President Trump controls an organization made up of hundreds of companies in at least 20 countries. The Trump Organization operates hotels, buildings, golf resorts, and other businesses, and also sells the right to use the Trump name to brand properties and other businesses his companies do not own.[i] Despite numerous bipartisan calls well before his inauguration for President Trump to follow the example of every other modern president and sell his interests in these businesses,[ii] and in the face of warnings that failure to do so would give rise to intractable conflicts of interest, President Trump has refused to divest.[iii] As a result, the American people have no way of knowing whether key decisions in the areas of taxes, regulation, environmental policy, employment and housing discrimination, foreign policy, trade, and many others are being made in the best interest of the country or in President Trump’s own financial interest. Further, these businesses present opportunities for those who wish to curry favor with the president. And when these businesses receive payments or benefits from foreign or U.S. federal and state governments – as the evidence shows they do day in and day out – President Trump violates our fundamental anti-corruption laws: the Constitution’s Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses.[iv]
Instead of divesting, President Trump placed his sons Donald, Trump Jr. and Eric Trump and one of his long-time business partners in operational control of the Trump businesses.[v] President Trump retained his interest in the businesses primarily via a revocable trust – a financial arrangement by which the businesses are required to be operated in his financial interest, which he can unilaterally change at any time, and from which he can effectively draw funds at any time.[vi] This purely nominal separation leaves all of the relevant financial conflicts in place, and therefore provides no assurance that President Trump’s actions as president serve the interests of the public, rather than contribute to his own wealth. Indeed, reports already suggest that President Trump may be receiving regular updates on the businesses from his son.[vii]
One financial interest that has loomed large over President Trump’s first 100 days in office is the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., located blocks from the White House on property leased from the United States government.[viii] In addition to being a major source of potentially illegal foreign emoluments – the hotel even hired a salesperson dedicated to seeking business from foreign diplomats[ix] – President Trump’s decision to retain his interest in the hotel while holding office violates the conflict of interest provision of the lease that allowed him to build the hotel in the first place.[x] President Trump is now effectively both landlord and tenant, having appointed the official heading the General Services Administration, the agency that manages federal government property.[xi] Not surprisingly, when pressed by outside groups and concerned members of Congress to reconcile how President Trump could be permitted to benefit from the lease despite a provision barring exactly that, the agency’s explanation lacked a legal or rational basis.[xii]
Another remaining potential source of conflict is Trump Tower in Manhattan, particularly its tenants. The Chinese state-owned Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) is the largest commercial tenant in the building and is due to renegotiate its lease in October 2019, paying almost $2 million in rent for its Trump Tower space in 2012.[xiii] ICBC remains the world’s biggest lender when ranked by assets and may be negotiating a lease with President Trump’s firm during his administration.[xiv] At the same time that President Trump is in a business relationship with a Chinese government-owned entity, he also is making U.S. foreign policy toward China. This has resulted in questions about recent policy choices, such as relaxing some of his aggressive campaign rhetoric toward China after taking office.
President Trump’s near-weekly visits to properties he owns, including the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, have raised a host of concerns about security, proper use of taxpayer funds,[xv] and avoiding scrutiny of who meets with the president.[xvi] President Trump has used the Mar-a-Lago resort to host heads of state, including those of Japan and China, despite the security concerns associated with hosting meetings at the resort.[xvii] These concerns were highlighted during an incident in February 2017 when President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussed a North Korean missile test in view of public guests.[xviii] A Mar-a-Lago guest also shared photos of this discussion on social media, along with photos of a person the member described as responsible for carrying the Presidential Emergency Satchel, which contains among other things the nuclear launch codes.[xix] Additionally, shortly after the election, the Trump Organization doubled Mar-a-Lago’s initiation fee to $200,000, suggesting President Trump is exploiting the presidency for his personal gain.[xx] Despite these concerns, President Trump has repeatedly returned to the club and will likely continue to visit his properties through his administration.[xxi]
President Trump’s real estate businesses have continued to expand through the first 100 days of his presidency. Under the direction of his sons, the company has signed at least seventeen letters of intent with potential developers in numerous cities across the United States,[xxii] and statements by the CEO of Trump Hotels suggest that the company will triple its number of hotels in the United States.[xxiii] While the organization has promised not to begin any new foreign deals during the administration, new domestic projects could create a host of problems, including tax issues, labor disputes and environmental concerns, and conflicts of interest resulting from any or all of those issues.[xxiv] Even the “no new foreign deals” pledge has proven porous. While new foreign deals may have been put on hold, several foreign projects remain ongoing from before his candidacy announcement, including two resorts under construction in Indonesia.[xxv] The Trump Organization also appears to be considering reviving a resort project in the Dominican Republic where no new buildings have been built for a decade.[xxvi] Additionally, the Trump International Golf Course in Scotland recently announced an expansion and claimed that further expansion of an existing property did not violate President Trump’s vow to not commit to new foreign deals.[xxvii] All of these examples continue to raise concerns that President Trump could profit off decisions he makes while in office.
