[Original version May 2, 2017; updated January 8, 2017]
The Trump Administration has been dogged by accusations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests. While President Trump claims to have ceded control of the Trump Organization to his sons Eric and Donald Jr., the trust set up is porous at best, and reports indicate that the president can withdraw money from his more than 400 businesses at any time without disclosure.
Just as President Trump will receive “quarterly” updates on the Trump Organization from his son Eric, we will track and report on instances in which there are credible allegations of President Trump, his family, and his close associates exploiting their public power for private gain. We will organize the issues into the following four categories, which capture four related but distinct ways that political leaders may seek to leverage the power of public office to enrich themselves, their families, and their cronies:
- U.S. Government Payments to the Trump Organization
- Use of the Power of the Presidency to Promote Trump Brands
- U.S. Government Regulatory and Policy Decisions that Benefit Business Interests of the Trump Family and Senior Advisors
- Private and Foreign Interests Seeking to Influence the Trump Administration Through Dealings with Trump Businesses
1. U.S. Government Payments to the Trump Organization
One of the most direct ways that President Trump can profit from the presidency is by making decisions that effectively require U.S. government agencies to purchase goods or services from the Trump Organization. Though unseemly and costly to taxpayers, this is one of the less destructive forms of potential profiteering by President Trump, since it does not significantly distort U.S. policy. Illustrative examples that have been reported in the media include the following:
- Secret Service at Trump Tower: Up until July 2017, the Secret Service, which is charged with protecting the President and his family, rented out two vacant floors of Trump Tower. This was not the first time the Secret Service had rented space from the government officials it is protecting. For example, when the Secret Service needed to protect former Vice President Joe Biden, the Service rented a nearby cottage that he owned. However, the payments were several orders of magnitude largerin the case of Trump Tower. In July 2017, the Secret Service vacated its rented space in Trump Tower because of disputes over terms of the lease, relocating to a trailer on the nearby sidewalk.
- Department of Defense at Trump Tower: The Department of Defense has followed its standard practice of setting up a separate headquarters near the President’s private residence—in this case also in Trump Tower. The Department rented space near President Barack Obama’s Chicago home and rented a secure trailer near President George Bush’s ranch, but the sums of money involved in the Trump Tower rental are substantially larger. The Department of Defense apparently has a $2.39 million lease to rent space in Trump Tower from April 2017 through September 2018. (The Wall Street Journal obtained the redacted lease, which does not reveal the owner’s name, through a Freedom of Information Act request. In a letter to Representative Jackie Speier, a Defense Department official claimed that the unit is privately owned and that the rental transaction would not benefit President Trump. The $130,000 monthly rental price tag is well above the most expensive recent listings at Trump Tower.)
- Trips to Mar-a-Lago and other Trump Properties: As of December 31, 2017, President Trump had spent 116 days at properties owned by the Trump Organization, with the bulk of that time at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster (39 days) and Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida (44 days). On these visits, the Secret Service must pay the Trump Organization directly for any costs related to protecting the president (including nearly $60,000 in golf car rentals so far this year). In fact, expense forms show that the Secret Service spent $63,700 at the Mar-a-Lago between February and April 2017 alone.
- Trump Properties Abroad: If President Trump or his immediate family travel abroad and choose to stay at a Trump property, the U.S. government will pay the Trump Organization to rent space for the Secret Service and any additional necessary support. For example, the State Department paid $15,000 for 19 rooms at the Trump hotel in Vancouver when Donald Jr., Eric, and Tiffany Trump attended an opening ceremony there in February 2017. (This amount does not include undisclosed Secret Service expenses for the trip.)
- Secret Service on Trump Jets: The President is required to travel on Air Force One or Marine One during his time in office, but the First Family can and does travel on private planes owned by the Trump Organization. When the Secret Service accompanies the Trump family on their private planes, they reimburse the Trump Organization directly. (In fact, during the presidential campaign the Service paid TAG Air, Inc.—a Trump company—$1.6 million.)
2. Use of the Power of the Presidency To Promote Trump Brands
Donald Trump and his family can also enrich themselves by taking advantage of the unique status and exposure of the President of the United States to promote Trump family brands. Indeed, shortly after the inauguration Eric Trump noted that the Trump brand “is the hottest it has ever been,” while Ivanka Trump’s apparel line sales increased 346% during the first month of her father’s presidency. While some of this increase is “passive” and thus less problematic, there have been incidents that suggest efforts on the part of President Trump, his family, and members of his administration, to actively promote Trump brands. (Interestingly, some recent reports (see here and here) suggest that, despite these efforts, the value of the Trump Organization may in fact be decreasing, and the President’s personal wealth falling, perhaps due in part to the polarizing nature of his presidency.)
While distasteful, this brand-promotion activity also one of the less harmful ways in which the Trump Administration may seek to profit from the Presidency, as it does not involve significant distortions of U.S. policy. Nonetheless, the overt attempts to use the presidency as a marketing opportunity indicate a troubling underlying attitude. Examples of specific instances in which the Trump family or members of the Trump Administration have taken active steps to use the prestige and influence of the presidency to promote the Trump brand include:
- Melania Trump Jewelry: Within minutes of President Trump’s inauguration, the White House website was updated to include details on Melania Trump’s jewelry line at QVC. After criticism of this endorsement of her products, the site was updated to drop any mention of specific brands.
