiture from his assets, also puts him in conflict with the emoluments clause of the constitution, according to ethics lawyers and watchdogs.
The emoluments clause is designed to silo the president off from any foreign influence, and prohibits the U.S. president from recieving “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever” from a foreign government or its dignitaries without the express consent of Congress.
Trump’s hotels have been frequently cited as a place where Trump is on his way to violating this constitutional clause, and in his press conference, his lawyer announced that Trump would therefore be donating profits from foreign governments at his hotels to the U.S. treasury. But while they were a particularly neat and egregious example, they are not the only avenue for Trump to receive emoluments.
Trump’s new golf course, for example, will depend on the government of the United Arab Emirates for all services — such as water, electricity, and regulatory approvals like permission to serve alcohol.
Any concessions given by the government will raise yet another place where Trump, at the very least in appearance, could seem to violate the clause.
Trump’s continued ownership of the company means that the UAE, through the golf course, has a leverage point on Trump — attempting to sway his policy on Syria, for example, they could withhold services, or offer especially attractive tax benefits.
While Trump has said he won’t know the inner goings on of his business, he can’t help but know that he owns the Trump International Golf Course and the future Trump World Golf Course. And, the UAE can’t not know that the golf course they are supposed to be regulating is operated by a company belonging to the President of the United States.
“As you know, I have a ‘no-conflict situation’ because I’m president.”
Crucially, when Trump boasted of turning down Sajwani’s offer — an offer of a deal that could be seen as a blatant attempt to play on the office of the Presidency for personal profit — he emphasized that he “didn’t have to turn it down.”
Technically speaking, Trump is correct that the specific conflict of interests language that applies to every other elected official does not apply to the president — a loophole likely left by the framers because unlike other elected officials, the President does not have the luxury of recusing themselves from decisions.
That does not mean, however, that the President can’t have a conflict, as Office of Government Ethics Director Walter M. Shaub Jr. said after Trump’s press conference.
“Should a President hold himself to a lower standard than his own appointees?”
“ A President is no more immune to the influence of two masters than any subordinate official. In fact, our common experience of human affairs suggests that the potential for corruption only grows with the increase of power,” said Shaub. “For this reason, it’s been the consistent policy of the executive branch that the President should act as though the financial conflict of interest law applied.”
“Should a President hold himself to a lower standard than his own appointees?” Shaub asks.
The clear ethical answer is no. Trump’s answer seems to be “why not” — leaving his presidency shadowed by the prospect that he, and other businessmen around the world, could abuse the office of the U.S. presidency to fill their personal coffers.
Since Trump is the head of the government, his behavior also sets the stage for the behavior of every civil servant under his control. As a world power, the U.S. presidency also commands an impressive stage in the world — and sets a democratic example.
“The signals a President sends set the tone for ethics across the executive branch. Tone from the top matters,” said Shaub. Instead of holding himself to a higher standard, however, Trump is bragging that the law doesn’t apply — and asking to be rewarded for not cashing in on billion-dollar deals.
“Taking voluntary steps to isolate himself from his businesses and not violate the Constitution is a start, but public service comes with sacrifices,” Amey told ThinkProgress. “Trump should remove all engagements that might pit the Oval Office against the boardroom.”