Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah cannot explain how the Trump Organization’s involvement in a project in Indonesia partially financed by the Chinese government adheres to the Constitution’s emoluments clause and Trump’s personal promise not to pursue new foreign business deals while he’s president.
“The Trump Organization is involved in a project in Indonesia building hotels, golf courses, residences — it is getting up to $500 million in backing from the Chinese government,” Noah Bierman of the Los Angeles Times said during Monday’s press briefing. “Can you explain the administration’s position on A, how this doesn’t violate the emoluments clause; and B, how this wouldn’t violate the president’s own promise that his private organization would not be getting involved in new foreign deals while he was president?”
Shah didn’t even attempt to answer Bierman’s question. “I’ll have to refer you to the Trump Organization,” he said.
Bierman pushed back, pointing out to Shah that “the Trump Organization can’t speak on behalf of the president as the president — the head of the federal government, the one who is responsible, who needs to assure the American people, and they don’t have that responsibility.”
But Shah wouldn’t budge.
“You’re asking about a private organization’s dealings that may have to do with a foreign government. It’s not something I can speak to,” he said, before calling on another reporter.
Watch the exchange:
A National Review report about the Chinese government’s involvement in financing “an Indonesian theme park that will feature a Trump-branded golf course and hotels” came just one day after Trump posted a bizarre tweet on behalf of the Chinese phone company ZTE — a company that had been hit hard by the Commerce Department for violating a ban on American companies “selling components to ZTE for seven years after it illegally shipped goods made with U.S. parts to Iran and North Korea,” according to Reuters.
President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 13, 2018
During Monday’s briefing, reporters repeatedly grilled Shah about what prompted Trump’s tweet promising to help ZTE — especially since the tweet came on the heels of a campaign in which Trump accused China of “the greatest single theft in the history of the world,” saying things like, “we can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.”
Shah had no good answers for them.
“This is part of a complex relationship between the United States and China that involves economic issues, national security issues, and the like,” Shah said at one point, in response to a question about what motivated Trump’s tweet.
Later, another reporter asked Shah why Trump wants the Commerce Department to review sanctions on ZTE in the first place.
“The president has asked Secretary Ross to look into the matter,” Shah said, adding that “the issue has been raised at many levels by the Chinese government with various levels of our administration.”
“So just raising the issue is enough to spawn a presidential tweet and directive?” the reporter pressed.
“It’s a significant issue of concern for the Chinese government, you know, and in our bilateral issue there’s a give an take,” Shah replied.
Shah has no explanation for Trump's weird tweet on behalf of a Chinese company pic.twitter.com/CbVZBqe7CQ
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 14, 2018
The emoluments clause is a provision in the U.S. Constitution prohibiting presidents from leveraging their office into gifts from foreign governments. Trump is the only modern president to refuse to divest from his business interests upon taking office.
Despite promising before his inauguration not to profit from foreign governments, there is little evidence Trump has followed through on his commitment. Meanwhile, foreign governments and diplomats have made a show of spending money at his properties.