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.

Palm Beach | United States

State Department pulls Mar-a-Lago profile from official web site

The State Department was forced to take down a glowing profile of Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort from a governnment website that caters to foreign audiences. The April 4 blog post on the State Department's ShareAmerica website described Mar-a-Lago as "Trump's Florida estate," where he has hosted foreign leaders. "By visiting this 'winter White House,' Trump is belatedly fulfilling the dream of Mar-a-Lago's original owner and designer," the post read. The little- noticed post surfaced after the U.S. embassy in London linked to it on its website. Socialite and business heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post bequeathed the estate to the US government as a “Winter White House” for presidents and visiting foreign dignitaries. No president ever used it and the government later returned it to the Post family who sold it to Donald Trump in the 1980s. (In another incident involving the State Deparment in May, the Office of Global Women's Issues retweeted -- and later deleted -- a tweet by Ivanka Trump promoting her recently published book, "Women Who Work." She completed the book before the election and has promised to donate any additional money she makes from its sales to her charitable foundaiton.) Read more

What critics say

The post drew a sharp rebuke from a cross section of critics. Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Jim McGovern called it "outrageous." The watchdog Common Cause filed a complaint with the Office of Government Ethics on April 25, calling the post "a misuse and abuse of taxpayer dollars that clearly warrants an investigation." Government ethics expert Meredith McGehee of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center called the post "tone deaf" and surprising. The State Department "recognized it was an error," McGehee said. “Having the State Department talk about a property owned by a sitting President on an official website blurs the line" between public office and private business, she said.

Trump's response

The State Department removed the post on April 24 and replaced it with a message stating, “The intention of the article was to inform the public about where the President has been hosting world leaders. We regret any misperception and have removed the post.” Otherwise, the White House and the State Department have not commented. Read more

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 generated at least $20 million in income, according to Trump's 2016-2017 financial disclosure, released June 16, 2017. Nearly $270,000 of the revenue came from a PR firm hired by Saudi Arabia. In a May 31 filing with the Justice Deparment, MSL Group Americas reported paying more than $190,000 in lodging, $78,000 in catering and $1,600 in parking at Trump International Hotel D.C. as part of a lobbying effort to defeat the Justice Against Sponors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). JASTA, which was eventually passed by Congress, allows families of victims of terrorism to sue foreign governments that sponsor terrrorism. The Trump D.C. hotel 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

Although Saudi Arabia did not directly pay Trump Hotel, critics say the payments from MSL Group represent 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

The Trump Organization says it will donate profits from the Saudi payments at the end of the year. How it will calculate the profits remains unclear. Regardless, the Department of Justice says Trump businesses can receive payments from foreigners. In a June 9 motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), DOJ lawyers argued that the emoluments clause doesn't apply to "fair-market commercial transactions" such as hotel bills. 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 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 shortly 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 $37.25 million in income from Mar-a-Lago Club LLC in 2016 and early 2017, up from $30 million he had reported for 2015. 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 licensed his name to a luxury residential tower in the Philippine capital of Manila — Trump Tower at Century City — to the tune of $1 million to $5 million a year in annual royalties, according to his 2016 financial disclosure. The $150 milion tower's owner, Jose E.B. Antonio, was appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte as a trade envoy to the United States shortly after Trump's November election. Duterte has come under fire for encouraging summary executions in a war on drugs that has killed thousands in less than a year. Duterte was a sharp critic of former President Barack Obama, but after the November election expressed optimism he could work with the Trump administration. In late April, Trump invited Duterte to visit the White House, sparking outrage from human rights groups. Adding to the controversy, an image of Ivanka Trump on a billboard for the Manila property went viral on Twitter the day after Trump invited Duterte; it was later shown to be a 4-year-old photo. Read more

What critics say

The Trump invitation to Duterte was widely condemned by human rights organizations and the president's liberal critics. Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen called it "appalling" and urged Trump to rescind it. Government ethics experts saw a potential conflict of interest. "I think any time he has an interaction with world leaders, even if it's completely innocuous, it calls into question whether or not there is a blurring of the line between the Trump Organization and the Trump presidency," said Aaron Scherb of Common Cause. Former State Department deputy Michael H. Fuchs, who worked on East Asia and Pacific affairs, spoke to The New York Times earlier about Trump's business interests in the Philippines: “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

The White House defended Trump's invitation to Duterte, saying the Philippine leader's cooperation was needed to counter the North Korean nuclear threat. Duterte later said he may be too busy to visit the White House. Separately, the Trump Organization said the Ivanka image that circulated on Twitter was "an old photo" and "this particular billboard was removed several years ago." Trump has not addressed questions about potential conflicts in the Philippines. Antonio, the Philippines trade 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, a Trump transition spokeswoman, has 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."