- Nordstrom Tweet: After Nordstrom’s department stores dropped Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, President Trump attacked Nordstrom’s“unfair” treatment of his daughter. Shortly thereafter, White House senior advisor Kellyanne Conway explicitly endorsed the Ivanka Trump brand, saying from the White House briefing room, “I’m going to give a free commercial here: Go buy [Ivanka’s products] today, everybody.” This was a clear violation of a federal ethics regulation, codified at 5 C.F.R. § 2635.702(c), which states that a federal employee “shall not use or permit the use of his Government position or title or any authority associated with his public office to endorse any product, service, or enterprise[.]”
- Access and Influence at Trump Properties: President Trump has actively promoted that impression that staying at Trump properties—particularly at the Mar-a-Lago resort, where membership applications have soared, and Trump’s Bedminster Golf Club—comes with a front-row seat to the inner workings (and “excitement”) of the U.S. government. Presumably to capitalize on the reputation of Trump properties as uniquely situated to provide access to the president, the Mar-a-Lago resort has doubled its initiation fee to $200,000 following the election. Annual dues increased by $1,000, to $15,000, and tickets to the annual New Year’s Eve party were considerably higher than in previous years. A since-discontinued brochure promoting Bedminster as a wedding venue promises that if President Trump “is on-site for your big day, he will likely stop in & congratulate the happy couple.” Trump spent his August 2017 two-week “working vacation” at the Bedminster Club (which an administration official referred to as “the Summer White House”), where he signed bills, met with members of his administration, and hosted some of his most generous donors for dinner.
- Advertisement for Mar-a-Lago on State Department Website: In April 2017, a U.S. State Department website called Share America–which is supposed to be a “platform for sharing compelling stories and images that spark discussion and debate on important topics like democracy, freedom of expression, innovation, entrepreneurship, education, and the role of civil society”–posted a feature on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. After widespread criticism from lawmakers and ethics experts–who pointed out that the post was also a clear violation of 5 C.F.R. § 2635.702(c)–the State Department removed the posting.
- Ivanka Trump’s Clothing Line: The World Bank recently launched The Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, which awards millions in financing to women entrepreneurs in emerging markets (including $50 million that President Trump recently committed to the project). Ivanka Trump’s clothing brand stands to gain from her involvement in the program, prompting Senator Ben Cardin to write letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin objecting that it is inappropriate for Ivanka Trump to “serve as a public advocate for the fund” as long as “Ms. Trump continues to benefit financially from a brand that bears her name.”
- Ivanka Trump’s Book: Both Voice of America (a government funded news agency) and the State Department promoted Ivanka Trump’s book, Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success. Voice of America published an Associated Press article review about the book and advertised the book on Twitter. The State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues retweeted Ms. Trump’s tweet promoting the book, but later deleted the tweet after criticism. (Ms. Trump herself has pledged not to draw publicity through any promotional tour or media appearances, and she has also pledged to donate the advance and profits from the book to charity.)
- Trump 2020 Campaign: In June 2017, President Trump held his first re-election campaign fundraiser at the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C. Ethics experts criticized the event as improperly mixing the president’s business interests with his political interests, since the campaign event also serves as a promotional event for the hotel. The Trump campaign sent a tweet to supporters describing the event venue as a “beautiful hotel” and “BIG LEAGUE.” This was not an isolated event; Since his inauguration, President Trump’s re-election campaign has already paid over $500,000 to his own companies.
- Republican Re-Election Events: The Republican National Committee (RNC), numerous congressional campaigns, the Republican Governors Association, and state parties have spent millions at Trump owned businesses in re-election efforts and fundraisers. For example, the President hosted a fundraiser for Congressman Tom MacArthur at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster where tickets started at $5,400 per couple and included $100,000 “host” tickets, and over $15,000 was spent on renting the facility and catering. The RNC has spent over $300,000 at Trump properties, including over $122,000 at the Trump International Hotel for a fundraiser in June (at a rate of $35,000-a-person). Republican campaigns and committees have spent over $42,000 just at the steakhouse inside the Trump International Hotel in Washington. While sitting Presidents often host fundraisers for re-election campaigns, it is troubling when they directly profit from these events.
- New Ivanka Trump Store. Ivanka Trump—who serves as an advisor to her father—opened a new retail store in New York’s Trump Tower in December 2017. Though she handed over operations, Ivanka Trump continues to own the company, which netted her over $5 million between January 2016 and March 2017.
3. U.S. Government Regulatory and Policy Decisions that Benefit the Business Interests of the Trump Family and Senior Advisors
Federal government decisions—on regulation, law, enforcement, and discretionary spending—may be influenced or manipulated in ways that benefit the private commercial interests of the Trump Organization or other businesses closely tied to President Trump, his family, or his senior advisors. This is a much more serious problem, as it involves not only enrichment of the Trump family and associates at taxpayer expense, but also potential distortions of U.S. policy.
