Tracking Trump’s Conflicts Controversies

Photo of Donald Trump

President Donald Trump came into office pledging to avoid conflicts of interest by resigning from his global business empire and handing control to his sons. Despite those steps, more potential conflicts have surfaced since his inauguration, fueled by the president’s critics and, in one case, his own tweet. Prominent examples – and the White House rebuttals – are summarized here. VOA will update the list as circumstances change or new possible conflicts arise.

Washington | United States

Washington hotel a magnet for diplomats

Since its grand opening on October 26, 2016, Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., has hosted events by the embassies of Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Kuwait. While the Azerbaijan and Bahrain parties took place before Trump was sworn in on January 20, the Kuwait Embassy's National Day celebration was held February 22. Reuters estimated the cost between $40,000 and $60,000 -- money that flowed through coffers of the Trump Organization, which developed the property and operates it under a government lease with a subsidiary. Read more

What critics say

The payments are a potential violation of the Constitution's emoluments clause, intended to ban acceptance of foreign gifts. Watchdogs say handing over hotel profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury -- as Trump has pledged to do -- is not enough to sidestep the problem. Another potential problem is the hotel lease, which explicitly prohibits any elected official from benefiting. After his inauguration, Trump resigned from the subsidiary operating the hotel and transferred the lease to a trust cared for by his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric Trump. Critics were unpersuaded. "Any elected official can now defy the (emoluments) restriction by following this blueprint," Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, and Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, ranking member of the House Transportation Committee, said in a statement. (Both are Democrats.) Kathleen Clark, an ethics expert at Washington University law school, told Forbes that the arrangement merely delays financial benefits to Trump "rather than denying him any financial benefit.” Read more

Trump's response

Trump lawyers deny there are any conflicts of interest. Trump's personal lawyer, Sheri Dillon, said the emoluments clause does not apply to "fair value exchanges" such as hotel payments. After the lease was transferred, the Government Services Administration pronounced it "in full compliance." Read more

Palm Beach | United States

Mar-a-Lago basks in glow of foreign summits

In February, Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his swanky South Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. Paying members were allowed to mingle with the president and the Japanese delegation. Trump also hosted Chinese Premier Xi Jinping in April. As of April 11, Trump had spent 21 days of his presidency at the "winter White House." Mar-a-Lago doubled its membership entry fee to $200,000 after Trump's election, and the club's manager told The New York Times that Trump's presidency made the club more attractive: "It enhances it -- his presidency does." Trump's latest financial disclosure lists nearly $30 million in income from Mar-a-Lago Club LLC. Read more

What critics say

Trump's hosting foreign dignitaries at his own resort raises some sticky questions. For instance: Who picks up the bill? Does Trump's company profit? Noah Bookbinder of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) says Mar-a-Lago is a case of "Trump profiting off of his presidency." In January, CREW filed a federal lawsuit in New York alleging the president is violating the Constitution's emoluments clause, which prohibits federal officials from accepting cash or gifts from a foreign power. The Government Accountability Office has said it will review procedures for protecting classified information at Mar-a-Lago and for screening guests. The GAO move follows questions about security raised by Democratic senators. Read more

Trump's response

Japanese Prime Minister Abe was not charged for his stay at Mar-a-Lago -- a gift from Trump to Abe, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said. During his recent visit to the U.S., Chinese President Xi and his delegation stayed at the nearby Eau Palm Beach Resort and Spa, although Trump and Xi held talks at the resort. Read more

Dallas | United States

A hotel deal in Dallas and talk of overseas investors

Trump Hotels briefly entered into talks with Turkish-American real estate developer Mike Sarimsakci, whose Alterra Worldwide was to build in Dallas, Texas, a Scion hotel, a new Trump brand of low-priced hotels. Until things soured, the $50 million project was originally slated to receive funding from investors in the U.S., Turkey, Qatar and Kazakhstan, Bloomberg reported.

