If You Don’t Think Trump’s Financial Conflicts of Interest Matter, Consider the Kurds

Yesterday I posted a note regarding the update of this blog’s project on tracking the various ways in which President Trump and his family may be attempting to use the presidency for private financial gain, how the associated conflicts of interest might influence or distort U.S. policy. In light of recent events, I thought that perhaps it might be appropriate to highlight, and elaborate upon, a few items on that list that may be cause of particular concern:

  • President Trump has extensive business interests in Turkey, including a Trump Tower in Istanbul. This is not a new observation; the potential conflict of interest that this might create has been extensively documented (see here, here, and here), though in light of recent events these business connections have received renewed and intensified scrutiny (see, for example, here, here, and here). Indeed, then-candidate Trump acknowledged back in December 2015 that, “I have a little conflict of interest [in Turkey], because I have a major, major building in Istanbul.” Indeed, the Trump Towers Istanbul, which the Turkish conglomerate Dogan Holding developed, pays licensing fees to the Trump Organization. The Erdogan government can, and previously has, imposed substantial costs on Dogan Holding, and there are credible reports that the Erdogan Administration believes that this ability to put “pressure on Trump’s business partner [in Turkey]” gives the Turkish government the ability “to essentially blackmail the president.” Let that sink in for a moment.
  • In addition, entities close to the Turkish government have gotten in the habit of spending heavily at Trump properties in the U.S. Most notably, the American Turkish Council and the Turkey-U.S. Business Council have held multiple events at the Trump Hotel in D.C. (see here and here), attended by senior administration officials, with these events estimated to pay the Trump Organization well over $100,000 per event. (It’s also worth noting here that the Turkey-U.S. Business Council is headed by the founder of the consulting company that paid former national security advisor Michael Flynn $530,000 for lobbying work.)

It’s impossible to prove whether any of this directly affected President Trump’s foreign policy decisions regarding Turkish interests. But as Turkish forces continue to bombard the Kurdish forces in Northern Syria—an assault against loyal U.S. allies that was only possible because President Trump acquiesced in President Erdogan’s request/demand that U.S. forces clear out and make the attack possible—it’s hard not to wonder whether crucial U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS have been betrayed by the American Commander-in-Chief so that he can protect his financial interests.

This makes the stakes of the corruption concerns related to this presidency, including those implicated in the Emoluments Clause lawsuits brought against the administration, seem all the more pressing. The strategic and tactical wisdom of those suits, and their legal viability, is a complicated question on which my own views have evolved over time (see here, here, and here). But to characterize the issues raised by those suits as a minor distraction, as former New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse did back at the start of the Trump presidency, is a hot take that hasn’t aged well. Here’s what Greenhouse had to say in that January 2017 Council on Foreign Relations roundtable discussion:

I think [the Emoluments Clause] lawsuit is a distraction…. I mean, it seems to me, what we need—we, as concerned citizens—need to focus on are the policy outcomes … emanating from this White House and not, you know, who’s paying the rack rate at the Trump hotel. I mean, that just doesn’t do it for me. (Laughter.) Maybe I’m missing something, but, you know, I think we need to focus on what really matters here.

Note to Ms. Greenhouse: Corruption and conflicts of interest at the highest levels of government “really matters.” Such corruption is often deeply connected to policy outcomes. I’m not sure anyone who follows these issues closely, and who cares about things like our national security policy and our treatment of vital and loyal allies, is laughing much about this now.

10 thoughts on “If You Don’t Think Trump’s Financial Conflicts of Interest Matter, Consider the Kurds

  1. Certainly, there is a clear conflict of interest here. I should also add that I do not agree with the policy of abandoning the Kurds, and frankly, I think it is a dangerous symbol of the President’s abandonment of American foreign policy ideals dating back to 1918. But I think there are two points negating your above view:

    1. Trump has recently imposed new sanctions on Turkey. See here: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/sanctions-on-turkey-trump-imposes-new-sanctions-over-kurdish-offensive-in-northern-syria-2019-10-14/

    Specifically, the U.S. has sanctioned three Turkish ministers along with their department of defense and ministry of energy and called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and asked for an immediate ceasefire. While this does not directly implicate the Trump Tower in Istambul and one could easily imagine that the two leaders expected Trump might sanction Turkey in response to an angry senate and American public, it also seems like the right strategy would be to keep things on an even keel with Turkey and pretend to be bound by the policy initiatives of Congress and Executive Agencies.

    2. Trump’s philosophy from the start of his presidential campaign has been “bring the troops home” and “bomb the shit out of them.” See here: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-recent-history-of-bombing-the-shit-out-of-em

    His ISIS strategy has been obsessed with removing ISIS’s territory and far less focused on the aftermath of any counter-ISIS campaign. His withdrawal of U.S. troops also falls in line with that philosophy.

    • These are both fair points. It’s certainly true that we do not have “smoking gun” evidence that President Trump’s business interests in Turkey are a primarily or contributing cause of his decision to abandon the Kurds in northern Syria, and as you correctly point out, there are some factors that might suggest an alternative explanation. But here’s why the factors you point to are not enough to shake me out of my cynicism:

      With respect to the economic sanctions, this seems to me a kind of face-saving fig leaf, and/or something that the Trump Administration feels like it needs to do given the bipartisan political backlash against the pullout. I suspect that Turkey views these sanctions as a modest price to pay for wiping out the Kurdish stronghold in northern Syria.