The extent of the Trump Organization’s business interests makes it impossible to summarize all of the potential conflicts of interest that might arise. For example, the Trump Organization has been involved in labor disputes; Trump businesses regularly apply for visas for foreign workers; and Trump businesses are subject to countless federal safety and environmental regulations. (See here for an in-depth analysis of many of these potential conflicts). As head of the executive branch, President Trump might have influence over numerous decisions that affect the Trump Organization’s business interests. While the potential conflicts of interest are too extensive—and in most cases likely too indirect—to enumerate, here are a few examples of more specific reports that raise concerns about how the financial interests of the President and his advisors may distort regulatory or policy decisions:
- HUD subsidies: The Trump Organization owns properties that may be eligible for grants and subsidies from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Although Trump’s proposed budget seeks to cut HUD grants and subsidies overall, his proposed budget notably would leave in place a federal housing subsidy paid directly to private landlords—a program from which Trump directly earns millions of dollars in profits. In fact, HUD has paid the partnership that owns Starret City (of which President Trump is part owner) more than $490 million in rent subsidies between May 2013 and June 2017, with nearly $39 million of that figure coming in since the President took office. Furthermore, President Trump nominated Lynne Patton, an event planner and longtime Trump family loyalist with no experience in housing or housing policy, to head HUD’s Region II, which includes New York and New Jersey. In her new position, Patton has the authority to “disburse billions of dollars in federal housing funds to the states in which the President’s company owns the most property.”
- Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL): In his first week in office, President Trump reversed a decision from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—which had announced it would not issue permits for building the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline—and directed the Corps to “review and approve [the construction] in an expedited manner.” President Trump’s filings with the Federal Election Commission in June 2015 and May 2016 indicate that he owned stock in Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the $3.7 billion pipeline. While the President has asserted that he sold his stock in the company in June 2016, resolving the possible conflict of interest, he has not provided any concrete, independently verifiable evidence for that claim.
- Clean Water Act Rollback: In February 2017, the Trump administration issued Executive Order 13778, which directed the EPA to review and either rescind or revise the regulations pertaining to the scope and coverage of the Clean Water Act. The EPA and US Army Corp of Engineers announced in late June a proposed regulation to repeal the Clean Water Rule, which extended Clean Water Act protections from pollution to bodies of water including wetlands and half of the streams in America. Though the proposed repeal would affect many constituencies (the waters that stand to lose protection contribute to the drinking water supply for one in three Americans), it is strongly supported by golf-course owners (among others); the Trump Organization owns numerous golf courses, and therefore stands to gain from the proposed repeal.
- General Services Administration Lease: The Trump Organization leased the building that is now the Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C. from the Federal Government’s General Services Administration (GSA). The building is also known as the Old Post Office. The lease agreement explicitly states that “no . . . elected official of the Government of the United States . . . shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.” The purpose of this clause seems to be avoiding the conflict of interest that would arise if an elected federal official were, in effect, on both sides of the transaction (as both landlord and tenant). In March 2017, the GSA decided that President Trump—who has the authority to appoint and potentially remove the head of the GSA—is in full compliance with the lease agreement as long as he does not receive profits from the hotel while he serves as President. The GSA’s decision was roundly criticized by most experts as an implausible reading of the contract. In July 2017, Democratic members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee grilled acting GSA administrator Tim Horne about the legality of the lease and sought to bring attention to a report prepared for Representative Peter A. DeFazio, which asserts, among other things, that President Trump claimed in a financial disclosure to have earned $20 million in profits from Trump Old Post Office LLC after his inauguration.
- Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s Advisory Roles: Ivanka Trump serves as an assistant to her father, while Ms. Trump’s husband Jared Kushner serves as senior advisor to the president. Since Ms. Trump is not being paid a salary and was not sworn in, she is not an official government employee (although she maintains a West Wing office, security clearance, and White House communications equipment). Although Ms. Trump stepped down from her management and operations role at the Trump Organization, she continues to receive fixed payments from the Organization and profits from her fashion brand and the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. Similarly, although Mr. Kushner turned over his family’s real estate empire to family members, he still remains a beneficiary of his businesses through a series of trusts. Neither Ms. Trump nor Mr. Kushner placed their assets in a blind trust, which means that their financial interests could influence their counsel to President Trump.
- Infrastructure Plan: To oversee a council at the helm of the $1 trillion infrastructure plan that President Trump proposed early in his presidency, he selected Steven Roth and Richard LeFrack, billionaire real-estate developers and former business partners of the President. The Trump Organization is currently invested in Mr. Roth’s real estate development company, Vornado Realty Trust, and receives $22.7 million annually from an ownership stake in two Vornado buildings. Not only has Roth entered bids to build new buildings for the Labor Department and the FBI, but, should the infrastructure plan be enacted, he will be in a position to influence billions of dollars in government spending in ways that benefit his company—and thus also directly benefit the Trump Organization. As of August 17, 2017, however, President Trump abandoned plans for the Council on Infrastructure.
- Deutsche Bank Investigation: The Department of Justice is investigating Deutche Bank’s connection to a Russian money laundering scheme. Justice Department officials appointed by President Trump, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, are overseeing the investigation. Deutsche Bank has lent President Trump billions of dollars, and he currently still owes the Bank about $340 million—a potentially serious conflict of interest. Furthermore, Jared Kushner reportedly accepted a $285 million loan from Deutsche Bank a month before the 2016 election as part of a refinancing package for a property in Manhattan.
- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: John Paulson is the billionaire founder and manager of the hedge fund Paulson & Co. Mr. Paulson’s funds have a stake in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—both of which were taken over by the federal government in 2008. Since President Trump’s election, shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have increased substantially, and Mr. Paulson has called for the government to relinquish control of the companies. President Trump himself has invested $3-5 million in Paulson’s funds, and thus would stand to gain from a decision to end government control of the companies. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin—a former business partner of Mr. Paulson—has expressed interest in ending government control of the companies. Paulson & Co. and Blackstone Group LP (whose CEO is Steven Schwarzman, the chair of Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum) hired investment bank Moelis, Inc. to prepare a proposal for ending government control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac without legislation. The proposal was released in late May.
- The Scope of the Proposed Travel Ban: In January 2017, President Trump signed a controversial executive order that barred entry into U.S. for individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East. Experts, courts, and the international community broadly denounced the effectiveness of a country-specific ban and the discriminatory purpose and intent of the executive order. Some critics went further, suggesting that the order itself may have been influenced by President Trump’s foreign business interests: The Trump Organization has no financial interests in any of the countries affected by the travel ban, but does have business interests in other predominantly Muslim countries that could have been included in the ban, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Egypt. This is admittedly speculation, however, as there are alternative explanations for the selection of the targeted countries.
- H-2B Visas: Despite President Trump’s campaign rhetoric about hiring American workers, his administration recently increased the permitted number of H-2B visas from 66,000 to 81,000 for this year. Days after the Department of Homeland Security announcement about the increase, Trump companies submitted requests to the Department of Labor for a total of 76 H-2B visas for guest workers. The administration has resisted pressure to increase quotas for other guest visa categories, including those for tech workers, for which Trump companies typically does not apply.
- Benefits from the Tax Plan: The recently passed Republican tax-reform bill will substantially benefit President Trump, his family, and the Trump Organization. Ending the Alternative Minimum Tax—which limits the amount of deductions and credits available to 4.8 million of the richest Americans—would have saved President Trump $31 million in income taxes in 2005. Similarly, eliminating the estate tax could save the President’s family billions of dollars. Perhaps most notably, the proposed lower rate of the “pass-through” tax has been referred to by some as the “Trump Loophole” since the President stands to benefit immensely from its reduction. (The exact benefit is difficult to calculate since the President has not released his tax returns.) The extent to which these tax proposals were influenced by the President’s personal interests—as opposed to a generic Republican policy objective of reducing taxes on very wealthy individuals, a class that happens to include President Trump—is not clear. But the fact that the President and his family stand to gain so much financially from the tax changes is cause for concern.
- Interviewing U.S. Attorney Candidates: While the President has the authority and responsibility to nominate U.S. Attorneys, President Trump has taken a special interest in candidates for the positions in New York and Washington, D.C., and has taken the unprecedented step of personally interviewing candidates for U.S. Attorney in the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York and the District of Columbia. These districts cover much of the Trump Organization’s business dealings, including those involving the Trump International Hotel in Washington, which is currently at the center of a federal emoluments clause lawsuit. Moreover, these U.S. Attorneys may have to make important decisions in investigating any potential interference of Russia in the 2016 Election. As Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, noted, “It is neither normal nor advisable for Trump to personally interview candidates for US Attorney positions.”
- Commerce Secretary Ross’s Shipping Interests: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross shed millions of dollars in assets to avoid conflicts of interest. However, he maintained passive investmentsin Diamond S Shipping Group Inc., one of the world’s largest operators of shipping vessels, despite stepping down from positions within the company. Secretary Ross will be at the forefront of the U.S. trade negotiations and will help shape U.S. trade policy, which will directly impact the financial interests of the Diamond S Shipping Group. In addition, the so-called “Paradise Papers” leaks disclosed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in early November 2017 revealed that Secretary Ross also has a stake in another shipping company, Navigator Holdings, that, since 2014, has received more than $68 million in revenue from a Russian energy company co-owned by Vladamir Putin’s son-in-law. Additionally, questions have been raised about whether Ross’s role in negotiating a trade deal with China to export more American liquefied natural gas will increase profits for Navigator. (Navigator ships liquefied petroleum gas, but production of the two products is significantly linked.) It remains unclear whether the trade deal would create direct, predictable benefits for Navigator, but there is nonetheless an unseemly appearance of a conflict of interest.
- Carl Icahn’s Oil Refinery Bet: Until mid-August 2017, Billionaire investor Carl Icahn served as an unpaid special advisor to President Trump on regulatory issues. In that capacity, multiple reports indicate that Mr. Icahn sought–ultimately unsuccessfully–to alter certain biofuels regulations in ways that would benefit an oil refinery in which Mr. Icahn held an 82% stake. According to media reports, Mr. Icahn also made substantial amounts of money through trades in assets the value of which would be affected by the regulatory reforms he was pushing. Democratic lawmakers have asked the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency to look into whether Mr. Icahn’s conduct amounted to insider trading or other illegal conduct. According to recent reports, Manhattan federal prosecutors are investigating Mr. Icahn’s actions as special advisor and have served him with a subpoena.
- Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox: Media mogul Rupert Murdoch is a close confidant and advisor to President Trump. Mr. Murdoch has two important interests that President Trump could influence. First, President Trump could influence the proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner, as he promised to on the campaign trail, stressing that it was, “a deal we will not approve in my administration.” Mr. Murdoch has a vested interest in scuttling the deal, as the merger would create a powerful rival to Mr. Murdoch’s company, 21st Century Fox. On November 20, 2017, the Justice Department filed suit to stop the merger. There have also been unconfirmed reports (see here and here) that in negotiations earlier in the month the Justice Department asked AT&T to sell Turner Broadcasting, a group of channels including CNN, in order to avoid the antitrust suit and that Mr. Murdoch had offered to buy CNN. However, no clear picture has emerged to substantiate these claims. Aside from the merger, the Justice Department is currently investigating Fox News for financial settlements related to sexual harassment lawsuits brought by female employees. The investigation will be overseen by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who in turn reports to President Trump.
- Kenneth Allen nomination: In September 2017, President Trump nominated Kenneth E. Allen, a former executive at the coal company Armstrong Energy to serve on the nine-member board of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which provides power to nine million consumers across seven Southeastern states. TVA has been and continues to be a longtime customer of Armstrong Energy, and Allen is still receiving payments from Armstrong on the basis of the amount of coal mined and sold from various Armstrong-owned properties. Allen was confirmed by the Senate on December 21, 2017.
- Kirstjen Nielsen nomination: In October 2017, President Trump nominated Kirstjen Nielsen, then White House Deputy Chief of Staff, as head of the Department of Homeland Security. She was confirmed by the Senate on December 5, 2017. Thad Bingel of Command Group, a security consulting and lobbying firm, helped advise Ms. Nielsen through the confirmation process for free. This is a departure from the norm of government staffers, rather than private lobbyists, guiding nominees on the route to confirmation. The Command Group, a lobbying and consulting agency, owns another company that does government contracting work. This connection sparks conflict of interest concerns that Mr. Bingel’s free help might influence Ms. Nielsen to send his company future DHS contracts.
- Jared Kushner and the Cadre Company: In Jared Kushner’s March 2007 financial disclosure to the Office of Government Ethics, he failed to disclose his financial stake in Cadre, a tech company he co-founded. Kushner and his lawyer claim that oversight was an “administrative error.” This error meant that instead of having to divest immediately from Cadre, Kushner made millions in profits as the company’s value rose after Kushner joined the White House. During this time, Kushner leveraged his White House position to meet with the CEOs and business leaders in many major technology companies.
- Whitefish Energy Holdings: As part of the Hurricane Maria recovery effort, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) awarded a $300 million, no-bid contract to Whitefish Energy Holdings to help restore Puerto Rico’s power grid. When Hurricane Maria hit, the company had two full-time employees, but it hired more than 300 workers after being awarded the contract. Suspiciously, Whitefish Energy Holdings is located in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown in Montana. While Secretary Zinke maintains that he “had absolutely nothing to do” with the contract, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has since expressed “significant concerns” with the deal. After a request from Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló , Prepa cancelled Whitefish’s contract. However, under the terms of the cancellation, Whitefish continued working in Puerto Rico until November 30, 2017.
4. Private and Foreign Interests Seeking To Influence the Trump Administration Through Dealings with Trump Businesses
Another significant concern is that individuals, private firms, and foreign governments may believe—rightly or wrongly—that they can curry favor with the Administration and increase their odds of favorable policy decisions by engaging in private business transactions with companies owned by or connected to President Trump—or, in the case of foreign governments, granting favorable regulatory treatment to Trump business operations in their countries. This is one of the most serious concerns related to the Trump family’s interest in profiting from the presidency, as it gives rise both to the appearance of corruption and the risk of actual corruption. The range of possible problems is too broad to summarize, but here are some examples of the leading sources of concern:
- The Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.: A number of concerns center on the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., and in particular on whether foreign governments, or agents of foreign governments, may seek to curry favor with the Trump Administration by booking rooms and events at the hotel. (The hotel, which substantially increased its room rates after the election, earned the Trump Organization roughly $20 million between January 2016 and April 2017, almost $2 million in profits.) While the Trump Organization initially declared that it would donate profits earned from foreign officials to charity, the Organization later acknowledged that it would not donate profits until 2018 at the earliest. Moreover, in a pamphlet distributed to senior Trump Organization employees, the Organization noted that it would be “impractical” to “fully and completely” identify all foreign guests staying at the Trump hotels. And a leaked email from September 2017 indicated that, despite public assurances to the contrary, President Trump is “definitely still involved” in the D.C. hotel’s business. Moreover, shortly after the election, the Hotel hosted a promotional event aimed specifically at foreign diplomats and attended by almost 100 diplomats from Brazil to Turkey. Since then, there have been numerous reports of private companies and foreign governments paying for rooms and events there. Some illustrative examples include:
- Bahrain: Shortly after President Trump’s election, the Embassy of Bahrain booked a reception at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., held on December 7, 2016.