What critics say

The potential involvement of foreign investors in the hotel raised questions about whether they might use the project to cozy up to the White House. Richard Painter, a Trump critic and former ethics adviser to President George W. Bush, told the Associated Press, "This is the new version of pay-to-play, 'Get in there and do business with the Trump Organization.' " (Painter is on the board of directors for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonprofit that has sued the president claiming his business entanglements are unconstitutional.) Read more

Trump's response

Eric Danziger, the CEO of Trump Hotels, initially told the Associated Press that new investors in Scion hotels would undergo an "exhaustive, thorough review to make sure, for instance, they're not offering sweetheart deals to the Trump family." After questions were raised, both sides announced in April that the deal had been shelved. Sarimsakci blamed local opposition to Trump, while Danziger cited questions about foreign ties and Sarimsakci's premature disclosures about the project. Read more

Dominican Republic

Beachfront resort and a “no new deals” pledge

The Trump Organization has expressed an interest in reviving a long-dormant licensing deal in the Dominican Republic. The 2007 resort deal with the country's wealthy Hazoury family languished after the 2008 financial crisis, but interest resurged after Trump's son Eric visited the resort on Febuary 2. In news reports, the Dominican family described its relationship with the Trump Organization as “very strong.” Read more

What critics say

To avoid conflicts of interest, Trump pledged not to pursue any new foreign business deals while in office. The question now: Would restarting an old deal violate that pledge? Richard Painter, a Trump critic and former ethics adviser to President George W. Bush, has called the no-new-deal pledge a "farce." (Painter sits on the board of directors for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonprofit that has sued the president claiming his business entanglements are unconstitutional.) Read more

Trump's response

Trump Organization general counsel Alan Garten says the Dominican deal never was dead and had been recorded in Trump’s 2015 official financial disclosure (though not in the 2016 disclosure). Asked about the situation by VOA, Trump ethics adviser Bobby Burchfield declined to say whether he considered the Dominican deal old or new. Read more

UAE, Turkey, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia

Travel ban exempts rich Muslim countries with Trump interests

Trump issued January 27 and March 4 executive orders attempting to impose a temporary travel ban on a handful of predominantly Muslim nations -- but the list excluded well-off Muslim countries where he has ongoing businesses or had explored future deals. Trump has real estate and golf courses in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Indonesia; he has also considered real estate deals in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Since the election, however, he has dissolved shell companies created for Saudi Arabia. Read more

What critics say

Critics say there's a perception of self-interest -- or at least mixed signals. Kamal Essaheb, director of policy and advocacy for the National Immigration Law Center, told The Washington Post: “To be blunt, we really don’t know what to make of which motives are driving this president’s decisions. From what we could tell from his campaign and his actions since he became president, what seems to be first and foremost on his mind is his own self-interest and an obsession with his brand.” Read more

Trump's response

The White House has denied that Trump excluded countries based on his business interests. His current order would suspend travel from Syria, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya for 90 days. White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told The Washington Post that, “The high-risk territories are based on congressional statute and ­nothing else.” (In 2015, Congress designated Iraq and Syria as "countries of concern"; the Department of Homeland Security later added five other countries to the list.) Judges have blocked both versions of Trump's travel restrictions in response to state lawsuits alleging religious discrimination. Read more

New York City | United States

Trump Tower's biggest tenant: A Chinese bank

Foreign government entities continue to rent space at Trump Tower in New York. The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, a state-owned bank, is Trump Tower's biggest tenant, occupying 11 percent of the tower's office space. The United Arab Emirates' Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority also rents there. Read more

What critics say

A lawsuit by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) claims Trump "regularly receives money — and, without judicial intervention, will continue to receive money during his presidency — through the leases that the ICBC and the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority hold in Trump Tower." The lawsuit argues that such payments violate the Constitution's emoluments clause, which is intended to prohibit federal officials from taking money or gifts from foreign governments. Read more

Trump's response

In an interview with The New York Times, the president's son Eric Trump said allegations that payments from the China bank and Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority are illegal amount to "purely harassment for political gain." Trump has resigned from his businesses and put them in a trust under the care of his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric Trump, and advised by ethics experts. Read more

