In May 2017, this blog began tracking corruption and conflicts of interest in the Trump Administration, in order to identify and document the myriad ways that the President, his family, and his closest advisors may “use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.” This includes payments directly from the U.S. government to the Trump Organization (e.g. the Secret Service renting out space in the Trump Tower); use of the presidency to promote Trump brands (e.g. numerous Republican re-election campaigns held in Trump owned businesses); regulatory and policy decisions that benefit the Trump family and close advisors (e.g. the General Services Administration approving a lease for the Trump International Hotel); and private and foreign interests dealing with Trump businesses (e.g. Trump hotel, resort, and other development projects around the world). Keeping track of all these various conflict and corruption risks is important at a time when the news of yesterday gets drowned out and forgotten amid the drama of today.
After working for over a year as one of several contributors to this tracking project, I think that there are also some broader lessons and themes that have emerged from these efforts, which are worth highlighting:
- First: These conflicts will likely continue to proliferate over the coming months and years. There is little indication that President Trump or those closest to him are taking affirmative steps to reduce the sorts of conflicts of interest we have been tracking. Moreover, the steps already taken (including the President ceding control of the Trump Organization to his sons, and Jared Kushner turning over his real estate empire to family members) are insufficient, as both Trump and Kushner remain beneficiaries of their businesses. The conflicts will likely continue to grow, particularly with the upcoming 2018 and 2020 elections. For example, when the President travels on his personal campaign plane owned by the Trump Organization (instead of Air Force One), the Secret Service directly reimburses a Trump Organization company (in this case, TAG Air, Inc.). The President has also already begun hosting 2020 re-election campaign fundraisers at the Trump Hotel in Washington DC and his 2020 Campaign has spent over $500,000 at Trump-owned properties. Republicans are following suit, with the Republican National Committee, the Republican Governors Association, and individual members spending hundreds of thousands of dollars at Trump properties; expenditures which directly benefit the President.
- Second: Public scrutiny of these conflicts of interest, and the associated backlash, may have a meaningful effect on the actions of President Trump and his family. For example, on Donald Trump Jr.’s trip to India last February, in addition to pitching new Trump branded luxury high-rises, he was also scheduled to give a policy speech on US-India relations at a conference also attended by Prime Minister Modi. However, after pushback from current and former U.S. government officials, Trump Jr. abandoned his plans for the speech and gave a sit-down interview in which he emphasized, “I’m here as a businessman, I’m not representing anyone.” While his interview still raises ethical concerns, this incident demonstrates the impact of political and public pressure on the President and his family. Similarly, pressure and publicity have led to resignations, disclosures, and changes in action, including the resignation of Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald from her post as Director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Third: Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior advisor to President Trump, is at the center of many of the conflicts we have been tracking. These include a failed multi-billion-dollar transaction with a Chinese company, a loan from the former prime minister of Qatar, meetings with Russian officials, and financial ties with Japan. These numerous conflicts are a result of Kushner’s prominent role in his father-in-law’s administration (on foreign policy issues in particular), together with his substantial debts and complex business arrangements, and his failure to completely divest himself from his interest in Kushner Companies. As long as these factors remain, the conflicts will likely continue to pile up for Mr. Kushner.
- Fourth: Of the four categories of potential presidential profiteering that we’ve been tracking, the largest and most troubling is “Private and Foreign Interests Seeking To Influence the Trump Administration Through Dealings with Trump Business.” These include foreign governments and agents of foreign governments booking rooms and events at the Trump International Hotel, development projects in countries such as Turkey and China, and state tax breaks for Trump hotels. While many of these conflicts are not necessarily surprising, given the expansive domestic and international footprint of the Trump Organization, they are nevertheless problematic because they create both the risk and perception of corruption, with foreign governments and private businesses seeking to curry favor with the Trump Administration by favoring Trump Organization businesses. As the Administration continues to develop and act upon its foreign policy platform, this section of the tracker will likely become longer and more consequential. For example, just days after a Chinese state-owned company issued a $500 million loan for the development of a Trump property in Indonesia, and the Chinese government approved seven trademarks requested by Ivanka Trump around the same time, President Trump announced his intention to lift sanctions against Chinese technology company ZTE, which had been deemed a national security threat by the U.S. government. This conflict of interest raised calls for an ethics inquiry, and is a textbook example of the relevance and consequence of staying abreast of President Trump’s conflicts of interest across the world.
Since his inauguration, President Trump, his family, and his closest advisors have continually enmeshed themselves in a vast tangle of potential conflicts of interest, both domestically and abroad. Each individual incident is a matter of concern, but seeing them all together, as part of a broader pattern of behavior—and an attitude toward the appropriate use of public power—helps paint a clearer picture of the Trump presidency, and why it presents such serious and unprecedented risk of actual and perceived corruption.