Washington | United States

Revised trust lets Trump pull out cash

After putting his assets in a trust to avoid conflicts of interest, President Trump made changes. A revised trust agreement incorporated language allowing him to withdraw money "at his request" for "maintenance, support or uninsured medical expenses," or other purposes as the trustees see fit. The amended trust, signed February 10, retains son Donald Jr. and Allen Weisselberg, chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, as sole trustees. Son Eric Trump serves as chairman of a trust advisory board. The agreement stipulates that the trustees will not update the president on “the holdings and income of the Trust." Read more

What critics say

Stuart Gilman, a former senior official of the Government Ethics Office, said it is not uncommon for a trust like Trump's to allow withdrawing funds. That's because "people need additional expenses," Gilman said. On the other hand, he said the notion that the trustees won't update Trump on the company is “window-dressing." The arrangement does little to create a wedge between the president and his sprawling buinsess holdings, Gilman said. To avoid conflicts, he and other critics want Trump to either sell off his assets or sequester them in a blind trust certified by the Office of Government Ethics. Read more

Trump's response

White House press spokesman Sean Spicer took flak for at first denying that the trust had been amended, but he said: "The idea that the President is withdrawing money at some point is exactly the purpose of what the trust, why a trust is set up, regardless of an individual." Trump ethics adviser Bobby Burchfield did not respond to a request for comment from VOA. Earlier, he told the Washington Post he was not involved in changes to the trust. Read more

Jersey City, N.J. | China

Kushner family hawks 'golden visas' to Chinese investors

White House adviser Jared Kushner's sister mentioned her powerful sibling as she pitched a luxury real estate development project to prospective Chinese investors. The luxury apartment complex in Jersey City, New Jersey, is being developed by Kushner Companies and investment firm KABR Group. The two partners are seeking $150 million from foreign investors through a controversial program that offers the chance to obtain a green card (permanent residency) to foreign investors who commit at least $500,000 for job-creating projects in the U.S. The project “means a lot to me and my entire family,” Nicole Meyer said as she touted the "golden visa" program to a group of Chinese investors in Beijing on May 6, according to The New York Times. A slide identified President Trump as a "key decision maker" on the visa program. On May 7, Meyer spoke to another group of Chinese investors in Shanghai. In a promotional text message seen by Reuters, Qiaowai, the company that organized the event and links Chinese investors with American companies, made note of Meyer's relationship to President Trump and called her the event's "heavyweight honored guest." Read more

What critics say

Critics said the episode highlights the potential for conflicts between Kushner's powerful White House position and his family's sprawling business interests. Kushner's White House portfolio includes China policy. “This is a perfect example of how the Kushner family is trying to use the power and prestige of the White House and (Kushner's) White House position to sell a family product,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Government Oversight Project, a non-partisan watchdog group. Kushner has turned over the reins of the company to his family and put some of his assets in a trust but he needs a lot more to do to avoid conflicts, Amey said. “He should avoid and recuse himself from any topic related to China, real estate, certain things involving business, tax issues, the list is getting very long.” Read more

Trump's response

Blake Roberts of the WilmerHale law firm, which represents Jared Kushner, sought to distance Kushner from the sales pitch in China. "Mr. Kushner has no involvement in the operation of Kushner Companies and divested his interests in the One Journal Square project by selling them to a family trust that he, his wife, and his children are not beneficiaries of, a mechanism suggested by the Office of Government Ethics,” Roberts said in a statement emailed to VOA by the White House. "As previously stated, he'll recuse from particular matters concerning the EB-5 visa program.” White House press secretary said Kushner "has done everything to comply with the ethics rules." In a separate statement, Kushner Companies told NPR that it "apologizes if that mention of [Jared Kushner] was in any way interpreted as an attempt to lure investors.” A Kushner Companies representative did not respond to an email requesting comment.