Vancouver | Canada

Foreign buyers flock to Vancouver Tower

Buyers with ties to foreign governments have snapped up condos at Trump International Hotel & Tower in Vancouver, B.C. The $360 million hotel and condo tower opened on February 28, becoming the first hotel to bear President Trump's name since his election. Under a licensing agreement with the tower's Malaysian developer, the Trump Organization receives a cut of the profits from condo sales in addition to management fees. Read more

What critics say

Norm Eisen, former Obama administration ethics official, called the Vancouver tower "an emoluments magnet" for foreign interests that may want to curry favor with the Trump administration. When foreigners buy condos at the tower, Eisen says, "It's fair to ask: 'Who's actually paying?' " Eisen is board chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which in a lawsuit claims Trump's business relationships violate the U.S. Constitution's emoluments clause, which prohibits federal officials from taking gifts or money from foreign governments. Read more

Trump's response

Trump's son Eric Trump told The New York Times that the Trump Organization was not the owner of the Vancouver property and did not control who bought the units there. Read more

Manila | Philippines

Juggling business and foreign policy in the Philippines

Trump has a licensing deal on a luxury residential tower in Manila, the Philippines — Trump Tower at Century City — with a company owned by Jose E.B. Antonio, the Philippines government's new special envoy to the United States. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has come under fire for encouraging summary executions in a war on drugs that has killed thousands in less than a year. Duterte repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for interference in the Philippines, but after the November election expressed optimism he could work with the Trump administration. "He has not meddled in the human rights,” Duterte said. Read more

What critics say

The concern is that the Trump partnership raises potential conflicts with U.S. foreign policy toward the Philippines. What stand will the president take toward the Duterte government as he and his family try to balance their business interests with U.S. foreign policy and human rights objectives? Former State Department deputy Michael H. Fuchs, who worked on East Asia and Pacific affairs, told The New York Times, “The working assumption on behalf of all these foreign government officials will be that there is an advantage to doing business with the Trump organization. ... And this will significantly complicate United States foreign policy and our relationships around the world.” Read more

Trump's response

Trump has not addressed questions about potential conflicts in the Philippines. Antonio, the Philippines special envoy, told Bloomberg news that he visited Trump Tower after the election and met with Trump's sons, Donald Jr. and Eric Trump. Hope Hicks, Trump transition spokeswoman, said Antonio did not meet with Trump.

Istanbul | Turkey

In Turkey, a Trump ally and business partner

Trump Towers Istanbul, a two-tower residential and office complex, is a lucrative source of revenue for the Trump Organization, accounting for $1 million to $5 million in yearly royalties. Critics say that could give Turkey leverage over Trump as the Turkish government seeks the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric accused of plotting last year's failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government. Read more

What critics say

The potential conflict is magnified because Turkey is a key NATO member and partner in the Syrian war. In addition, Michael Flynn, Trump's short-lived national security adviser, later acknowledged that he had worked as a paid agent for the Turkish government while he also was advising the Trump campaign. "If the general was receiving classified information that could affect his business interests, that would be an obvious concern," ethics lawyer Joe Sandler told the Associated Press. Read more

Trump's response

In 2015, Trump acknowledged he had "a little conflict of interest, because I have a major, major building in Istanbul." Since winning the election, he and his advisers have not directly addressed the potential conflict over Gulen's extradition.

Seattle | United States

A shot at Nordstrom for dropping Ivanka Trump’s brand

On February 8, Trump took to Twitter to shame Nordstrom, the high-end department store chain, for "unfairly" dropping his daughter Ivanka's lines of clothing and accessories. Trump's tweet was then retweeted by the official presidential Twitter account, @POTUS. Nordstrom said the brand wasn't selling enough.