President Trump’s real estate holdings are not the only sources of expansion for his businesses. The Trump Organization is reported to have at least 157 trademark applications pending in 36 countries, and both China and Mexico have granted President Trump valuable trademarks in those countries since his election.[xxviii] In February 2017, after more than a decade of denials and court fights, China approved President Trump’s application to trademark his name.[xxix] While this decision was preceded by a provisional approval during the presidential campaign in 2016, China notably decided to provide final approval after President Trump declared he would adhere to the One China Policy.[xxx] This raises concerns about the impact of his business interests on both this and other aspects of U.S.-China relations, including areas such as human rights, climate change, and maritime disputes in the South China Sea that will require a nuanced and complex approach. Meanwhile, as these policies are being shaped, China recently granted provisional approval for 38 more trademarks associated with the Trump brand.[xxxi]
Mexico similarly granted several trademarks to the Trump Organization in February 2017, again leading to questions about the impact of these business relationships on foreign policy.[xxxii] President Trump made renegotiating NAFTA, the free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, a priority during the campaign.[xxxiii] Overall, the Trump Organization has currently taken out trademarks in over 80 countries.[xxxiv] The impact of President Trump’s business concerns on his policy decisions may be difficult to discern, but the granting of trademarks by foreign nations demonstrates the potential risk associated with President Trump’s foreign entanglements.
We have only begun to see the extent of the conflicts of interest that will shadow President Trump’s presidency due to his decision not to divest from his businesses. As the administration makes more policy decisions going forward, the questions surrounding his conflicts of interest will multiply. Already we have seen one example of how these questions might arise even on a seemingly unrelated subject. When President Trump announced his ill-fated “travel ban” designed to temporarily block entrance into the United States by individuals from some majority-Muslim countries, it was quickly noted that while President Trump has business interests in a number of majority-Muslim countries, none of them were on the list.[xxxv] For example, despite the fact that Turkey had suffered several terrorist attacks in the preceding months before the attempted ban, it was not mentioned in the ban.[xxxvi] President Trump has a licensing deal with two buildings in Istanbul.[xxxvii] Additionally, the ban did not extend to the United Arab Emirates, where President Trump recently licensed a Dubai golf course, or Saudi Arabia, where the Trump Organization previously incorporated several local firms for a possible expansion in the hotel business.[xxxviii] While a direct financial incentive for targeting certain countries would be difficult to demonstrate, the decision to exclude all countries in which the Trump Organization maintains business ties again highlights the potential conflicts of interest that President Trump brings to this administration. These conflicts force the American people to question whether President Trump is acting in their interest, even in the critical area of national security. These are questions we should not have to ask.
[i] Richard C. Paddock, Eric Lipton, Ellen Barry, Rod Nordland, Danny Hakim, and Simon Romero, Potential Conflicts Around the Globe for Trump, the Businessman President, New York Times, Nov. 26, 2016, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/26/us/politics/donald-trump-international-business.html; see also Heather Long, Trump Organization is now America’s 48th largest private company, CNN Money, Dec. 15, 2016, available at http://money.cnn.com/2016/12/15/investing/trump-organization-48th-largest-private-company/.