New York City | United States

Trump adviser Carl Icahn's biofuels play

In December 2016, then President-elect Trump named activist investor and longtime friend Carl Icahn as a "special adviser" on regulatory reform. Icahn owns refiner CVR Energy, which typically buys millions of dollars worth of biofuel credits to meet government regulations requiring ethanol in gasoline. In February, according to Reuters, Icahn delivered a proposal to revamp the program to the White House. During the first quarter of 2017, Reuters said, CVR Energy posted a net gain of $6.4 million, a $50 million turnaround from a year ago, as Icahn bet the White House would ease regulations and biofuel credit prices would fall. The outspoken Icahn has been a staunch critic of the biofuel credit program and wants to shift the responsibility for meeting government biofuel standards away from refiners. Since the November election, CVR Energy’s stock price has gained 70 percent. Read more

What critics say

Critics charge that billionaire Icahn has profited from his advisory position. Although the post is unpaid, Icahn is a “government official” for all intents and purposes and must adhere to government ethics rules, said Richard Painter, formerly the ethics adviser in the administration of President George W. Bush. “Once you give him an official title, he has crossed the line,” Painter said. “He needs to stay out of matters in which he has financial interests.” Democrats have accused Icahn of self dealing and insider trading. In a May 9 letter, a group of eight Democratic senators urged U.S. regulators to investigate Icahn for violating “insider trading laws, anti-marketing manipulation laws, or any other relevant laws."

Trump's response

Icahn has dismissed charges of insider trading. Jesse Lynne, general counsel at Icahn Enterprises, said in a statement to CNBC: “Mr. Icahn is well aware of his obligations under the law generally and with respect to (the criminal conflict of interest statute) specifically. He will follow the law as he always has." VOA reached out to Icahn’s office but was told Icahn was not available for comment. Icahn told Bloomberg news in March that the EPA biofuels rule is just one of multiple regulations “strangulating” the economy. Read more

Washington | United States

Trump Waives Ethics Pledge For Select White House Officials

Since President Trump took office, at least 17 ex-lobbyists, lawyers and other staffers working in the White House have received waivers from government ethics restrictions. The undated, unsigned waivers applied to officials President Trump appointed to senior positions during his first four months in office. The waivers, published on May 31, grant limited exemptions from government restrictions and ethics pledges that appointees must take under an executive order Trump signed. The order imposed a five-year ban on lobbying by appointees who leave government; requires former lobbyists to avoid issues they lobbied on; and forbids staffers from communicating about official duties with their former employers. One waiver from that latter provision appears to allow Chief White House Strategist Stephen Bannon to continue contacts with the pro-Trump news site Breitbart. Bannon served as chairman of Breitbart Media before joining Trump’s presidential campaign last August. Former pollster and current White House counselor Kellyanne Conway also received a waiver allowing her to communicate with former clients that are “political, advocacy, trade, or non-profit organizations.” The administration initially questioned the authority of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) to demand release of waivers, but it yielded amid complaints by ethics watchdogs and Congressional Democrats. More waivers have been issued to appointees in government agencies but haven't yet been released. Read more

What critics say

The OGE and independent ethics watchdogs who’ve been critical of Trump were happy. "I'm pleased that the White House has released the waivers on its website,” OGE Director Walter Shaub said. The Sunlight Foundation said the move “will help to reassure the public that there is in fact some basic level of ethics oversight happening.” But ethics experts said the waivers raised more questions. Foremost among them: Exactly when were the waivers issued? Retroactive waivers would constitute an ethics violation, Shaub told The New York Times. In March, Citizens for Ethics Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which has sued Trump over ethics matters, asked the OGE to investigate whether Bannon had violated his “ethics pledge by repeatedly communicating about official matters” with Breitbart. Similarly, the number of officials affected is unknown. The 11 waivers published so far name 17 officials, but two of the waivers apply to groups and could cover more individuals. Regardless, the Trump administration has issued as many waivers to White House officials in four months as the Obama administration did in eight years, said Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation. Read more

