Donald Trump facing tangled web of conflicts of interest

The Trump Tower in Manila's financial district.
The Trump Tower in Manila's financial district.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Concern rises over foreign govts granting his businesses favours to gain political leverage

MANILA (Philippines) • On Thanksgiving Day, a Philippine developer named Jose E.B. Antonio hosted a company anniversary bash at one of Manila's poshest hotels. He had much to be thankful for.

In October, he had been quietly named a special envoy to the United States by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Mr Antonio was nearly finished building a 57-storey, US$150 million (S$214 million) tower in Manila's financial district. His partner on the project, Mr Donald Trump, is now the next President of the United States.

After the election, Mr Antonio flew to New York for a meeting at Trump Tower with the President-elect's children, who have been involved in the Manila project from the beginning, as have Mr Antonio's children. The Trumps and Antonios have other ventures in the works, including Trumpbranded resorts in the Philippines, said Mr Antonio's son, Robbie.

Mr Antonio's combination of jobs - he is Mr Trump's business partner while also representing the Philippines in its relationship with the US and the President-elect - is hardly inconsequential, given some of the issues on the diplomatic table.

Among them, Mr Duterte has urged "a separation" from the US and has called for US troops to exit the country in two years. His anti-drug crusade has resulted in the summary killings of thousands of suspected criminals without trial, prompting criticism from the Obama administration.

Situations like these are leading some former US government officials from both parties to ask whether their country's reaction to events around the world could potentially be shaded by the Trump family's financial ties with foreign players. They worry, too, that in some countries, those connections could compromise US efforts to criticise the corrupt mixing of state power with vast business enterprises controlled by the political elite.

"It is uncharted territory, really in the history of the republic, as we have never had a president with such an empire both in the United States and overseas," said Mr Michael J. Green, who served on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration.


The globe is dotted with such potential conflicts. Mr Trump's companies have business operations in at least 20 countries, with a particular focus on the developing world, including outposts in nations like India, Indonesia and Uruguay, according to a New York Times analysis of his presidential campaign financial disclosures.

What's more, the true extent of Mr Trump's global financial entanglements is unclear, since he has refused to release his tax returns and has not made public a list of his lenders. In a written statement, his spokesman Hope Hicks said Mr Trump and his family were committed to addressing any issues related to his financial holdings.

But a review by The Times of these business dealings identified the kinds of complications that could create a running source of controversy for Mr Trump, as well as tensions between his priorities as president and the needs and objectives of his companies.

These tangled ties already have some members of Congress - including at least one Republican representative - calling on Mr Trump to provide more information on his international operations, or perhaps for a congressional inquiry into them.

"You rightly criticised Hillary for Clinton Foundation," Representative Justin Amash, a Republican from Michigan, said in a Twitter message. "If you have contracts w/foreign govts, it's certainly a big deal, too. #DrainTheSwamp"

Even if Mr Trump and his family seek no special advantages from foreign governments, officials overseas may feel compelled to help the Trump family by, say, accelerating building permits or pushing more business to one of the new president's hotels or golf courses, according to several former State Department officials.

"The working assumption on behalf of all these foreign government officials will be that there is an advantage to doing business with the Trump organisation," said Mr Michael H. Fuchs, who was until recently deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. "They will think it will ingratiate themselves with the Trump administration. And this will significantly complicate United States foreign policy and our relationships around the world."

Mr Robert D. Blackwill, a former National Security Council member who also served as ambassador to India during the Bush administration, said Mr Trump still had a chance to demonstrate that he could manage these challenges once sworn in. "Let's listen and not prejudge," said Mr Blackwill, a Republican who was so critical of Mr Trump that he endorsed Mrs Hillary Clinton.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2016, with the headline 'Trump facing tangled web of conflicts of interest'. Print Edition | Subscribe