The Trump Era

Trump’s business conflicts cast a shadow over Middle East policy

President Donald Trump Credit: Michael Vadon/Wikimedia Commons

In the week’s roundup of Trump-related conflicts: Trump was an official in at least two dozen businesses in Persian Gulf states with which he’s now allying himself, Democrats’ courtroom play and the president benefiting from a housing decision.

President Donald Trump sent his developer son-in-law to Israel to negotiate Mideast peace. The State Department continued piecing together the diplomatic rubble from his earlier anti-Qatar tweet. And Pentagon brass pushed back against White House staffers who seemed bent on escalating America’s anti-Iran proxy war in Syria.

Trump helpfully began the week by producing something of a Rosetta Stone to interpret these confusing events in the form of a new financial disclosure statement.

It mentions at least two dozen entities: limited liability companies, corporations and trusts in which Trump was, until recently, an official. It includes the names of Persian Gulf cities and states, according to research provided to Reveal by  the Center for Public Integrity.

In fact, states where Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner have developed successful business ties support an escalating proxy war against Iran.

We have no evidence that Trump’s Mideast policy stance – extremely pro-Saudi Arabia, Israel and United Arab Emirates and anti-Iran – has anything to do with his business ties. But it’s worth mentioning that he was president and chairman of DT Jeddah Technical Services Manager Member Corp in 2015 and 2016 (Jeddah is a city in Saudi Arabia) and had similar roles role at DT Dubai Golf Manager LLC and 22 other entities with Gulf locations in their names.

Trump’s disclosure form doesn’t state what these companies were set up to do. But as critics point out, Trump’s continued ties to his overseas businesses leave us guessing about whether his policy choices are meant to benefit Americans – or help the president’s business partners.

He has done business with the Saudi royals for two decades, having sold New York’s Plaza Hotel to a Saudi partnership. Trump’s sons are developing a UAE golf course. The president’s May 2016 financial disclosure form showed he’d earned between $2 million and $10 million from another golf course licensing in Dubai. According to The New York Times, Trump never gained a foothold in Qatar, despite years of trying.

Trump is the first president in 40 years to refuse divesting business interests. He stated he would pass control of his companies to his children. But he continues to profit personally. And as Trump’s sons pursue new business in the Arab world and elsewhere, they’ve earned ethicists’ scorn.

Some of Trump’s advisers have a stake in Middle East policy as well. Erik Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is a Trump foreign policy adviser, news reports say. And in January, Prince reportedly met with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and an emissary of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s in the the Seychelles, aiming to set up a Trump-Russia communications back channel to discuss Mideast policy.

Prince donated $250,000 to pro-Trump political committees. But the real eye-opener is his source of income: Between 2011 and 2015, a Prince-linked company received more than a half-billion dollars to operate a mercenary force for the Abu Dhabi royal family.

Trump has even invited a Saudi lobbyist to join his government. The Center for Public Integrity reported Thursday that Trump appointed Richard Hohlt – who’s been paid about $430,000 by Saudi Arabia in exchange for strategy and public affairs advice – to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships.

Trump’s son-in-law has ties of his own. Until January, Kushner was head of Kushner Cos., which partnered with one of Israel’s wealthiest families on 15 Manhattan properties.

The Trump Gulf financial conflicts have come up before – such as when a travel ban for Muslim-majority countries did not include those where he’d done business and during a foreign trip in which he praised Arab dictatorships and snubbed NATO allies.

But now, the stakes are higher, and Trump’s Gulf portfolio all the more interesting, with analysts warning that Trump’s hardening anti-Iran stance – encouraged by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – could lead to regional war.

Trump leaves housing credit he benefits from unscathed

The Washington Post reports that even as Trump proposes cutting back on housing programs, he preserved one that pays him money. A federal subsidy for landlords was left off the chopping block; Trump’s stake in a subsidized Brooklyn housing project earned him at least $5 million between January of last year and April 15.

It’s a relatively small portion of Trump’s income. And it’s not the kind of fine-grained policy decision in which Trump would necessarily be involved. But as Scott Amey, general counsel on the Project on Government Oversight, noted: “It’s a conflict, and it’s why everyone has pushed Trump to not only step away from his business interests but to divest them.”

A different Russia angle

Timothy O’Brien got a jump on a thousand other reporters on the Trump beat by getting sued by the then-real estate showman in 2006. Trump claimed that O’Brien’s book, “TrumpNation,” understated his wealth. The resulting deposition of Trump enlivens stories to this day, including a Wednesday blockbuster adding disturbing detail to the purported organized crime connections of former Trump business associate Felix Sater.

Forget the 2016 Russian election high jinks, the story urges: The truly fascinating Russia-linked Trump smarm is “in a dormant real-estate development firm, the Bayrock Group, which once operated just two floors beneath the president’s own office in Trump Tower.”

O’Brien’s a great storyteller, with deep Trump-world sourcing, so you won’t be getting any more spoilers from us.

Democrats’ talking points on the emoluments suit

After jointly filing a lawsuit accusing Trump of taking illegal payments from foreign governments, 196 congressional Democrats were back on Capitol Hill last week, firing off press releases – all seemingly identical.

“President Trump’s refusal to seek Congressional approval for – or even disclose – his vast international financial interests is a violation of the Constitution and a threat to the integrity of our democracy itself,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader.

“President Trump’s refusal to disclose or seek Congress’s authorization for his sprawling foreign financial interests is a brazen violation of the Constitution,” echoed Reps. Adriano Espaillat of New York and Bob Brady of Pennsylvania.

On Facebook, Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio cut and pasted from identical talking points, writing, “President Trump’s refusal to disclose or seek Congress’s authorization for his sprawling foreign financial interests is a brazen violation of the Constitution and a danger to our democracy itself.”

The Democrats have sued the Republican tycoon-turned-president for allegedly violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which stands as proof of just how much America’s founders hated monarchies. The clause declares that the U.S. never will grant titles of nobility. And to guard against bribery and corruption, it bars American officials from accepting payments or gifts from foreign governments – “foreign emoluments,” as they were called – without permission from Congress.

Trump hasn’t gotten permission. And because of his “financial interest in vast business holdings around the world that engage in dealings with foreign governments,” he’s bound to be violating the prohibition, according to the Democrats’ lawsuit.

The Justice Department is expected to defend Trump in court, but it hasn’t yet filed any paperwork. As CNN reported, the lawsuit faces hurdles: While Congress may have the legal standing to sue the president over a constitutional issue, it’s not clear that such a suit can proceed without the support of a majority of lawmakers. Republicans haven’t joined.

The president himself ignored the lawsuit – and then went out and took more emoluments, complained Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan.

In recent days, the Trump organization has gotten additional trademarks from the government of China, the lawmakers claimed, and now “is brokering business deals in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf while regional tensions escalate.”

The lawmakers’ suit follows similar actions by the attorneys general of Washington, D.C., and Maryland and the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers. It is Erik Prince. An earlier version of this story also misspelled the name of one of Trump’s former business associates. It is Felix Sater.

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Lance Williams can be reached at lwilliams@revealnews.org, Matt Smith can be reached at msmith@revealnews.org, and Amy Walters can be reached at awalters@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @LanceWCIR, @SFMattSmith and @AmyWalters_.

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