      With respect to President Trump’s general foreign policy priorities, what you say is correct to a point, but the fact that he reached this decision after a conversation with President Erdogan, and hasn’t engaged in other precipitous U.S. troop withdrawals elsewhere, strongly suggests to me that the move was specifically at Turkey’s behest.

      I should also note that while express pressure from Erdogan, leveraging Trump’s economic interests in Turkey along the lines suggested by the “blackmail” quote noted in the post, is one possible scenario, it’s also possible that the financial conflict-of-interest affected Trump’s decision-making in a less crude, direct way. I could simply have been that Trump’s extensive business dealings in Turkey, which involved currying favor with the Erdogan administration, made him generally sympathetic to Erdogan’s appeal—along the lines of Trump’s previous comments that he loves the Saudis because they spend a lot of money at his properties, or President Zelensky’s transparent attempt to kiss up to Trump on the infamous July 25 phone call by emphasizing how much he’d enjoyed his stay at the Trump hotel in New York. So, while it could well have been a quid pro quo or an implied threat, it could also have been something like: “I do business with this guy Erdogan and his buddies, he’s a stand-up guy who’s helped my company make money, if he asks this favor, hey, why not agree? After all, I want to get the troops home anyway.”

      One final thing: While I agree with you that I could be completely wrong, and it’s possible that Trump’s business interest in Turkey had no actual impact on his decision-making, the fact that we can’t dismiss this possibility out of hand is itself a serious problem. Even the (plausible) suggestion or perception that the President’s personal financial interests may have influenced such a consequential foreign policy decision is disastrous for U.S. credibility and legitimacy.

      • I completely agree with your last point. The fact that we cannot dismiss, as absurd, the fact that business interests or personal financial gain might influence a president’s actions is problematic. And while I agree that Trump clearly did this specific move at Turkey’s request, I think the removal of troops from combat in the Middle East/Central Asia is something he has wanted to accomplish for some time.
        Syria (in Dec 2018):

        Up until now, Trump has acquiesced or been convinced to change course by his advisors, but that does not change the fact that with John Bolton and Gen. Mattis gone, strong forces for interventionist doctrines are now gone. Again not saying this is a good thing or Trump was not influenced by his business dealings in Turkey.

  2. I think if you dig deep enough into any politician’s pocket you will find a series of “interests”. Much more interesting, to me, is the fact that Trump’s withdrawal from Syria was hardly ever put into the context of an unauthorized war which Trump was seeking, correctly, to withdraw from. He’s getting flak from several fronts and all he did was to withdraw troops. This is utterly wrong in the eyes of several other interests, which manipulate a multi billion dollar scheme in the Beltway. They can’t have peace. There’s no “peace dividend”. There’s always “turmoil” somewhere and the U.S.A. MUST intervene.

  3. I agree that the abandonment of the Kurds is a devastating choice on the part of the Trump administration—it is both a gross betrayal of important allies and a serious strategic misstep. It certainly seems plausible to me that the President’s financial interests could play a role in this choice. However, to echo Jacques, withdrawal has long been the President’s favored foreign policy, and he has shown a willingness to work with dictators who are willing to appeal to him (and not just those whose countries host Trump Towers—see Kim Jong Un). Regardless of the motivation, the appearance of misconduct is concerning.
    My question is, what is the best approach moving forward? One thing that has been striking about this particular controversy is the degree to which the President’s allies have been willing to attack him for it (see here: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/07/us/politics/turkey-syria-trump.html). I wonder to what degree this kind of (relatively) unified opposition may work to counter this kind of behavior. To the extent that it is successful, how might we think about encouraging more effective public opposition to Presidential missteps?

    • I wanted to echo Maura’s point to think about actual ways to curtail the president’s activities in this area. This is an interesting angle to examine how his financial dealings are influencing foreign policy shifts but there have been countless instances of conflicts of interest throughout Trump’s presidency and his family continues to directly financially benefit from the office of the presidency. Even recently he announced his plan to host the 2020 G7 meeting at the Trump National Doral Golf Resort in Miami. While he rolled back this plan after public outcry, his family has quietly and not so quietly used his position to profit immensely, abusing the power of the Executive Office. As a non-lawyer, I want to know what are the legal avenues for him to be held accountable for these conflict of interest-type actions. Is it mostly up to congressional political will to usher in concrete legal consequences for them? Other than public shaming, what else can we do to stop this behavior?

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  5. The fact that there is any reason to link a business interest of President Trump in Turkey with the decision to remove troops and protection for an ally of the United States, is a deeply concerning matter. The subsequent reporting on this issue has pointed to a clear conflict of interest, and to Prof. Stephenson’s point should strengthen the seriousness with which the Emoluments Clause lawsuits are taken. Apart from the human rights of Kruds at stake here, is also USA’s reputation. It will take a long time to regain credibility, after being a subject of outright ridicule (see Daily Show link below) for such obviously gross misconduct.

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