Donald Trump's meeting with three Indian businessmen raises concerns over separation of business dealings

President-elect Donald Trump listens to questions from the press as he exits the clubhouse after a day of meetings at Trump International Golf Club on Nov 19, 2016 in New Jersey.
President-elect Donald Trump listens to questions from the press as he exits the clubhouse after a day of meetings at Trump International Golf Club on Nov 19, 2016 in New Jersey.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES)- United States President-elect Donald Trump met in the last week in his office at Trump Tower with three Indian business partners who are building a Trump-branded luxury apartment complex south of Mumbai, raising new questions about how he will separate his business dealings from the work of the government once he is in the White House.

A spokeswoman for Trump described the meeting as a courtesy call by the three Indian real estate executives, who flew from India to congratulate Trump on his election victory. In a picture posted on Twitter, all four men are smiling and giving a thumbs-up.

"It was not a formal meeting of any kind," Breanna Butler, a spokeswoman for the Trump Organization, said when asked about the meeting Saturday (Nov 19).

One of the businessmen, Sagar Chordia, posted photographs on Facebook on Wednesday showing that he also met with Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump. Donald Trump's children are helping to run his businesses as they play a part in the presidential transition.

Butler and Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump, declined to comment when asked Saturday if the meeting with the Trump family members included any discussion of Trump businesses in Indiaor expanding that business.

The three Indian executives - Sagar Chordia, Atul Chordia, and Kalpesh Mehta - have been quoted in Indian newspapers, including The Economic Times, as saying they have discussed expanding their partnership with the Trump Organization now that Trump is president-elect. They could not be reached for comment Saturday night.

Sagar Chordia did not respond to a request for a telephone interview. But in a series of text messages with The New York Times early Sunday, he confirmed that the meeting with Trump and members of his family had taken place, and that an article written about it in the Indian newspaper, which reported that one of his partners said they had discussed the desire to expand the deals with the Trump family, was accurate.

Washington ethics lawyers said that a meeting with Indian real estate partners, regardless of what was discussed, raised conflict of interest questions for Trump, who could be perceived as using the presidency to advance his business interests.

"There may be people for whom this looks OK," said Robert L. Walker, the former chief counsel of the Senate Ethics Committee, who advises corporations and members of Congress on government ethics issues.

"But for a large part of the American public, it is not going to be OK. His role as president-elect should dictate that someone else handles business matters."

In an account of the meeting that appeared in The Economic Times, Trump was quoted as praising the United States' relationship with India and its prime minister, Narendra Modi.

The Economic Times reported that the meeting occurred Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the Trump Organization would not confirm the day of the meeting.

Internationally, many properties that bear Trump's name are the result of marketing deals - like the one in India - in which he is paid by someone for the use of his name but does not actually own the underlying property.

He has such marketing agreements in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, the Philippines and Turkey, according to a list published by his company.

Atul Chordia and Sagar Chordia are well-known figures in real estate in Pune, a city of about 3 million people in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Their father, Ishwardas Chordia, was born into a family of sugar traders, but as a young man forged a close friendship with Sharad Pawar, who became an important politician in Maharashtra and now sits in the upper house of India's parliament.

Beginning in the 1990s, Chordia businesses built luxury hotels, corporate parks and residential projects in upscale neighborhoods in Pune.

The third executive at the meeting, Mehta, is the managing partner of a real estate firm named Tribeca, which is also a part of the Trump projects in India, which go by names including Trump Towers Pune and Trump Towers Mumbai.

Dave Besseling, a former deputy editor at GQ India, hosted an event at Sagar Chordia's hotel during the 2016 presidential campaign and said Chordia expressed "elation" about Trump's candidacy and the opportunities it would bring.

The same week, Trump's daughter Ivanka - an executive at the Trump Organization hotel chain - attended a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. The move drew criticism from former State Department officials, given that Ivanka Trump does not have security clearance and is helping run the family business enterprises.

Separately, The Washington Post reported Saturday that the recently opened Trump International Hotel in Washington invited representatives from local embassies to the hotel after the election to encourage them to use it when leaders from their countries visited Washington.

Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a liberal government watchdog group in Washington, said the meeting at Trump Tower was inappropriate even if there had not been conversation about business.

"Donald Trump's children and son-in-law have been deeply involved in the transition and selecting who will be part of his administration," Bookbinder said.

"At the same time they are deeply involved in the business. There does not seem to be any sign of a meaningful separation of Trump government operations and his business operations." Butler, the spokeswoman for the Trump Organization, said the family was moving to try to formally separate Trump from his family's business ventures.

"Mr. Trump is not going to have dealings in the day-to-day business of that organization," she said.

Another spokeswoman for the Trump Organization added in a written statement that "the structure that is ultimately selected will comply with all applicable rules and regulations." Asked if such a separation had already taken place in the aftermath of the election, she said she did not know.