First came news that a Chinese government-owned company had signed on to help build an Indonesian project that will include a Donald Trump-branded hotel and golf course. Then, days later, the president tweeted that his administration would ease sanctions against a Chinese smartphone maker accused of espionage. “Too many jobs in China lost,” he wrote.
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Ethics watchdogs and political adversaries called last week’s events a blatant case of Trump appearing to trade foreign favors to his business for changes in government policy, exactly the kind of situation they predicted would happen when the real estate mogul turned politician refused to divest from his sprawling business interests.
And they say that such dealmaking will likely become business as usual, unchecked by a Republican-led Congress, court cases that could take years and a public that hasn’t gotten too excited about the obscure constitutional prohibition on the president accepting emoluments, or benefits, from foreign governments without congressional approval.
“It’s an issue that seems highly technical and complex, and is difficult to link to everyday lives,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who is heading up an emoluments lawsuit brought by about 200 or so members of Congress.
“But when you bring it home to the reason for the emoluments clause, namely to prevent conflicts of interest, so the president will act only for the benefit of the United States, not for his own self-interest, then people should understand that his taking that benefit compromises his priorities,” Blumenthal said.
Such concerns have dogged Trump since he took office. His Washington hotel, just blocks from the White House, has become a magnet for foreign governments seeking to influence his administration, including groups tied to Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. Trump’s financial disclosure last week showed the hotel took in more than $40 million in revenue last year. To allay fears of conflicts, Trump promised to give the U.S. Treasury the profits from foreign stays at his hotels, which came to $151,470. His company declined to say how that figure was calculated.
A Quinnipiac University National Poll released in March found that 57 percent of Americans believe Trump is not honest. Still, in the latest Quinnipiac poll last month, Trump’s job approval rating stood at 41 percent, matching the highest mark of his presidency.
Shana Gadarian, a political psychologist at Syracuse University, said those who pay attention to politics tend to be more partisan and often set aside information they find inconsistent with their beliefs.
“To the extent that you like this administration,” she said, “you might say this is just the way business is done. This isn’t a concern.”
Whether there was a quid pro quo in the China-Indonesia deal, similarly, depends on whom you ask.
An Indonesian company, MNC Land, confirmed last week that it hired the subsidiary of the state-owned Metallurgical Corp. of China to build a theme park in its Lido City development outside Jakarta. MNC Land three years earlier struck a deal for the development to include a Trump-branded hotel, 400 luxury villas and condos, and an 18-hole championship golf course.
MNC Land said the Trump Organization has “no relationship” with the theme park that the Chinese company is building. It also said that news reports that a Chinese government-backed $500 million loan for the project had been signed were false.
The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment. China’s foreign and commerce ministries and the Cabinet’s news office also did not respond to requests for comment. Calls to the China Metallurgical Group rang unanswered.
James Schultz, a former associate White House counsel for Trump, said the argument that Trump was violating the emoluments clause merely because a theme park is being built near a Trump hotel property is “farfetched.”
Just 72 hours after that deal was announced, Trump sent a tweet that marked what appeared to be a major reversal in the government’s stance on massive Chinese phone company ZTE and on Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.
The U.S. intelligence community has warned about the Chinese smartphone maker’s perceived ties to the Chinese government and its possible use for remote surveillance. ZTE has been fined in recent years for shipping American goods to five embargoed countries, including Iran and North Korea. The Pentagon banned ZTE phones from retail stores on military bases because the devices could be a security risk. And the Trump administration ordered a seven-year halt in American shipments of computer microchips and software that are at the heart of most of ZTE’s telecommunications gear.
That ban particularly was devastating to ZTE and its 75,000 employees, with the company recently announcing it was halting operations.
Trump tweeted that he was working with the president of China “to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!”
Don Fox, the former general counsel of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, said the Chinese “knew exactly what they were investing in” with the deal in Indonesia. “It also strains credulity that the president wasn’t aware of this when he made his favorable comments about ZTE.”
Three pending lawsuits, which could potentially take years to litigate, are likely the key to untangling whether such a business deal, in addition to the various bookings of Trump properties by lobbyists, foreign governments, corporate and political interests, constitute emoluments. The president’s attorneys have disputed that.
“It is our only real remedy,” Blumenthal said of the cases. “It may sound like a sign of frustration, and inertia, but the founders provided us this sole remedy. … We need a judge to order the president to obey the law.”