Donald Trump’s Biggest Conflict Of Interest Is Ivanka Trump

Ivanka Trump in the Oval Office with her father President Donald Trump— April 24, 2017, (AP/Susan Walsh)

Ivanka Trump in the Oval Office with her father President Donald Trump— April 24, 2017, (AP/Susan Walsh)

For many, last week was a slow slide into despair punctuated by cruel moments of hope. While the saga of the American Health Care Act occupied most of the week’s narrative, underlying all of President Trump’s actions are his repeated and extensive conflicts of interest. Rather than the President, in the news lately it has been another Trump, Ivanka, whose conflicts of interest have begun to rival those of her fathers. To make matters worse for Ms. Trump, while her father is held to a higher moral standard as president, she is held to a higher legal one as a White House employee.

One of those moral standards applied to the President deals with standing as a model of American values and representing those values to the rest of the world. Since WWII, the US commitment to human rights has been one of the central pillars of our foreign policy. We enforce our commitment in many ways, but most common is to avoid giving violators acknowledgment, legitimacy, or letting them have a place on the world stage. People were shocked when President Trump had a “very friendly conversation” with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte; a man known by the friendly title of “the death squad mayor” and then proceeded to invite him to the White House. Such an invitation goes against the whole “avoiding to legitimize” strategy strictly adhered to in diplomatic interactions with human rights violators.

From a strategic point of view, President Trump’s actions make a certain sort of sense. The US has been increasingly focused on China expanding its sphere of influence into the South China Sea. Our main diplomatic tactic to counter this expansion is strengthening ties with the island nations bordering the South China Sea including Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. There are tactical reasons to take a warmer tone with the Philippines, but no policy discussion can be had because President Trump has his name on a building there and stands to profit from a better relationship.

Adding weight to this worry is an incident during the campaign where President Trump’s anti-Muslim speech angered one Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey. President Erdogan threatened to remove Trump’s name from the the twin towers it occupies in Istanbul. After this incident, then candidate Trump called for the US not to criticize Erdogan and Turkey about purging their local populace following an attempted coup. No matter what line the president takes on Turkey, it will be overshadowed by his conflicts there, perceived and actual. Here are President-elect Trump’s own words from a Breitbart interview in December 2016 on the matter:

“I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul. It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers — two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.”

Complicating the entire Philippines and Duterte invitation is the fact that until the press noticed, President Trump and White House staffer Ivanka Trump were both featured in advertising material for the building there. To be fair, the advertisements were from 2012, and have now been removed, so it’s not quite as if Trump is actively advertising for this building. Rather than addressing conflicts of interest in a systematic way, this administration is dealing with them one at a time as they arise, or if you are feeling less generous, will only address their conflicts when they are publicized and forced to.

A Trump Tower billboard is seen in Manila in July 2012. (Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images)

Having it All: White House Senior Staff, Author And, Businesswoman

As senior White House staff, Ms. Ivanka Trump could meet with foreign dictators without making the same waves as her father, but her problems arose this week from the ethics laws by which she is bound. You might have missed it but Ivanka Trump’s book Women Who Work came out to…mixed reviews (that liberal rag, The New York Times, was not impressed).

Publishing a book while serving as a senior White House aide seems….ill advised, even though the deal existed prior to Ms. Trump’s assumption of her post. Ms. Trump has taken steps to address conflicts with her book; she will donate the royalties and the remaining part of her advance to charity. In addition Ms. Trump will refrain from doing any media promotion or a book tour (where she would find the time for either I have no idea). Not a bad start addressing Ms. Trump’s conflicts with this book, but I remain suspicious for several reasons (and no, partisan politics is not one of them).

Ms. Trump is donating the proceeds from her book to her own charity. Now maybe I’m just jealous that I do not have a charity, but this raises a red flag from an ethics standpoint. David Fahrenthold won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his tenacious pursuit of President Trump’s notoriously empty promises when it comes to charity donations. Fahrenthold also demonstrated how the Trump Foundation, President Trump’s own charity, engaged in “self-dealing.” For example, in 2007 President Trump spent $20,000 of his charity’s money to buy a six foot tall portrait of himself. Ms. Trump is not her father, however, and no proof has surfaced yet that she uses her charity in such a way, but neither has it received scrutiny.

The other issue with Ms. Trump’s book has to do with media promotion. Ms. Trump has kept her promise to not market the book in the media, well, she sort of has. Does social media count? Because the book has been showing up on her personal twitter account. Personal twitter accounts of civil servants can be considered public speech and Ms. Trump’s walks a very fine line on this point. Here is one of several places Ms. Trump’s book has shown up on her account:

Oh, and on other social media accounts as well:

For those of you who have never encountered Voice of America (VOA), it’s the international propaganda arm of our government; an electronic version of leaflet dropping if you will. Ms. Trump’s book should never be here, cannot be here. It is not complicated: the US government is promoting a book by a government employee. The tweet has an image of Ms. Trump in the Oval Office with the President while the contents concern her private endeavors. Conflating Ms. Trump’s personal identity with her powerful position within the White House is a mistake VOA should know better than to make. The first rule of civil service for non-elected officials is you must keep the personal and the public aspects of your life separate. While this entire book promotion may not be blatantly illegal, it has definitely been entirely unethical.

The Kushner/Trump Clan Wants In On The Spoils Of Government

Family always gets you in trouble don’t they? There is always that one cousin, or uncle and we learned this week that the Kushner clan is no exception. Reporters attended an event hosted by the family in Beijing last week which was intended to educate Chinese investors about the EB-5 visa program.

The EB-5 visa program basically lets you buy a visa for $500,000 and gives luxury real estate companies a source of cheap money. The visa program was not designed to work this way, but that is basically what it has become. Originally the EB-5 was designed to draw investment to much needed areas, a way of providing economic stimulus to struggling Americans in exchange for a two year residency and expedited path to citizenship. The Kushner family was trying to raise $150 million for a real estate venture of theirs in New Jersey though this EB-5 program.

Kushner Companies had this to say in a statement on the incident:

“Ms. Meyer wanted to make clear that her brother had stepped away from the company in January and has nothing to do with this project,”

Ms. Nicole Kushner walked a very fine legal line at the presentation, never mentioning President Trump by name, but displaying a slide of him as a “key decision maker” and commenting that “In 2008, my brother Jared Kushner joined the family company as CEO, and recently moved to Washington to join the administration.” Kushner Companies claims it had nothing to do with the slide containing the president. Legally, in order to take action you would have to prove that the Kushners were intentionally using their connections as the Presidential family to boost their business which is very difficult.

Ethically, however, the audience clearly understood and valued the family ties as they expressed when they talked to The New York Times:

Jared Kushner is the son-in-law of — and a powerful adviser to — President Trump. Virtually unknown in China just months ago, he is now recognized here as a deeply influential figure in American politics.

“The Trump relationship is an extra point for me,” Ms. Bi said, adding that she and her husband had not decided whether to invest.”

Did the Kushners allow the audience to assume the Trump connection or did they encourage it? Being forced to answer questions like this is why so few ethics lawsuits succeed, but ethics are as much about our perception and trust of people often called the court of public opinion.

There is a fine line legally for civil servants between speaking with your personal voice and speaking with the voice of your public office. Usually the distinction is fairly clear since the person in question’s public reach comes from the office they occupy rather than any individual celebrity. President Trump and the rest of the clan complicate matters by bringing a large personal media presence to the job that interacts with their public one. Add in the potential for extensive business conflicts and you have an ethical and communications nightmare. Not to mention, a potential constitutional crisis.

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Conflicted // Donald Trump / Ethics / Government / Politics