WASHINGTON • President-elect Donald Trump has met 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 spokesman for Mr Trump described the meeting last week in his office at Trump Tower as a courtesy call by the three Indian real estate executives, who flew from India to congratulate Mr 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," Ms Breanna Butler, a spokesman for the Trump Organisation, said when asked on Saturday about the meeting which reportedly took place on Tuesday.
One of the businessmen, Mr Sagar Chordia, posted photographs on Facebook on Wednesday showing that he also met Ms Ivanka Trump and Mr Eric Trump. Mr Trump's children are helping to run his businesses even as they play a part in the presidential transition.
Ms Butler and Ms Hope Hicks, a spokesman for Mr Trump, declined to comment when asked if the meeting with the Trump family included any discussion of Trump businesses in India or expanding that business.
The three Indian executives - Mr Sagar Chordia, Mr Atul Chordia, and Mr Kalpesh Mehta - have been quoted in Indian newspapers as saying they have discussed expanding their partnership with the Trump Organisation now that Mr Trump is President-elect.
Washington ethics lawyers said a meeting with the real estate partners, regardless of what was discussed, raised conflict of interest questions for Mr Trump, who could be perceived as using the presidency to advance his business interests.
"There may be people for whom this looks OK," said Mr Robert Walker, 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."
Internationally, many properties that bear Mr 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. The Chordia brothers are well-known figures in real estate in Pune, a city of about three million people in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Beginning in the 1990s, Chordia businesses built luxury hotels, corporate parks and residential projects in Pune.
The third executive at the meeting, Mr 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.
Mr Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a liberal government watchdog group, 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," he 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."
Ms Butler said the family was moving to try to formally separate Mr Trump from his family's business ventures. "Mr Trump is not going to have dealings in the day-to- day business of that organisation."