Trump's response

White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked during a briefing whether the waiver for communications with past employers was retroactive and "aimed" at Bannon and Brietbart. "...[W]hat we discovered was that several individuals on staff had previously worked for media organizations, and in order to continue having those discussions and advancing the President’s agenda and priorities, it was important to make sure that all individuals had the opportunity to be able to speak to the media about what the President was doing to make the country stronger." Spicer also emphasized that the waiver applied to the ethics pledge that Trump required of staffers, and not to law or regulation. Besides Bannon, White House staffers Sebastian Gorka and Julia Hahn also formerly worked at Brietbart. Read more

Washington | United States

Bannon Under Fire for Retroactive Waiver

The White House has come under fire for retroactively granting Trump chief strategist Steven Bannon a waiver that allows him to communicate with Breitbart News, the outlet he used to run before joining Trump's campaign. In a June 13 letter to Democratic lawmakers, Walter Shaub, Director of the Office of Government Ethics, called the undated, unsigned waiver “problematic” because “it purports to have ‘retroactive’ effect.” The waiver, which does not name Bannon, allows all political appointees in the Executive Office of the President to ”participate in communications and meetings with news organizations” including those that they worked for “regarding broad policy matters.” Bannon was chairman of Breitbart Media before being appointed as chief executive of Trump’s presidential campaign last August. After the election, Trump named him his Chief White House Strategist. Like all political appointees, Bannon signed an ethics pledge agreeing not “to participate in any particular matter” involving his former employer for a period of two years. But he has violated the pledge, according to a complaint filed with the White House Counsel by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a liberal leaning Washington watchdog. Bannon “appears to have engaged in repeated communications” with Breitbart’s editor-in-chief and Washington editor about the outlet’s coverage and exclusive interviews it received, CREW alleges in its complaint. The White House released the waiver covering Bannon two months after CREW filed its complaint, raising questions over whether it may have been issued retroactively to cover Bannon’s contacts with Breitbart. Read more

What critics say

Shaub said a retroactive waiver may constitute an ethics violation. “By engaging in a prohibited matter at a time when the appointee does not possess a waiver, the appointee violates the rule,” Shaub wrote. “Although the White House may later decide that such a violation does not warrant disciplinary action, the subsequent issuance of a waiver would not change the fact that a violation occurred.” Independent ethics monitors agreed. “If Steven Bannon came into the government having had direct ties to Breitbart and other organizations and immediately started working with them, that should have been a clear violation of well-established ethics rules and it certainly violated the President’s executive order on which he likely worked,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight. Read more

Trump's response

The White House has not said whether the waiver was issued retroactively but has defended its right to allow staff to communicate with news media. In a statement carried by CNN on June 15, it said, “In fact, numerous officials from the previous administration who had worked in media -- including White House Press Secretary Jay Carney -- freely communicated with the media and never even bothered to seek a waiver from potential conflicts." Read more

Washington | United States

Trump Faces Three Emoluments Lawsuits

Two anti-corruption provisions of the U.S. Constitution have enabled Trump critics to take him to court over alleged ethics violations. The foreign Emoluments Clause bars federal officials holding “office(s) of profit or trust” from accepting gifts and “emoluments” from foreign governments without Congressional approval. The domestic Emoluments Clause applies only to the president and states that in addition to receiving a federal salary he will not accept “any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.” Since Trump’s inauguration on January 20, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the attorneys general of Washington, D.C. and Maryland, and more than 190 Democratic members of Congress have sued him for violating both clauses by retaining ownership of his businesses. The CREW lawsuit, filed by a group of legal scholars and former presidential ethics lawyers, came just three days after Trump’s inauguration. It accuses Trump of “illegally receiving payments from foreign governments” through his Trump International Hotel Washington, Trump Tower in New York and other business ventures.  It also alleges that Trump may have run afoul of the domestic emoluments clause because his business interests receive “some form of monetary or nonmonetary payment or benefit from the U.S. government or state governments.” In April and May, three other plaintiffs joined the suit: Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an advocacy organization for restaurant workers, event booker Jill Phaneuff and New York hotelier Eric Good. “As a hotel and restaurant owner, the President puts restaurateurs and restaurant workers nationwide at a disadvantage, pursuing foreign dignitaries and governments to patronize his establishments over others,” ROCU said.   Two other lawsuits followed after the Department of Justice asked a federal judge in New York to throw out the CREW complaint. On June 12, the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C., both Democrats, sued Trump for allegedly violating both emoluments clauses.  The lawsuit in part focuses on Trump’s Washington hotel and alleges that it has hurt businesses in the Washington and Maryland area by diverting customers away from them. On June 14, more than 190 Democratic lawmakers filed a separate lawsuit against Trump, alleging he had accepted funds from foreign governments that booked his hotels without congressional approval.  At least 30 U.S. senators and 166 representatives were plaintiffs in the lawsuit, representing the largest number of legislators ever to sue a U.S. president Read more