- Saudi Arabia: On January 23-26, 2017, a lobbying firm working on behalf of Saudi Arabia booked rooms at the hotel, which were paid for by the Saudi government. In fact, the firm has paid nearly $270,000 to the hotel, including $190,272 on lodging, $78,204 on catering, and $1,568 on parking.
- Kuwait: The Embassy of Kuwait’s celebration of Kuwaiti independence on February 25, 2017 was originally scheduled to take place at the Four Seasons hotel, but was moved to the Trump hotel. According to anonymous sources, the location changed because members of the Trump Organization pressured the Kuwaiti ambassador to move the event. The ambassador, however, has denied these reports. If the allegation is true, it suggests direct efforts by the Trump Organization to leverage the president’s position to steer foreign government business to the Trump hotel.
- Turkey: The American Turkish Council and the Turkey-U.S. Business Council (TAIK)—an arm of the Turkish government—held their annual conference in May 2017 at the Trump hotel. Previous conferences have cost around $400,000, with about one-third of that going to the venue. (Also of note: TAIK is headed by Ekim Alptekin, who founded Inovo BV, the consulting company that paid former national security advisor Michael Flynn $530,000 for lobbying work.)
- Malaysia: On September 11, 2017, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak visited the Trump International Hotel prior to a meeting with the President at the White House the following day. While Hotel staffers and Malaysian officials declined to say whether the Prime Minister and other officials stayed at the hotel, the visit brought at least 24 hours of activity and sales to the hotel. For instance, a dozen members of the Prime Minister’s entourage could be seen relaxing in a lounge area reserved for hotel guests during lunchtime. Further, the Prime Minister was seen leaving the hotel for dinner and returning later that night. Based on confirmed spending totals of other groups that have made base at the hotel, events of this scale usually result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for the Trump Organization.
- Events at Other Trump Properties: Similar concerns have been raised with respect to other Trump properties, where domestic or foreign interests may seek to curry favor with the president by booking space for events. For example, The National Confectioners Association, which represents large candy companies, is hosting several large meetings at the Trump National Doral Resort and other Trump properties. While these bookings were also made before President Trump was elected, it is nonetheless the case that a lobbying group is paying the Trump Organization while it is also advocating for changes in government policy. And in Canada, shortly after Trump’s election, the American Chamber of Commerce in Canada moved a planned meeting from the home of a diplomatic official to the newly-opened Trump International Hotel & Tower in Vancouver. The Chamber only paid $1,900 to rent the space for the event and asserted that the decision to move the event was due to a water leak at the original site, rather than any desire to influence the Trump Administration. While the explanation is plausible, events like this nonetheless contribute at least to the perception of an attempt to curry favor. Similarly, GEO Group—the country’s biggest private prison company—held its annual leadership conference at Trump National Doral in Miami. The company has had billions of dollars of contracts (including the Trump Administration’s first contract for an immigration detention center) with the government and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Trump campaign.
- Membership in Trump Golf Clubs: Among the members of Trump golf clubs (who pay initiation fees that can exceed $100,000), there are at least 50 executives whose companies hold federal contracts, and 21 lobbyists and trade group officials. While many of these memberships may pre-date Trump’s election, it nonetheless remains the case that individuals with a vested influence in influencing U.S. government are paying substantial sums to businesses controlled by the President’s family, and from which the President directly benefits. Indeed, according to media reports, club members use the access to President that membership affords in order to “influence the President on policy[.]”
- Guo Wengui Deportation: The Chinese government urged President Trump to return Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire who fled China and has an application for asylum pending in the United States. Chinese officials accuse Guo of crimes including bribery, kidnapping, and rape. In October 2017, after receiving a request from the Chinese government hand-delivered by casino tycoon Steve Wynn (who himself depends on Chinese government approvals to operate his lucrative casinos in Macau), President Trump initially agreed that “[w]e need to get this criminal out of the country.” However, the President changed his mind after his aides informed him that Guo was a member of Mar-a-Lago. Setting aside a discussion of whether the United States should comply with China’s request, it is troubling that the President seems to be making decisions that have significant implications for the diplomatic relationship between the United States and China based at least in part on a personal profit motive.
- Taiwan: On December 2, 2016, President Trump broke with nearly four decades of presidential precedent and communicated with the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. (Since 1979, the United States has not officially recognized Taiwan.) In the days after the call, news broke that the Trump Organization was considering expanding to Taiwan. While the Trump Organization denied any such plans, the Mayor of Taoyuan—the city where the Organization supposedly wants to build—confirmed a September 8, 2016 visit from a representative of the Trump Organization to talk about expansion.
- Chinese Trademarks: Although President Trump’s phone call with the President of Taiwan caused tension in the U.S.-China relationship, in February 2017 President Trump reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the so-called “One China Policy.” Within a week of this announcement, the Chinese government granted the Trump Organization long-coveted Chinese trademarks for the “Trump” brand. As of June 2017, the New York Times reported that President Trump had 123 trademarks registered and provisionally approved (meaning they will be approved within three months if there are no objections) in China. While there is no direct evidence of a quid pro quo, and some commentators have suggested alternative explanations for the Chinese government’s decision, a number of factors—the suspicious timing, the unusual speed with which the trademarks were granted, and the mere fact that a foreign government conferred on the President’s business a benefit worth millions of dollars—together raise serious concerns. Similarly, Ivanka Trump’s company has over 40 trademark applications pending in China. On April 6, Ms. Trump—who remains an important adviser to her father on China related issues—dined with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago. That same day China granted her company three provisional trademarks (which had been filed with the Chinese authorities before President Trump was elected president).
