President Donald Trump keeps learning the hard way that his tangled global business interests can cause him major foreign policy headaches.
The problem flared up again this weekend when Trump drew the ire of ethics and human rights activists after inviting to the White House Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president accused of thousands of extrajudicial killings in his war on drugs.
White House officials explained Trump’s move as part of a wider regional play to isolate North Korea. But they still faced claims that the president was willing to embrace an authoritarian leader because the Trump name will soon be splashed atop a $150 million, 57-story luxury residential tower in Manila.
“We don’t know that that’s why he did it, but as long as he has those interests, we have to be suspicious,” said Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Since taking office in January, Trump has repeatedly found himself fending off conflict of interest charges as he tries to assert American interests in countries and regions where he’s done business. Even after he stepped away from day-to-day management, Trump still maintains ownership of the company he’s built over decades.
Those questions quickly came up following Trump’s congratulatory call last month to Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the Turkish president secured passage of a referendum giving him sweeping new powers. Critics noted that Trump’s interests in Turkey go beyond its help dealing with Syria: Trump’s name also is on a residential and commercial retail center in Istanbul.
Ethical concerns also shadowed Trump’s two attempts to ban travelers from several majority-Muslim countries. In both attempts, which were blocked by the courts, Trump left out Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, three countries where he was involved in business deals, financial disclosures showed. Former Obama White House ethics lawyer Norm Eisen pointed out that, like those that fell under the ban, populations in the three countries “have a demonstrated history of supporting terrorism.”
Then there’s China. Trump embraced the ‘One China Policy’ in January in a phone call with President Xi Jinping, despite earlier friendliness toward Taiwan. China soon ended more than a decade of waiting and approved Trump’s application to trademark his name in the country. Sen. Dianne Feinstein responded by charging that Trump may have violated the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits federal officials from accepting payments from foreign governments. The California Democrat also questioned the timing of the policy moves, which she said gave “the obvious impression of a quid pro quo.”
In the Philippines, Duterte played coy when asked Monday whether he would accept Trump’s invitation. “I’m tied up,” he said, according to The Associated Press. “I cannot make any definite promise.”
The president’s business connections there are no secret: Duterte last fall named Trump’s primary partner on Manila’s new $150 million Trump Tower, Jose E.B. Antonio, as a special trade envoy to the United States, and Antonio said he was at Trump Tower in New York soon after the election.