What critics say

CREW and others suing Trump take an expansive view of emoluments, defining them as “anything of value.”  As they read the constitution, leases held by foreign governments, hotel stays, room reservations, property interests tied to foreign governments all qualify as emoluments the president cannot take. CREW’s lawsuit also says that Trump’s pledge to donate all hotel profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury would not “remedy” A violation of the emoluments clauses.  Read more

Trump's response

Trump lawyers say normal business transactions such as hotel bills are not emoluments. The emoluments clause “has never been interpreted . . . to apply to fair value exchanges that have absolutely nothing to do with an office holder,” Trump tax lawyer Sheri Dillon said in January.  On June 10, Department of Justice lawyers asked a federal judge in New York to dismiss the CREW lawsuit, arguing that CREW had no standing to sue and that it is unconstitutional to sue the president in his official capacity. White House Press secretary Sean Spicer later said the lawsuits were driven by “partisan politics. The Justice Department has not responded to the lawsuits by the attorneys general and lawmakers. Read more

Washington | United States

Jared Kushner's Disclosure Leaves Out Large Deustche Bank Loan

Germany’s Deutsche Bank, the largest lender to the Trump Organization, gave a loan of $285 million to Jared Kushner’s real estate company one month before the November presidential election, the Washington Post reported June 26, citing documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Kushner personally guaranteed the loan along with his brother Josh but he failed to mention it in a mandatory financial disclosure form he filed with the Office of Government Ethics in March. Deutsche Bank has lent at least $364 million to Trump's real estate business, the Trump Organization. The bank's loan to Kushner Companies in October came at a time Deutsche was negotiating to settle a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit over its sale of risky mortgage-backed securities and faced separate money laundering charges involving its Moscow branch. In December, the bank agreed to pay $7.2 billion to settle the civil lawsuit and $630 million in penalties to New York State over the money laundering scheme; the money laundering investigation remains unresolved. Kushner resigned as chief executive of his family business in January to join the White House as a senior adviser to the president. To avoid conflicts of interest, he sold off dozens of businesses. But a Washington Post analysis of his recent financial disclosure form showed that he’s kept nearly 90 percent of his real estate holdings. The disclosure lists hundreds of millions of dollars in assets owned by Kushner and his wife, Ivanka, as well as liabilities, including a personal line of credit of up to $25 million from Deutsche Bank. But the form omits the October Deustche Bank loan even though Kushner personally guaranteed it, the Post reported. Kushner’s business entanglements have drawn scrutiny at a time his finances are being investigated by Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of his larger probe into Russian meddling in the 2018 election, according to the Post. Read more

What critics say

Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for the Public Citizen watchdog group, said Kushner should have reported the loan given its size and timing and must now recuse himself from "a pretty wide ranging list of things" -- from fianancial and trade agreements with foreign countries to regulations that could potentially impact Deustche Bank and its U.S. subsidiaries. In a letter to Kushner in April, Fred Wertheimer, president of watchdog Democracy 21 urged Kushner “to publicly announce now that you are recusing yourself from any involvement in a number of policy areas in order to avoid conflicts of interest and the appearance of such conflicts.” The recusals, he said, should include “any involvement in all policy areas that could directly affect your business interests or those of your spouse, including real estate, taxes, trade, banking and financial services, and certain foreign policy areas.”

Trump's response

Blake Roberts, Kushner’s personal lawyer, referred questions from VOA to the White House, which did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement to the Washington Post, the White House said Kushner “will recuse himself from any particular matter involving specific parties in which Deutsche Bank is a party.” Read more