Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–November 2019 Update

While ongoing developments in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukraine to open investigations that might damage Trump’s political rivals continue to dominate the headlines, there are plenty of other reasons to be concerned about other serious ethical problems (some might say “corruption”) in the Trump Administration, including a slew of credible allegations that the President, his family members, and close associates have been using the presidency to advance their personal financial interests. Back in May 2017, GAB began tracking and cataloguing credible allegations of this sort of profiteering by President Trump and his family and cronies. Unfortunately, each month brings a new incidents, or new information about old incidents, and so we try to do regular updates of this catalogue, and the newest update is now available here.

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

Trump’s Attempted Violation of the Emoluments Clause, and the Inadequacy of the “Services at Cost” Rationale

In a press briefing on October 17, 2019, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney announced that the United States would host the 46th G-7 summit at the Trump National Doral Miami, a golf resort in Doral Florida owned by the Trump Organization. The announcement provoked widespread concern (see here and here) that this choice would violate the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, which bars any person “holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States]” from “accepting any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign state,” as well as the Domestic Emoluments Clause, which bars the President from receiving any emolument, other than his salary, from the United States or any of the individual states. Following two days of complaints—not only from the ethics watchdogs and the President’s Democratic opponents, but also from some of his Republican allies—the White House abandoned the plan. So, the situation appears to have resolved itself. Nonetheless, the particular argument that Mulvaney advanced to defend against the anticipated Emoluments Clause complaints is worth considering—and debunking—lest this argument arise again in another context.

To be clear, the White House’s attempt to host the G-7 at a Trump Organization venue appears to be part of the same pattern of self-dealing that has already prompted multiple lawsuits against Trump for alleged violations of the Emoluments Clauses. As Mulvaney said on Fox News this past Sunday, “[President Trump] still considers himself to be in the hospitality business, and he saw an opportunity to take the biggest leaders from around the world and he wanted to put on the absolute best show.” Although the proposal to host the G-7 summit at the Doral resort was dropped, Mulvaney’s admission is worrying because there are reasons to suspect Trump chose the Doral property to benefit himself financially. (Consider the fact that in 2004, when the United States hosted the summit on Sea Island the organizers served 45,000 meals and paid the resort owners $3 million to reserve the entire property for 10 days.)

When Mulvaney detailed the White House’s decision-making process for the G-7 venue on October 17, he claimed the administration used neutral criteria when it made this choice (which is a bit hard to swallow given that Mulvaney stated the President suggested Doral), and that Doral was actually the best location (an assertion that is hard to assess without knowing the other venues the White House was considering). Furthermore, Mulvaney also argued that there was no Emoluments Clause violation because Doral would host the event “at cost”—that is, that Doral would only charge the government for the cost of the goods and services provided, and would not make a profit. On its face, this sounds plausible. After all, if Doral—and hence the Trump Organization—does not earn any profits on the G-7 meeting, but merely breaks even, then how can Trump have received an “emolument” from the U.S. government? If anything, the Trump Organization would have provided the U.S. government with a venue and associated amenities at a discounted rate.

Despite its superficial plausibility, there are three flaws with the argument that running the event “at cost” would eliminate any Emoluments Clause problem:

Continue reading

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.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–October 2019 Update

The recent and still-unfolding scandal involving President Trump’s apparent pressure on Ukraine to investigate and/or provide dirt on his political rivals has to some degree overshadowed many of the other ethical concerns about President Trump’s behavior in office, including a slew of credible allegations that the President, his family members, and close associates have been using the presidency to advance their personal financial interests. (That said, the Ukraine scandal has also drawn greater attention to at least one aspect of this problem, as it did not go unnoticed that in the now-infamous phone July 25 phone conversation between President Trump and President Zelensky, the latter went out of his way to emphasize how much he enjoyed staying in a Trump hotel in New York, which is consistent with longstanding fears that those hoping to influence Trump will give their patronage to his businesses.)

Back in May 2017, GAB began tracking and cataloguing credible allegations of this sort of profiteering by President Trump and his family and cronies. Until May 2019, we’d been updating that report on a monthly basis. The tracker hadn’t been updated for several months since then, partly due to my own lack of organization, and partly because there are now a number of other higher-profile, better-resourced projects with a similar goal. (Among these, I particularly recommend the those from the Sunlight Foundation and from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.) But I think GAB’s somewhat distinctive approach to organizing and describing these concerns might still have sufficient added value that we’re restarting our regular updates to the Trump conflict-of-interest tracker. The newest update is now available here.

A previously noted while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.

Incorporating Anticorruption Measures in the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA)

On April 2, 2019, The Gambia became the 22nd country to ratify the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which was the minimum threshold to approve the deal among the 55-member states of the African Union (AU). The AfCFTA aims to provide a single continental market for goods and services, as well as a customs union with free movement of capital and business travelers. Although the agreement will enter into force one week from tomorrow (on May 30, 2019), the negotiations for the Protocols and other important matters such as tariff schedules, rules of origin, and sector commitments are still being negotiated. However, once the treaty is fully in force, it is expected to cover a market of 1.2 billion people and combined gross domestic product of $2.5 trillion, which would make it the world’s largest free trade area since the creation of the World Trade Organization. This could be a game-changer for Africa. Indeed, the U.N. Economic Commission on Africa predicts that the AfCFTA could increase intra-African trade by as much as 52.3%, and that this percentage will double when tariff barriers are eliminated. The AfCFTA promises to provide substantial opportunities for industrialization, diversification, and high-skilled employment. And the AU’s larger goal is to utilize the AfCFTA to create a single common African market.

Yet there are a number of challenges that could thwart the effectiveness of this new treaty in promoting free trade and economic development. Corruption is one of those challenges. International indexes indicate that Sub-Saharan Africa is perceived as the most corrupt region in the world, with North Africa not much better. The current version of the treaty, however, does not address corruption directly. It should. Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–May 2019 Update

For the past two years (since May 2017), GAB has been tracking credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests, and providing monthly updates on media reports of such issues. The May 2019 update is now available here. A couple of the more notable new developments in this update:

  • IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, who is currently fighting at House Committee request for President Trump’s tax returns, owns two Trump-branded properties from which he receives substantial rental income–the value of which is arguably affected by the overall value of the Trump brand.
  • Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report cites former Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s statement that Trump at several points suggested that his presidential campaign would function as an “infomercial” for Trump-branded properties.
  • New information revealed through a Freedom of Information Act request indicates that since 2017 at least seven foreign governments have rented units at a Trump-managed property in New York (the Trump World Tower).

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–April 2019 Update

Since May 2017, GAB has been tracking credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests, and providing monthly updates on media reports of such issues. The April 2019 update is now available here. A couple of the more notable new developments in this update:

  • Ballard Partners, a lobbying firm with close ties to the Trump administration, is apparently explicitly directing the firm’s clients to book rooms and hold events at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, as a way to influence the administration
  • The Trump Hotel is selling merchandise with images of the White House, in an apparent attempt to further marketize/monetize President Trump’s official position.

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.