Last week, President-Elect Donald Trump took a break from his White House transition efforts to meet with three of his Indian business partners, raising yet more conflict-of-interest concerns regarding the relationship between the for-the-people Trump Administration and the for-profit Trump Organization. The Economic Times reports that Trump met Atul Chordia, Sagar Chordia, and Kalpesh Mehta at Trump Tower on Tuesday, after the trio flew to New York to congratulate Trump on his election victory. The three businessmen are building a Trump-branded apartment complex in western India, one of five luxury development projects underway in the country that have licensed the Trump name.
According to the New York Times, Trump Organization spokesperson Breanna Butler says that it was not a formal business meeting, but Sagar Chordia told the paper that expanding India’s business dealings with the Trump family did in fact come up during the visit; neither Butler or Trump campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks would comment on whether official business was discussed.
Either way, that the president-elect was meeting with business partners at all provides yet another example of the conflicts of interest made possible by Trump becoming president. The meeting calls into question whether or not President Trump will continue to be involved in Trump Organization business while occupying the White House, despite his assurances to the contrary. As former Senate Ethics Committee lawyer Robert L. Walker opined to the New York Times, “[Trump’s] role as president-elect should dictate that someone else handles business matters.”
All told, the Trump-branded development projects in India have a gross value of about $1.5 billion, according to Mehta, who represents the Trump Organization’s interests in the country. Three more Indian projects should launch next year, Mehta has told the Indian media; he has previously said he felt “elation” over the new business opportunities a Trump presidency would create. In addition, India is only one piece of the potentially entangled foreign puzzle since the president-elect’s company also has partnerships for Trump-branded properties in Canada, Turkey, Brazil, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, and the Philippines, where one of Trump’s business partners was recently named the country’s envoy to Washington, D.C., for trade and investment.
Also last week, the new Trump International Hotel in D.C. hosted around 100 foreign diplomats to encourage them to do business with the hotel, and at least one report indicates that the Trump family is thinking about using the hotel to host foreign dignitaries instead of the traditionally used Blair House, which is owned and run by the government. In addition, Ivanka Trump attended her father’s first meeting with another head of State, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, at Trump Tower last week, which drew wide criticism, including from State Department officials.
The Trump Organization has insisted that Trump will have no involvement in the day-to-day business of the company while president, and that “the structure that is ultimately selected will comply with all applicable rules and regulations.” Trump has vowed that he will pass the management of his business onto his adult children using a so-called blind trust. A true blind trust, however, would mean that the company would be managed by an independent third party. Furthermore, regardless of whether or not a Trump Organization restructuring has or will take place, Trump has already named his children to the executive committee of his transition team, further muddling any potential separation between business and politics.
Trump’s pick for White House Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, was pressed by CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday on the issue. After referring to the stories about the D.C. hotel and Trump Tower meetings, Tapper asked, “Is it seriously the position of the Trump transition team that this is not a huge cauldron of potential conflicts of interest?”
“Obviously we will comply with all of those laws and we will have our White House counsel review all of these things, Priebus responded. “We will have every ‘i’ dotted and every ‘t’ crossed, and I can assure the American people that there wouldn’t be any wrongdoing or any sort of undue influence over any decision-making.”
Tapper then asked Priebus if he was worried that the Trump Administration would face the same pay-to-play accusations that Priebus himself had made against a potential Clinton White House during the campaign. “We’ve been at this for a few days,” said Priebus, “I mean, this is ridiculous. Let’s just kind of take a deep breath.”
Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence offered similar assurances to CBS’s John Dickerson on Sunday’s Face the Nation, insisting that all laws will be “strictly adhered to,” and that he’s “very confident that the president-elect and his extraordinary talented family are going to work with the best legal minds in this country and create the proper separation from their business enterprise during his duties as president.” Pence declined, however, to say whether or not the Trump Organization would disclose its foreign ties.
But when considering the actual laws and regulations that the Trump Organization and transition team are vowing to adhere to, it remains unclear what legal consequences Trump could even face if he or his children continue to run the Trump Organization while he is president. According to the Congressional Research Service, there aren’t any legal requirements for a president to relinquish their assets or financial interests on account of a potential conflict of interest, and holding Trump accountable to the U.S. Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which bans the president from accepting foreign gifts, is no legal slam dunk either — if it’s even enforceable.
Thus, political controversy and negative media coverage may end up being the only real consequences, should the Trumps continue to conduct business from the White House. As the past year has illustrated, those pressures may not have much of an impact on Trump or his inner circle’s worldview.
This post has been updated to include Mike Pence’s comments on the matter.