Trump Business Deals In Southeast Asia Raise Conflict Of Interest Concerns

Jan 6, 2017
Originally published on January 6, 2017 1:21 pm

President-elect Donald Trump has promised to step back from his business interests when he takes office. He says he'll let his two adult sons take the helm and that he won't make any new deals while he's president.

While he's unwinding some of his roughly 500 business deals involving about 20 countries as Inauguration Day approaches, many others are moving forward, causing concern about conflicts of interest.

Most of the projects are licensing deals, says Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"They pay Trump a fee and someone builds the resorts and they slap his name on it," he says. "So it's not like he's got his own skin in the game or he's possibly going to be involved in shaping the resorts."

Still, Kurlantzick and others say any involvement by Trump in a project, even if it's just his name, can create a conflict of interest — complicating any national security, foreign policy or economic concerns the U.S. has with a particular country.

For example, in a $150 million project in Manila, Trump had received up to $5 million for the use of his name. This is in a country where human rights concerns have been raised as a result of President Rodrigo Duterte's brutal anti-drug campaign. More than 6,000 people have been killed since Duterte took office in June.

Robert Manning, a former National Intelligence Council official now with the Atlantic Council, says Trump has been reluctant to criticize Duterte's human rights policies.

"Whether his business interests are a factor in that, I don't know how you ascertain that. I think it would certainly give [Trump] a motivation," he says.

To further complicate things, Duterte recently named Trump's main business partner in the $150 million Manila Trump Tower deal, Jose E. B. Antonio, as the Philippines special envoy to the U.S. on trade and economic policy.

Manning says it won't be illegal for Trump to interact with Antonio in his capacity as trade representative.

"It's the sticky question of deciding where national interests stop and business begins, and vice versa," Manning says.

Trump has promised to keep his hands off his business empire while president. But Kurlantzick says Trump's sons will have to build up strong relations with powerful people to help keep overseas projects moving. And this could be problematic.

Kurlantzick cites an example in Indonesia, where the Trump Organization is involved in two resort projects. One of Trump's Indonesian contacts was Setya Novanto, the speaker of the House of Representatives. He had to step down in December 2015 after being accused of corruption.

"He briefly gave up his post, which was like the equivalent of [House Speaker] Paul Ryan, last year, because he was caught on an audio trying to get a $4 billion payment from an American mining company," Kurlantzick explains.

In September 2015, during the presidential campaign, Novanto went to New York to meet with Trump — and accompanied him at a news conference, where Trump praised him as "an amazing man" and a "great man."

Stephen Gillers, an ethics professor at New York University Law School, says Trump needs to be careful not to erode public confidence.

"What we want to make sure of is that the deal our president cuts is solely for the benefit of the United States, that there's no other interest that could be affecting his judgement, and that includes his own financial interests," he says.

The only way for Trump to do that, Gillers says, is to divest himself from all his business interests when he becomes president.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President-elect Donald Trump has promised to step back from his business interests when he takes office. He says he will let his two adult sons take the helm and that he won't make any new deals while he is president. But there are still many ongoing projects that are causing concerns about conflicts of interest. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Trump has some 500 business interests spread across about 20 countries. He's unwinding some of those deals as Inauguration Day approaches. But many others are moving forward. Josh Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, says most of the projects are licensing deals.

JOSH KURLANTZICK: They pay Trump a fee. And someone builds a resort. And they slap his name on it. So it's not like he's got his own skin in the game or is possibly going to be involved in shaping the resorts.

NORTHAM: Still, Kurlantzick and others say any involvement by Trump in a project, even if it's just his name, can create a huge conflict of interest, complicating any national security, foreign policy or economic concerns the U.S. has with a particular country. Take for example a $150 million project in the Philippines capital, Manila, for which Trump receives up to $5 million for the use of his name.

Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte has raised human-rights concerns with a brutal anti-drug campaign that has left more than 6,000 people dead since he took office in June. Robert Manning is a former National Intelligence Council official now with the Atlantic Council.

ROBERT MANNING: I think Trump has been reluctant to make any negative criticisms about the Duterte's human-rights policies. Whether his business interests are a factor in that - I don't know how you ascertain that. I think it would certainly give him a motivation.

NORTHAM: To further complicate things, Duterte recently named Trump's main business partner in the Manila Trump Tower deal as the Philippine special envoy to the U.S. on trade and economic policy, Jose Antonio. Manning said it wouldn't be illegal for Trump to interact with Antonio in his capacity as a trade representative. But...

MANNING: It's a sticky question of deciding where national interests stop and business interests begin and vice versa.

NORTHAM: Trump has promised to keep his hands off his business empire while president. But Kurlantzick says his sons will have to build up strong relations with powerful people to help keep overseas projects moving, which could be problematic. Kurlantzick uses as an example Indonesia, where the Trump organization is involved in two resort projects. One of the business partners there was a major politician, Setya Novanto. Kurlantzick says he had to step down in 2015 after being accused of corruption.

KURLANTZICK: He briefly gave up his post, which is like the equivalent of Paul Ryan last year because he was caught on audio trying to get a $4 billion payment from an American mining company.

NORTHAM: Earlier in the year, Novanto was in New York to meet with Trump and accompany him at a news conference where Trump praised him as a great man.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: His whole group is here to see me today. And we will do great things for the United States. Is that correct?

SETYA NOVANTO: Yes.

TRUMP: Do they like me in Indonesia?

NORTHAM: Stephen Gillers, an ethics professor at New York University Law School, says Trump needs to be careful not to erode public confidence.

STEPHEN GILLERS: What we want to make sure of is that the deal our president cuts is solely for the benefit of the United States, that there is no other interest that could be affecting his judgment.

NORTHAM: Gillers says the only way for Trump to do that is to divest himself from all his business interests when he becomes president. Jackie Northam, NPR News.

POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say that Indonesian politician Setya Novanto was a business partner of President-elect Donald Trump. In fact it was Trump's Indonesian business partner who arranged for Novanto and Trump to meet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.