[ii] Letters to President-elect Donald Trump from a bipartisan group of organizations and individuals, Dec. 9, 2016 and Jan. 2, 2017, available at http://www.democracy21.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Trump-letter-on-conflicts-divestiture-and-blind-trust-12-9-16.pdf; http://www.democracy21.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Letter-to-Trump-conflicts-of-interest-1-2-17.pdf.
[iii] Chase Peterson-Withorn, Trump Refuses to Divest Assets, Passes Control to Sons, Forbes, Jan. 11, 2017, available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/chasewithorn/2017/01/11/donald-trump-will-hand-over-business/#1244834a60d7.
[iv] Norman L. Eisen, Richard Painter, and Laurence H. Tribe, The Emoluments Clause: Its Text, Meaning, and Application to Donald J. Trump, Dec. 16, 2016, available at https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/gs_121616_emoluments-clause1.pdf.
[v] Jill Disis and Jeremy Diamond, Trump will leave business, but won’t sell, CNN Money, Jan. 11, 2017, available at http://money.cnn.com/2017/01/11/news/trump-conflicts-press-conference/.
[vi] Susanne Craig and Eric Lipton, Trust Records Show Trump Is Still Closely Tied to His Empire, New York Times, Feb. 3, 2017, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/03/us/politics/donald-trump-business.html; Derek Kravitz and Al Shaw, Trump Lawyer Confirms President Can Pull Money From His Businesses Whenever He Wants, Pro Publica, Apr. 4, 2017, available at https://www.propublica.org/article/trump-pull-money-his-businesses-whenever-he-wants-without-telling-us.
[vii] Dan Alexander, After Promising Not To Talk Business With Father, Eric Trump Says He’ll Give Him Financial Reports, Forbes, Mar. 24, 2017, available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/danalexander/2017/03/24/after-promising-not-donald-talk-business-with-father-eric-trump-says-president-give-him-financial-reports/#6b86d798359a.
[ix] Jonathan O’Connell and Mary Jordan, For foreign diplomats, Trump hotel is place to be, Washington Post, Nov. 18, 2016, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/capitalbusiness/2016/11/18/9da9c572-ad18-11e6-977a-1030f822fc35_story.html.
[x] Letter from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to Sens. John Barrasso and Tom Carper, Apr. 25, 2017, available at https://s3.amazonaws.com/storage.citizensforethics.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/25171058/Senate-EPW-GSA-Old-Post-Office-lease-4-25-17-1.pdf.
[xi] Letter from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to GSA Administrator Denise Turner Roth, Jan. 20, 2017, available at https://s3.amazonaws.com/storage.citizensforethics.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/20141802/GSA-Old-Post-Office-lease-1-20-17.pdf.
[xii] Letter from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington to Sens. John Barrasso and Tom Carper, Apr. 25, 2017.
[xiii] Caleb Melby, Stephanie Baker, and Ben Brody, When Chinese Bank’s Trump Lease Ends, Potential Conflict Begins, Bloomberg, Nov. 28, 2016, available at https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2016-11-28/trump-s-chinese-bank-tenant-may-negotiate-lease-during-his-term.
[xv] Letter to Hon. Elizabeth Warren from the Government Accountability Office, Mar. 24, 2017, available at https://www.warren.senate.gov/files/documents/2017_03_28_GAO_Review.pdf.
[xvi] Darren Samuelsohn, Mar-a-Lago can’t release visitor logs — because it doesn’t keep them, Politico, Mar. 28, 2017, available at http://www.politico.com/story/2017/03/trump-visitor-logs-mar-a-lago-236564.
[xvii] Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sean Spicer #13, Feb. 21, 2017, available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/02/21/press-briefing-press-secretary-sean-spicer-2212017-13.
[xviii] Max Greenwood, Oversight chair asks WH for security details of Mar-a-Lago meeting, The Hill, Feb, 14, 2017, available at http://thehill.com/homenews/house/319503-house-oversight-chair-asks-white-house-to-provide-security-protocol-details.
[xix] Mallory Shelbourne, Mar-a-Lago guest takes picture with nuclear ‘football’ briefcase, The Hill, Feb. 13, 2017, available at http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/319211-mar-a-lago-guest-posts-pics-with-nuclear-football-carrier.
