The announcement was surprising. President Donald Trump said he wanted to find a way to save jobs at a major Chinese telecommunications company, ZTE, about to be crippled by U.S. sanctions for violating trade rules, including doing business with Iran and North Korea.
In the days before and after Trump’s recent announcement, China approved seven trademark requests from first daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump. Three days before the announcement, the Chinese government agreed to give $500 million in loans to an Indonesian developer building a Trump-branded resort in that country.
Coincidence or quid pro quo?
The fact that the question must be asked is troubling. The fact that there is no clear answer is a serious problem.
To reduce even the appearance of conflicts of interest, presidents typically shed their business interests and typically do not hire family members to work in their administrations. Trump violated both norms. During the campaign, it was unclear what he was promising to do with his businesses. After his election, he did not divest himself from his interests, instead putting his assets in a trust for his “exclusive benefit.” And he made Ivanka, who also did not divest from her brand and its assets, a top White House aide.
Now the nation confronts the plausible scenario that some countries believe that doing favors for family members and for the organization that bears the president’s name is a way to gain favor with the U.S. government. Worries about countries seeking favors and influence are exacerbated when the country is authoritarian and not bound by rules about openness and transparency, like China.
Whatever Trump promised or didn’t promise about his and his family’s businesses, this all stinks.
The deal with ZTE is far from the only potential conflict. Why are foreign countries and corporations booking rooms and events at Trump’s hotel in Washington? Why did Panama’s government step in for a bankrupt contractor and complete a water and sewer project that would benefit a Trump hotel in Panama City? Why is the government on the Indonesian island of Bali planning to build a road that will halve the travel time between the airport and a new luxury Trump resort and golf course? Why is a company partly owned by Qatar closing in on a deal to invest in an albatross Manhattan office building owned by the company of the family of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, another White House adviser? Why did a series of companies pay millions of dollars for the “insights” of Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney and fixer?
Innocent explanations are possible. But the more likely scenario is that the president, his family and his associates are leveraging his power for their own gain. It’s the new art of the deal.
When President Calvin Coolidge said the business of America is business, he wasn’t talking about the president’s business. Donald Trump and company need to take all steps necessary to show they’re working for America, not for themselves. — The editorial board