Trump's Biggest Potential Conflict Of Interest Is Hiding In Plain Sight

Source: Forbes | February 13, 2018 | Dan Alexander

The largest American office of China’s largest bank sits on the 20th floor of Trump Tower, six levels below the desk where Donald Trump built an empire and wrested a presidency. It’s hard to get a glimpse inside. There do not appear to be any public photos of the office, the bank doesn’t welcome visitors, and a man guards the elevators downstairs–one of the perks of forking over an estimated $2 million a year for the space.

Trump Tower officially lists the tenant as the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, but make no mistake who’s paying the rent: the Chinese government, which owns a majority of the company. And while the landlord is technically the Trump Organization, make no mistake who’s cashing those millions: the president of the United States, who has placed day-to-day management with his sons but retains 100% ownership. This lease expires in October 2019, according to a debt prospectus obtained by Forbes. So if you assume that the Trumps want to keep this lucrative tenant, then Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. could well be negotiating right now over how many millions the Chinese government will pay the sitting president. Unless he has already taken care of it: In September 2015 then-candidate Trump boasted to Forbes that he had “just renewed” the lease, around the time he was gearing up his campaign.

It’s a conflict of interest unprecedented in American history. But hardly unanticipated. The Founding Fathers specifically built this contingency into the Constitution through the Emoluments Clause, which prohibits U.S. officials from accepting gifts, titles or “emoluments” from foreign governments. In Federalist 75, Alexander Hamilton framed the threat thus: “An avaricious man might be tempted to betray the interests of the state to the acquisition of wealth.” Scholars have been debating what exactly constitutes an “emolument” since the moment Trump won the election, and nearly 200 congressional Democrats sued the president over possible violations in June. Much of the yammering in this area surrounds Trump’s hotels, especially the one in Washington, D.C., which has billed $268,000 in hotel rooms and catering to the Saudi government, and his international licensing deals, which allow foreign tycoons and hucksters, many with connections to their local governments, to pay the Trump Organization more than $5 million a year in order to profit from the president’s name in far-flung locales.

But that’s all small potatoes. The real money in the Trump empire comes from commercial tenants like the Chinese bank. Forbes estimates these tenants pay a collective $175 million a year or so to the president. And they do so anonymously. Federal laws, drafted without envisioning a real estate billionaire as president, require Trump to publicly disclose the shell companies he owns–but not the hundreds of businesses pouring money into them or even the extent of the money involved.

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So we created one on our own, identifying 164 tenants, in virtually every industry, from all around the world, and then estimated payments, wherever possible, based on property records, debt prospectuses and conversations with real estate experts. (See chart, p. 91.) When tenants refused to say how much space they rented, we made in-person visits and took rough measurements. (There were obstacles: The day after we sent questions to the Trump Organization , two security guards kicked a Forbes reporter out of a shopping area of one Trump property.) When we could not get more detailed information, we assumed tenants paid rates comparable to those for similar properties in their respective markets. We believe we’ve tracked the sources for 75% of the rent flowing into the president’s coffers.

The numbers are significant: $21 million here, $12 million there. The names even more so: At least 36 of Trump’s tenants have meaningful relationships with the federal government, from contractors to lobbying firms to regulatory targets.

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Consider banks. Capital One rents space for an estimated $1 million at the bottom of Trump’s Park Avenue condo building–while the Justice and Treasury departments investigate the bank’s anti-money-laundering program. Four years ago, the Department of Justice reached a nearly $17 billion settlement–the largest ever of its kind–with Bank of America, the biggest tenant (an estimated $18 million a year) at the 555 California Street complex in San Francisco, where Trump owns a 30% stake. Like all big banks, BofA remains under scrutiny by federal officials. In December, Trump tenants UBS, Barclays and JPMorgan, plus Trump lender Deutsche Bank, got waiver extensions from the Department of Labor that allow them to avoid part of their punishment for illegally manipulating interest rates and foreign exchange rates.

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Shortly before President Trump’s inauguration, one of his lawyers, Sheri Dillon, stood inside Trump Tower with the soon-to-be commander-in-chief and revealed his plans to maintain his business interests while insulating his presidency from foreign influence. “President-elect Trump has decided, and we are announcing today,” the lawyer said, “that he is going to voluntarily donate all profits from foreign government payments made to his hotels to the United States Treasury. This way, it is the American people who will profit.”

Left unsaid: The Trump Organization makes more money from the Chinese bank alone than it ever could expect from hotel visits by members of a foreign government. And the president has made no pledge to hand over that money. Or the incoming rent from the state-owned Bank of India, which leases space in San Francisco, part of a deal that expires in 2019.

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Despite all this, Trump does not seem to think ongoing rental payments from foreign entities pose a problem. Quite the opposite. “No new foreign deals will be made whatsoever during the duration of President Trump’s presidency,” his lawyer said in that January press conference. Apparently, the Trump team defined “foreign deals” strictly as projects not on U.S. soil, because one year later, with no fanfare, the signs in the windows of a couple Trump properties revealed new tenants: yoga retailer Lululemon and sandwich shop Pret A Manger, based in Canada and Great Britain, respectively.

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