- China Construction Company Deal: Although President Trump pledged not to engage the Trump Organization in any transactions with foreign government entities while serving as president, a major Chinese-owned construction company has been hired to work on Trump World Golf Club Dubai. DAMAC Properties, a partner of the Trump Organization at the Dubai golf club, awarded the Middle East Subsidiary of China State Construction Engineering Corporation a $32 million contract to build a six-lane road as part of the residential piece of the golf club project called Akoya Oxygen. The companies’ news releases do not detail the exact timing of the contract, except to note that it was sometime in the first two months of 2017, which is around the time President Trump was inaugurated. The Trump Organization has said that the residential project and golf course are “totally unrelated,” despite marketing materials showing them to be intertwined.
- Chinese Real Estate Purchases:
- On February 21, 2017, Chen Xiaoyan (who also goes by Angela Chen) purchased a penthouse apartment in Trump Tower in New York for $15.8 million. Ms. Chen is the founder and managing director of a consulting and lobbying firm that helps clients secure access to senior public and private decision-makers in the People’s Republic of China, and includes among its clients the U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Trade and Development Agency.
- In March 2017, news outlets reported that a Chinese company, Anbang Insurance Group, planned a $4 billion transaction involving a property at 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan owned by the family of Jared Kushner. If the deal had gone through, it would have netted the Kushner family firm approximately $400 million. (Although Jared Kushner sold his ownership stake in the company when he assumed his White House role, he sold the stake to his family members, a move which many ethics experts considered inadequate.) However, within a few weeks of the initial reports, Anbang and the Kushner family ended talks about a possible deal. It is not clear how much public outcry over the potential conflict of interest issue may have played a role.
- At a May 2017 investor event in Beijing, Nicole Kushner Meyer—Jared Kushner’s sister—made a pitch soliciting $150 million for a Jersey City housing development at One Journal Square to over 100 Chinese investors. The pitch attracted criticism for two reasons. First, Ms. Meyer promoted the EB-5 visa, a program that allows a path to permanent residence for foreign investors who invest more than $500,000 in projects that create jobs in the US. (The brochure for the event included slogans such as, “Invest $500,000 and immigrate to the United States.”) The EB-5 program long pre-dates President Trump’s election and has been supported by both Democrat and Republican officials in the past; while the program has been persuasively criticized, Ms. Meyer’s remarks do not necessarily raise specific concerns about leveraging the political influence into private gain. Second, however, Ms. Meyer’s remarks attracted additional criticism because she also stressed that the investment project “means a lot to me and my entire family,” and she made a point to highlight the important role of her brother in the White House. Indeed, Mr. Kushner previously oversaw the project until he left the company to be senior advisor to the President, and he remains the beneficiary of trusts that own his stakes in Kushner Companies. After the criticism, the Kushner Companies apologized “if that mention of [Jared Kushner] was in any way interpreted as an attempt to lure investors.”
- Apology notwithstanding, evidence of the use of Jared Kushner’s government connections to attract investment from China surfaced again in July 2017. Two companies, Qiaowai and the US Immigration Fund, which were working with Kushner Companies to find Chinese investors, used Mr. Kushner’s role as a selling point in promotions posted on social media service WeChat. The Qiaowai ad made a direct reference to the Kushner family’s promotion of the EB-5 visa program, explaining that the development was approved for EB-5 visas and that the tight relationship between Kushner Companies and Mr. Trump means that “in the Trump era, the EB-5 program is likely to receive support and be expanded.” The US Immigration Fund ad, aside from referring to Mr. Kushner as “the celebrity of the family” and “30-something Mr. Perfect” linked to a December 2016 Forbes cover emblazoned with a photo of him and the headline, “This guy got Trump elected.” After CNN reached out to Qiaowai and the US Immigration Fund, they took down their ads. Kushner Companies claimed that it was unaware of the promotions. Nonetheless, the Securities & Exchange Commission has opened an investigation into whether Kushner Companies had violated the law in its promotion of the visa program to Chinese investors.
- Jared Kushner’s Failed Loan from Qatar: In 2015 and 2016, Jared Kushner negotiated with Qatari billionaire and former prime minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani (HBJ for short) regarding a possible $500 million investment in Mr. Kushner’s troubled property at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York City. However, HBJ pulled out when Mr. Kushner was unable to secure additional funding from Anbang in March 2017 (discussed above). In June 2017, President Trump sided against Qatar in the country’s diplomatic standoff with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain, citing concerns about Qatar’s funding of terrorism. Since June, Qatar has been under blockade by its neighbors. President Trump’s statements about Qatar contradict those of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has called for an end to the embargo. The timing of the failed business deal between HBJ and Mr. Kushner has led some to speculate that President Trump’s stance toward Qatar is revenge or an attempt to send a message of intimidation to other prospective foreign business partners–particularly given that, according to anonymous sources, Secretary Tillerson believed that the U.S. position on Qatar was being driven primarily by Kushner.