What critics say

Ethics experts and Democratic critics slammed Trump. “I actually think this is a really significant matter,” Kathleen Clark, an ethics law expert at Washington University School of Law, told the Huffington Post. “It seems to indicate that high-level personnel in the White House don’t understand the basics of why they’re there." Read more

Trump's response

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump's tweet was about defending his daughter, not promoting the family business. Trump and his supporters have noted that the president is exempt from laws prohibiting government workers from using their office for their own financial benefit or that of family members. Read more

Washington | United States

Kellyanne Conway’s ‘free commercial’ for Ivanka Trump

During a television interview, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway endorsed Ivanka Trump's clothing and jewelry lines after high-end retailer Nordstrom decided to drop them earlier this year and President Trump tweeted a complaint. “I'm going to give a free commercial here," Conway said on the Fox & Friends morning news show. "Go buy it today, everybody.” Read more

What critics say

The Office of Government Ethics said Conway’s endorsement “if true, would establish a clear violation” of the ban on using one's official position to advertise products and services. OGE Director Walter Shaub recommended in a letter to Stefan Passantino, Trump's deputy counsel for ethics, that the “White House investigate Ms. Conway's actions and consider taking disciplinary action against her.” Read more

Trump's response

Passantino told the Office of Government Ethics later that Conway had acted "inadvertently" and that he had "counseled" her about the incident. Read more

Beijing | China

An abrupt pivot on China's currency maneuvers

After high-profile campaign promises to swiftly punish China for currency manipulation, Trump abruptly retreated in April. Earlier this year, the Chinese government's trademark office granted preliminary approval of 38 Trump trademarks.The long-sought approvals came just weeks after Trump reversed his initial opposition to the "One China" policy, which acknowledges the dominance of the Chinese government in Beijing over the breakaway island of Taiwan. Read more

What critics say

There is no overt evidence that the Chinese trademark approvals or currency shift were tied to Trump's One China stance. Regarding the trademarks, former Obama administration ethics adviser Norm Eisen, a Trump critic, says that while China may have followed its laws, the trademarks are problematic under the U.S. Constitution's emoluments clause, which bans federal elected officials from receiving payments and gifts from foreign governments. (Eisen is board chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonprofit that has sued the president claiming his business entanglements are unconstitutional.) Read more

Trump's response

Trump Organization lawyer Alan Garten says the trademark registrations were a continuation of efforts that predated Trump's presidency. Initially, Trump told the Wall Street Journal that he'd changed his mind on the currency issue because China hasn’t been manipulating the renminbi for months. More recently, he cited China's willingness to help contain North Korea as justification for the switch. Read more

Beijing | China

Ivanka Trump's own China trademarks

Ivanka Trump has received provisional approval from the Chinese government for at least five trademarks since her father's January 20 inauguration. Three of the trademarks -- for jewelry, bags and spa services -- were granted on April 6, the same day she her husband, Jared Kushner, sat next to Chinese President Xi and his wife at a Mar-a-Lago state dinner hosted by President Trump. As with 38 Donald Trump trademarks granted in February and March, the Chinese trademark office said it followed the law in approving them. Ivanka Trump has put her assets in a trust but retains ownership. Read more

What critics say

The trademark approvals have led to charges that Ivanka Trump is profiting from her position as a White House adviser. Scott Amey, general counsel at the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, said Ivanka Trump's meeting with the Chinese president may have been appropriate, but the timing of the Chinese trademarks was "unfortunate." Ivanka Trump's ethical dilemma in some ways mirrors President Trump's, Amey said. "At the end of the day, you worry about whether they're making decisions or promoting policies that are related to trade and commerce and foreign policy that benefit their own personal financial interest and their businesses rather than what's in the best interest of taxpayers," he added. Others have called the trademarks a violation of ethics rules against using one's office for personal profit and called on President Trump to stop seeking trademarks while in the White House.

Trump's response

A spokesman for the Ivanka Trump brand defended the trademark applications, telling the Associated Press they were defensive measures against Chinese counterfeiters cashing in on her brand. Jamie Gorelick, a lawyer and ethics adviser for Ivanka Trump, said her cllient "had no involvement with trademark applications" filed by her businss since she resigned from her company in February. "The federal ethics rules do not require you to recuse from any matter concerning a foreign country just because a busines that you have an ownership interest in has a trademark application pending there," Gorelick said in a statement emailed to VOA. "Ivanka will recuse from particular matters where she has a conflict of interest or where the White House Counsel determines her participation would present appearance or impartiality concerns."