Last week, Donald Trump called on the governments of China and Ukraine to launch (ostensibly baseless) investigations into his chief political rival. Vice-President Mike Pence defended his boss’s statement, arguing that the voting public deserves nothing less than full transparency about its leaders’ potential conflicts of interest.
“I think the American people have a right to know if the vice president of the United States or his family profited from his position as vice president during the last administration,” Pence told reporters in Arizona. “The president made it very clear that he believes other nations around the world should look into it as well.”
Pence’s position here is, apparently, that the prospect of a White House shaping foreign policy around the personal financial interests of its leadership is so antithetical to democratic values, it is worth exhaustively investigating even the slightest hint of such corruption, even in a circumstance where:
• The vice-president vehemently denies having had a conflict of interest in the matter.
• The potential corruption is years old, and thus, does not pose any risk of undermining current policy.
• The method for achieving transparency on the issue involves using America’s limited diplomatic capital to coerce foreign governments into investigating the existing president’s political rival, a measure that itself gives off an aura of corruption.
Clearly, then, Pence takes the threat of a U.S. administration pursuing a “for-profit” foreign policy fanatically seriously. So, surely, if the current president made a foreign-policy decision that was roundly opposed by America’s national-security Establishment and bipartisan congressional leadership — and which benefited a country where said president has, by his own account, “a little conflict of interest” — Pence would, at the very least, call on the commander-in-chief to release his tax returns, right?
After all, in such a scenario, the stakes of — and evidence for — the alleged act of corruption would be much greater than in the Ukraine-Biden controversy. And the method for achieving greater transparency would be essentially costless: Instead of siccing foreign governments on a domestic political foe, Trump would merely need to uphold a decades-old “good government” norm.
So (unless Pence is a shameless toady who believes in little beyond his own right to power) expect the veep to flip out when he finally gets around to reading about Trump’s new policy in Syria — and pair of towers in Istanbul.
Shortly after speaking to Turkey’s authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday, Trump endorsed “a Turkish military operation that would sweep away American-backed Kurdish forces near the border in Syria.” In defiance of the will of the Pentagon, State Department, and both houses of Congress, the president agreed to suddenly withdraw U.S. troops from northeast Syria, leaving our nation’s Kurdish allies defenseless against an invading army that considers them “terrorists” on the basis of little more than their ethnicity.
In the days since, the White House’s position has grown more ambiguous. On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted his support of both the Turkish government and the Kurds — complimenting the former for the grace it displayed in releasing an American pastor it had baselessly imprisoned.
Regardless, Trump’s initial, renegade policy raises questions about whether unsavory personal motives are influencing some of the most consequential decisions his office empowers him to make. The basis of this suspicion is simple: Donald Trump has a significant conflict of interest in his dealings with Turkey.
But don’t take my word for it, take Trump’s.
“I have a little conflict of interest ‘cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” Trump told Steve Bannon during a December 2015 interview on Breitbart’s radio show. “It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers — two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.”
Critically, Trump does not actually own these towers. Rather, he licenses his brand to the building’s owner, Turkish tycoon Aydin Dogan, an ally of Erdogan. This arrangement may actually leave our president more vulnerable to extortion from the Turkish regime than if he owned the towers outright. According to Trump’s financial disclosures, he has collected between $3.2 million and $17 million in royalties from the licensing deal since 2012. This means that Trump could ostensibly lose millions of dollars, should Dogan terminate their partnership. Which is to say: The president could have a multimillion-dollar motivation to avoid pursuing any policy that might incur Dogan’s wrath. Notably, the prospect that Dogan might leverage his business relationship with Trump to influence his policies isn’t a mere hypothetical. As Russ Choma of Mother Jones explains:
In June 2016, after Trump said he supported a ban on immigration by people from countries he said were associated with Islamic terrorism — he called them “terror countries” — Erdogan objected, and so did Dogan, and both threatened to remove Trump’s name from the buildings.
… Less than a month after the threat to remove his name was made, Trump very publicly voiced support for Erdogan when the Turkish leader faced a coup attempt. And his closeness with Erdogan has continued, even over the objections of some of Trump’s most reliable supporters. For instance, in May 2017, when Erdogan visited Washington, D.C., for a White House visit, Turkish agents violently attacked protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence — shoving past local police officers to do so. Video showed Erdogan calmly watching the attack from his car. Although the House of Representatives, then under GOP control, voted 397-0 to condemn the attacks, Trump refused to do so. A few months later, Trump praised Erdogan, describing him as “a very good friend” and saying he gets “very high marks” for the way he runs Turkey.
Presented with this set of facts, Mike Pence would doubtlessly conclude that the American people have a right to know the precise nature and extent of their president’s financial interests in Turkey. His call for the release of Trump’s tax returns should drop any minute now.