TRUMP CORRUPTION WATCH--Just another little data point in the ongoing Trump corruption watch: Investors looking to buy a condo at Trump Tower in the Philippines would have found, until this week, some high-powered video testimonials on the project’s official website.
There was Donald Trump, in a message filmed several years before he was elected president of the United States, declaring that the skyscraper bearing his name near the Philippine capital would be “something very, very special, like nobody’s seen before.” Then there was his daughter Ivanka Trump, now a senior White House adviser, lavishing praise on the project as a “milestone in Philippine real estate history.”
Four months into President Trump’s tenure, his business relationship with a developer who is one of the Philippines’ richest and most powerful men has emerged as a prime example of the collision between the private interests of a businessman in the White House and his public responsibility to shape U.S. foreign policy.
The potential conflict first came into focus shortly before Trump was elected, when the Philippines’ iron-fisted president, Rodrigo Duterte, named the Trump Organization’s partner in the Manila real estate venture his top trade envoy.
The connection burst back into public view this week, after Trump stunned human rights advocates by extending a White House invitation to Duterte, known for endorsing hundreds of extrajudicial killings of drug users, following what aides described as a “very friendly” phone call. Trump aides have said the outreach to Duterte is part of a broader effort to isolate North Korea.
Although the promotional videos were posted online in 2013, the continued presence of Trump and his daughter in marketing materials for the Manila tower reflects the extent to which they remain key selling points even as they have vowed to distance themselves from their global real estate and branding businesses.
After The Washington Post inquired Monday about the use of the Trumps in promoting the Manila project, the links and videos on the corporate website could no longer be accessed. Nonetheless, their lingering connection to the property’s sales pitch shows how difficult it is to separate the president from Trump-branded projects, particularly in foreign markets where there is less oversight of how his image is used.
Amanda Miller, vice president of marketing for the Trump Organization, said the material was “historical clips” that were not related to ongoing sales and marketing activity. Ivanka Trump was not aware that she was still featured in materials touting the Manila project, according to someone familiar with her views. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Trump’s company does not own or invest in the Manila project, a luxurious 57-story tower nearing completion in Makati, a bustling financial center that is part of metropolitan Manila.
In a long-term licensing deal, the project’s development company agreed to pay royalties for use of the Trump brand. Trump reported receiving $1 million to $6 million in payments from the project between 2014 and mid-2016, according to his financial disclosures.
Jose E.B. Antonio, chairman of the development company, has retained his leadership of the firm even as he functions now in his official capacity as a Duterte appointee. Kris Cole, a spokeswoman for the developer, said that Antonio’s envoy role is an unpaid, nongovernmental position promoting Philippine business interests in the United States.
Antonio, who Cole said was traveling and could not comment, told Bloomberg News in November that his role is to “enlarge the relationship between the two countries,” adding of his business relationship with Trump: “I guess it would be an asset.”
Ethics watchdogs have all weighed in on what's wrong with this. Here's one from The Brennan Center that lays it out succinctly:
The first significant risk Trump’s continued business ties pose is of a direct conflict of interest. The Trump Organization is a multi-billion dollar enterprise that does business through over 400 entities in at least twenty countries, including vital partner nations and antagonistic dictatorships. Meanwhile, President Trump enjoys the tremendous powers of the executive branch — robust authority in matters of foreign affairs and domestic policy alike. So long as Trump continues to track the progress of his business empire, he can surely assess how his actions as president might benefit or harm his company’s fortunes. Even intentions to the contrary aside, research shows that, when faced with a financial conflict of interest, individuals demonstrate unconscious bias toward reaching conclusions that benefit them. As such, a cloud of suspicion will engulf some of President Trump’s most momentous decisions, leaving observers wondering whether his personal business interests influenced his policy choices.
The second concern with Trump keeping tabs on his business is that it creates opportunities for bribery. Far from the anachronisms of Tammany-era bribery — a stuffed envelope traded for a quick favor — bribery in this sophisticated context occurs on an industrial scale. Such “indirect lobbying,” as academics who studied media mogul Silvio Berlusconi’s government in Italy politely termed it, is the practice of providing business to a firm that a politician controls, with the expectation that the given politician will, in return, act favorably for the lobbyer’s interests. With Eric Trump keeping his father abreast of the family business’ progress, there exists a credible risk that President Trump may direct the power of the federal government to reward those who benefit his bottom line and punish those who threaten it.
Some might argue it is premature to project these risks onto Trump’s presidency. But, even if one grants President Trump the fullest benefit of the doubt, his awareness of the Trump Organization’s vital financials is damaging to our democracy. When it comes to corruption, optics are critical. Evidence of an opportunity for President Trump to act in an underhanded manner, even absent bad motives, degrades faith in our democratic institutions.
Everyone will be very relieved to find out that nobody involved ever made a contribution to a charity devoted to helping millions of poor people around the world so this is perfectly fine. And as far as I know the Trumps and the Kushners haven't been using a personal email server as they enrich themselves by selling the presidency to the highest bidder. You can relax.
(Heather Parton blogs under the pseudonym Digby at the blog site she created: Hullabaloo and also writes for Salon and ourfuture.org)