The president's conflicts of interest are not in America's interest
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The Chinese trademark deal. The Deutsche Bank scandal. The Azerbaijan partnership with a corrupt government family. These are just a few of the conflicts of interest of Trump’s global business empire that may well shape American foreign policy.

No doubt there are many, many more conflicts, but with a president who refuses to release his tax returns and disclose to the American public the full extent of the Trump Organization, we can only speculate from information unearthed from scandals, leaks and limited personal financial records. Under this veil of secrecy surrounding the Trump business empire, America’s relations with foreign nations are tacking with President Trump at the helm. But in whose interest are these changes being made?

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Trump’s continued ownership of his business empire provides ample opportunity for foreign nations to affect the president’s pocketbook in an effort to influence American foreign policy. Look at the suspicious new developments in America’s relations with China. Trump promised to label China an international currency manipulator and circumvented Chinese protocol by privately reaching out to the president of Taiwan. But later Trump’s hard line on China faded. He has not yet declared China a currency manipulator and, a few weeks after his Taiwan phone call, he reassured Chinese President Xi Jinping that America stands by the “One China” policy.

 

During the course of those few weeks, China approved a valuable trademark deal with the Trump Organization. It was just days earlier that Trump had reassured China on his commitment to the “One China” policy. Following this warming of relations between China and Trump, China granted preliminary approval for 38 more trademarks linked to Trump. This is an astonishing turn of events, which raise rather obvious suspicions about a foreign government using business as leverage over American foreign policy.

Look at the criminal probe of Deutsche Bank for money laundering on behalf of its Russian clients. The German bank and Trump currently have about $300 million in business deals. On the heels of allegations of Russian intervention in U.S. elections to support Trump, Deutsche Bank conducted an internal audit of Trump’s bank account and those held by the Trump family, in order to determine whether there were any questionable links to Russia. The bank announced that there were none to be found.

Suspicions abound whether Deutsche Bank is playing nice with the president to appease its Russian clients or, perhaps, to soften the Department of Justice criminal investigation of the bank. House and Senate Democrats have called for congressional hearings on the affair.

Look at the licensing agreement between the Trump Organization and the shady Azerbaijan developers with solid ties to the Azerbaijan government. The main developer of the hotel project is the son of Azerbaijan’s transportation minister, a government official who was described in a leaked diplomatic cable as laundering money for Iran’s military and “notoriously corrupt even for Azerbaijan.” Conceivably this partnership could trigger the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for the Trump Organization, a law that prohibits American companies from working with corrupt officials.

Trump denounced FCPA as “absolutely horrible” and has nominated Jay Clayton to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, which enforces the anti-bribery statute. Clayton, like Trump, considers the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to be an unfair burden on American companies expanding abroad for prohibiting them from bribing foreign officials to win lucrative business contracts. The question again must be asked as to whose interest is being pursued here.

One need look no further to see the grave damage caused by Trump’s conflicts of interest, shrouded in secrecy, for the integrity of American foreign policy. Almost any foreign policy decision Trump makes inevitably will raise doubts as to whether it is in Trump’s interest or America’s interest.

Important legislation is pending to address these problems. Some would focus on transparency. The “Presidential Trade Transparency Act” would mandate that the president disclose any financial investments in nations involved in negotiated trade deals. The “Presidential Tax Transparency Act” would require the president to disclose his tax returns. Other legislation, such as the “Presidential Conflict of Interest Act,” would order the president to follow in the footsteps of every other president for the last 40 years and divest from financial conflicts of interest through a genuine blind trust run by an independent executor — not a trust run by family and friends.

Without even the simplest step of transparency of Trump’s global conflicts of interest, American foreign policy will continue to fall under a cloud of suspicion both at home and abroad, fraught with accusations of manipulation by foreign governments and self-dealing by Trump and his administration. That is most certainly not in America’s interest.

Craig Holman, Ph.D., is a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, where he serves as the organization’s Capitol Hill liaison on campaign finance and government ethics. He previously worked as a senior policy analyst at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. He assisted in crafting and implementing the original ethics executive order implemented by the Obama administration.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.