While spending a few days in a posh South American sea resort in Uruguay during the first week of the year, I learned about the sudden – and mysterious – disappearance of a giant billboard with the picture of President-elect Donald Trump that had been in front of a 26-floor Trump luxury apartment tower under construction here.
The vanishing sign was the talk of the week among vacationers. Was it because of fear of terrorist attacks or vandalism against the Trump Punta del Este Tower? Was it because the builders had concluded that Trump’s image was hurting sales?
As many of us were wondering about what was behind the Trump picture disappearance, word spread that Eric Trump, one of the president-elect’s adult sons, was in town to help push sales. Somebody, we figured, would soon find out from him what had happened.
The answer came in an interview published Jan. 6 by Uruguay’s daily El Observador. Eric Trump revealed that the giant street sign had been removed by the builders because the president-elect “is completely getting out of the business to become commander in chief of the United States.” He added that “my brother and I will take over the business,” and that “progressively” they will become “the most visible faces of the brand.”
But will that suffice to avoid countless potential conflicts of interests by the incoming president? Virtually all independent ethics experts agree that it won’t. The only way to prevent the Trump administration’s White House from becoming a de facto Trump Organization subsidiary would be for Trump to sell his part of the business and put the money in a blind trust, experts say.
The Trump Organization has interests in more than 100 companies in at least 20 countries, including real estate ventures in Panama, Brazil, Turkey, India and the Philippines. In addition, he owes hundreds of millions of dollars to banks, including the government-run Bank of China, Deutsche Bank and other foreign banks, which could lead to suspicions that there are personal business motives behind his government’s decisions.
Even if Trump’s adult children take total control of the company’s real estate business and Trump doesn’t discuss business matters with them, as he announced Wednesday, that won’t avoid conflicts of interest.
It’s hard to imagine that foreign leaders will not use Trump’s business associates in their own countries as influence peddlers with the Trump White House. The Philippines, for instance, recently appointed Jose E.B. Antonio – Trump’s business partner in Manila’s Trump tower – as special envoy to the United States for trade, investment and economic affairs, according to a New York Times article.
Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri turned to Felipe Yaryura, one of the Argentine partners of YY Development – which in addition to building the Trump tower in Punta del Este was recently planning a Trump tower in Buenos Aires – to set up a congratulatory post-election call to Trump on Nov. 14, the Washington Post reported.
In his repeatedly delayed press conference finally held Wednesday, his first in almost six months, the president-elect said his newly created trust fund would turn over “total control” of the Trump Organization to his children Don and Eric. “My two sons Don and Eric are going to run the company. They are not going to discuss it with me,” he said.
My opinion: That’s baloney. Pretending that turning over the management of the Trump Organization to his two adult sons without selling his stake will avoid conflicts of interests is ridiculous. And claiming that he won’t discuss business matters with them over the next four years is an insult to our intelligence.
Eric and Don Trump seem to be glued to their father. They even appeared next to him at Wednesday’s press conference, as if they were top incoming administration officials. Are we supposed to believe that for the next four years they will only talk about the weather, or discuss poetry, with their all-business, monothematic father?
There is only one way in which Trump can prevent flagrant conflicts of interests, and that’s selling his part of the Trump Organization and creating a blind trust. Doing what he said Wednesday – and even removing his picture from in front of the Trump Tower in Punta del Este, for that matter – is a recipe for a scandal-ridden presidency.
P.S.: When I left Punta del Este on Jan. 6, I walked in front of the Trump Tower and could see a big picture of Trump and his two adult sons behind the front door in the lobby sales office. The street billboard had disappeared, but Trump, Eric and Don were still smiling from inside the building.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
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