- Jared Kushner’s Meeting with Russian Officials: In connection with the ongoing investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 election, the FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller are reportedly scrutinizing meetings in 2016 between Jared Kushner and two Russian officials, Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Sergey Gorkov, the head of VEB (a Russian state-owned development bank) and a close associate of Vladamir Putin. The contents of those discussions are still unknown, and the parties have issued seemingly contradictory explanations. (Mr. Kushner, for example, asserted that he was discussing policy issues, while Mr. Gorkov asserted that in their meeting Mr. Kushner was acting in his private capacity as a representative of his business.) Some media reports have suggested that Mr. Kushner and Mr. Gorkov may have discussed the possibility that Mr. Gorkov’s bank might extend financing to the 666 Fifth Avenue property mentioned above, or other business ventures of the Kushner family, if the Trump Administration lifted the sanctions that the U.S. had imposed on Russia in response to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. (Others, however, have questioned the plausibility of this speculation, given that the size of the loan required for the 666 Fifth Avenue property would be quite large relative to VEB’s assets.) Mr. Kushner answered questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee at a closed-door session on July 24, 2017 and released an 11-page written statement claiming he met with Mr. Gorkov in his capacity as a member of the Trump transition team, and not as a businessman, and did not discuss any private business matters.
- Philippines: President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines named Jose E.B. Antonio, the chairman of the company that is building a Trump Tower in the Philippines, as an envoy to the United States for trade, investment, and economic affairs. Mr. Antonio, whose company paid the Trump Organization as much as $5 million to use the Trump name on the current Trump Tower project, has said he’s discussing additional projects in the Philippines with the Trump family. (Moreover, until recently those looking to buy a condo at the Tower were greeted by a video of President Trump, filmed several years ago, advocating for the Tower and project.) In other words, Mr. Antonio both represents the Philippines in discussions with the U.S. government regarding policy issues, and also discusses private business ventures with the Trump Organization. In November 2017, Mr. Antonio took part in a private meeting between President Trump and President Duterte at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit.
- Indonesia: The Trump Organization is currently developing a luxury resort on the Indonesian island of Bali. The Bali local government provided public land for the project, granted numerous licenses and permits, and is planning to build (at government expense) a toll road extension that will substantially shorten the drive from the airport to the Trump resort–a decision that has raised concerns that the government may be deliberately undertaking an infrastructure project to curry favor with the U.S. president.
- Panama: The Trump Organization developed a luxury hotel in Panama City, and the Panamanian government has stepped in to aid the project in various ways, including government-funded repair of privately-owned sewage and drainage systems, use of the hotel for various government functions, and favorable permitting and tax decisions–decisions that, while not illegal or necessarily improper, raise significant concerns about conflicts of interest.
- Turkey: The Turkish conglomerate Dogan Holding was instrumental in developing the Trump Towers Istanbul, and continues to pay millions to the Trump Organization. The Erdogan government, however, has previously imposed a $2.5 billion tax fine on Dogan Holding, and could put further pressure on the company in the future. According to some reports, this is a deliberate strategy to pressure the Trump Administration. According to a Newsweek report, President Erdogan “told associates he believes he must keep pressure on Trump’s business partner [in Turkey] to essentially blackmail the president.”
- United Arab Emirates: Just before President Trump’s first foreign trip, which he made to the Middle East, Donald Trump Jr. delivered the commencement address at American University Dubai. While his fee was not disclosed, previous speakers, including President Clinton, have been paid as much as $150,000 for a commencement address at the same university. The speaking fee might be used by Dubai’s leaders to curry favor with the Trump Administration, particularly since the United Arab Emirates holds a stake in the American University Dubai.
- Caribbean: In the first major divestiture of a Trump property since the election, the Trump Organization is selling Le Chateau des Palmiers—a five acre beachfront estate on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. President Trump bought the property in 2013 for an undisclosed amount, although the asking price at the time was $19.7 million. The property was initially listed for $28 million, although the price is officially listed as “price on application.” Given that any transaction would be a private property transaction, the Trump Organization would not need to reveal the identity of the buyer. This raises concerns that a buyer could overpay to curry favor with the Trump Administration and the President. In August 2017, the asking price was reduced to $16.9 million.
- State Public Pension Funds: Public pension funds in California, New York, Texas, Arizona, Montana, Michigan, and Missouri—with more than five million members—have millions of dollars investedin The CIM Group, a Los Angeles-based investment group that owns The Trump SoHo Hotel and Condominium. The CIM Group pays Trump International Hotels Management LLC 5.75% of Trump SoHo’s operating budget, resulting in millions of dollars in payments. Thus, these state pensions are paying millions of dollars almost directly to the Trump Organization through the CIM Group. That arrangement will soon change, however, as CIM and the Trump Organization have agreed to end the Trump Organization’s role in managing the Trump Soho by the end of this year. The deal comes on the heels of a ProPublica report that Manhattan D.A. Cyrus Vance dropped felony fraud charges against Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump for misleading buyers about the percentage of condos that had already been sold at the Trump Soho after Trump attorney Marc Kasowitz made a donation to Vance’s 2012 re-election campaign.