[xx]Robert Frank, Mar-a-Lago membership fee doubles to $200,000, CNBC, Jan. 25, 2017, available at http://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/25/mar-a-lago-membership-fee-doubles-to-200000.html.
[xxi] Darren Samuelsohn and Kenneth P. Vogel, Goodbye, Mar-a-Lago. Hello, Bedminster, Politico, Apr. 19, 2017, available at http://www.politico.com/story/2017/04/trump-new-jersey-florida-237347.
[xxii] Jonathan O’Connell, David A. Fahrenthold, and Matea Gold, Trump sons, planning expansion of family business, look to leverage campaign experience, Washington Post, Mar. 4, 2017, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-sons-planning-expansion-of-family-business-look-to-leverage-campaign-experience/2017/03/04/28e2f44a-fab4-11e6-9845-576c69081518_story.html?utm_term=.392122e5eff2.
[xxiii] Hui-Yong Yu and Caleb Melby, Trump Hotels, Amid Calls to Divest, Instead Plans U.S. Expansion, Bloomberg, Jan. 25, 2017, available at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-25/trump-hotels-to-triple-locations-in-u-s-expansion-ceo-says.
[xxiv] O’Connell, Fahrenthold, and Gold, Washington Post, Mar. 4, 2017.
[xxv] Jonathan Allen, Trump’s Indonesian business partner sees no conflicts of interest, Reuters, Jan. 18, 2017, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-indonesia-idUSKBN1530A7.
[xxvi] Joshua Partlow, The Trump Organization may revive its failed Dominican resort project, Washington Post, Feb. 9, 2017, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/02/09/the-trump-organization-may-revive-its-failed-dominican-resort-project/.
[xxvii] Severin Carrell, Trump’s Scotland golf resort proceeds with expansion despite business pledge, The Guardian, Jan. 14, 2017, available at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/14/trump-scotland-golf-resort-conflicts-of-interest.
[xxviii] Sharon LaFraniere and Danny Hakim, Trump’s Trademark Continues Its March Across the Globe, Raising Eyebrows, New York Times, Apr. 11, 2017, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/11/us/politics/trump-trademark-ethics.html?ref=politics&_r=0; Peter Orsi and Bernard Condon, Mexico Oks New Trump Trademarks For Hotels and Tourism, Associated Press, Mar. 12, 2017, available at http://bigstory.ap.org/article/cef40d0189294ae3923ec301cfdf662e/mexico-oks-trump-trademarks-hotels-and-tourism-industry.
[xxix] Jeremy Venook, The Story Behind Trump’s Chinese Trademark, The Atlantic, Feb. 22, 2017, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/02/trump-chinese-trademark/517458/.
[xxxi] Erika Kinetz, China has granted preliminary approval for 38 new Trump trademarks, Associated Press, Mar. 8, 2017, available at http://bigstory.ap.org/article/8f54b14808a2459f9efcb0089f41f056/china-grants-preliminary-approval-38-new-trump-trademarks.
[xxxii] Mirren Gidda, Mexico Granted the Trump Organization More Trademarks, Newsweek, Mar. 13, 2017, available at http://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-trump-organization-trademarks-mexico-china-567167
[xxxiv] Danny Hakim and Sui-Lee Wee, From Trump the Nationalist, a Trail of Global Trademarks, New York Times, Feb. 21, 2017, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/21/business/donald-trump-trademarks-china.html.
[xxxv] Rosalind S. Helderman, Countries where Trump does business are not hit by new travel restrictions, Washington Post, Jan. 28, 2017, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/countries-where-trump-does-business-are-not-hit-by-new-travel-restrictions/2017/01/28/dd40535a-e56b-11e6-a453-19ec4b3d09ba_story.html?utm_term=.8bd3b52d74a8.
[xxxvii] Holly Warfield, Mapping President Trump’s Travel Ban Vs. His Business Interests in Muslim Countries, Forbes, Feb. 1, 2017, available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/datadesign/2017/02/01/mapping-president-trumps-travel-ban-vs-his-business-interests-in-muslim-countries/#533360e46944.
[xxxviii] Helderman, Washington Post, Jan. 28, 2017.