When Donald Trump took office last January he refused to sell his personal business interests or put them into a real blind trust like every president before him, but he did agree not to do any new deals with foreign governments, sovereign wealth funds, royal families or others who would present an obvious conflict of interest to the decisions he would make as America’s chief executive.
The Trump Organization even withdrew from a few projects, including those in Argentina, India, and Georgia (the country near Russia) to ensure that the president doesn’t violate the emoluments clause of the constitution which prohibits him from accepting money, gifts or titles from foreign governments.
Since then there have been incidents where Trump appeared to violate that pledge but he waved them off as minor.
Now Trump is also trying to ignore a project in Indonesia involving companies partly owned by the governments of Saudi Arabia and South Korea, but it is too big and too obvious a conflict to just wave off.
— Kristen's Kulture (@paz4u) December 4, 2017
The “Lido City” development will include as its centerpiece the Trump International Hotel and Tower Lido. It is being built adjacent to a national park in Bogor, West Java, Indonesia, with the Trump Collection (of hotels), which has licensed the Trump name and hired The Trump Organization to provide management services.
The 1,730-acre development in the middle of a tropical rainforest 65 kilometers south of Jakarta is in a mountainous region. It will include, in addition to a six-star hotel, a Disney-like theme park, a country club, villas, condos, a spa and an eighteen hole golf course created by noted designer Ernie Els of South Africa.
Trump is partnering on the project with MNC Land, according to a report by McClatchy News, which last month entered into an agreement with Posco E&C Indonesia to the main contractor on the first phase of the project, which is being billed as a Trump Hotel Community.
MNV (Media Nusantara Citra), which is comprised of over 50 companies and has in excess of 37,000 employees, is run by flamboyant billionaire businessman Hary Tanoesoedibjo, who has been called the “Donald Trump of Indonesia.”
Trump Lido in Indonesia is scheduled to open next year, giving him a stake in a politically unstable country of 258 million.
— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) August 2, 2017
The agreement to work together on the Indonesian project was first announced in 2015 before Trump was president but after he had announced he was running.
Tanoesoedibjo ran for Vice President of Indonesia in 2014 but lost. He has created a new political party with the intention to run for president in the future.
Tanoesoedibjo and his wife attended Trump’s inauguration and were given VIP treatment.
In an article in Tempo magazine in Indonesia in February, Tanoesoedibjo bragged about his access to President Trump, with whom he also has a big real estate development in Bali.
“We share the same background as buisnessmen,” he told Tempo. “We click, and we can come to an agreement fast. He is the type of person to make quick decisions.”
Recently MNC entered into an agreement with Posco E&C Indonesia to act as a contractor on at least the first phase of the project.
Posco is part of a subsidiary of a company 38 percent owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund., and is partly owned by South Korea.
The government of Saudi Arabia, through its central bank, owns another 2.4 percent of Posco. South Korea’s public pension fund owns another 11 percent of Posco.
While at his Mar-a-Lago resort last December, Trump was asked about the Indonesian project and downplayed any potential conflict of interest. “It’s not a big deal,” Trump told reporters. “You people are making it a big deal, the business. They all knew I had big business all over the place.”
The Trump Organization earned between $1 million and $5 million in 2016 and early 2017 from the Indonesian deal, according to financial disclosure filings, according to McClatchy News, and it is not yet even open.
No travel ban on Egypt & Indonesia, countries Trump & his family have business interest. Like Trump Internat'l in Bali & Lido, W. Java.
— Naomi Ruth (@naomiruthkurt) June 6, 2017
There are already a number of lawsuits accusing Trump of violating the emoluments clause and ethics experts told McClatchy that the Lido City project could also be an ethics violation.
Richard Painter, who was the chief ethics lawyer under then-President George W Bush, said this agreement “could violate the law” and even if it technically is not a violation, ” it’s very problematic for the president’ since it raises questions about whether Trump is acting on behalf of the US. government or of his company when he makes decisions.
Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Government Ethics office, warned that Trump was constantly getting into conflicts of interest because he refused to sell his business interests.
“Just about every decision he makes puts him under a cloud of suspicion,” says Shaub. “It became inevitable because he didn’t sell. It’s precisely why he should have divested.”
“Now every time his company does business in a foreign country or with a foreign entity,” reports McClatchy and the Associated Press, “Trump faces a fresh set of questions: Is a foreign government gaining access to him because of the business? Is the business deal a factor in U.S. foreign policy? Is a foreign government building goodwill with him because of his company?”
The Trump Organization would not comment, but it became clear when the president was in the Middle East in May that he has a special relationship with Saudi Arabia, when he announced $55 billion in business deals with the U.S. and the sale of $110 billion in arms sales at a time the kingdom is in a one-sided war in Yemen that is causing famine and disease epidemics leading to the death of thousands of people.
Trump also sided with Saudi Arabia in a controversial dispute with Qatar, where the U.S. has a huge military base.
Trump’s actions raise many questions about his real motivations, how he is skirting the emoluments laws, where his true loyalty lies and other thorny ethical questions.
What is clear is that when Trump gave his word not to do more business with foreign governments last January, he was lying, again.
Nothing that Trump says can be believed, trusted or taken at face value, because he is a tricky, greedy businessman who is using his government position make him an even more powerful force in business, and that is not good news for the American people.