Straight-Up Bribing Donald Trump?
When Donald Trump announced on Sunday night that he was riding to the rescue of Chinese electronics maker ZTE, more than a few people, including those who work for him, were shocked. For one thing, Trump has long-claimed that China “is raping us” through unfair trade practices, and stealing American jobs. For another, the U.S. and Beijing are currently locked in tense negotiations to avoid a protracted trade war, thanks to the president’s decision to slap Chinese imports with a vast array of tariffs. For yet another, just a month prior, Trump’s own Commerce Department had banned shipments of American technology to ZTE for seven years, saying that the company violated American sanctions against countries including Iran and North Korea and lied about punishing employees for doing so. As a result, ZTE halted major operating activities—an outcome you’d have expected to please the president, considering he’d just imposed aluminum and steel tariffs on “national security” grounds, and ZTE was threatening national security. So it was a bit odd to see Trump pull a complete 180, suddenly insisting that the company and its 75,000 Chinese jobs must be saved, though to be fair, tweeting “Look, China just pumped $500 million into a Trump Organization project so I had to do them a solid” might not have gone over so well.
Oh, that’s right—according to multiple news outlets, the president’s total about-face on China came just 72 hours after the developer of a theme park outside Jakarta, known as MNC Lido City, with whom the Trump Organization has an agreement to license its name, signed a deal to receive $500 million in Chinese government loans, in addition to another $500 million from government banks. According to Agence France-Presse, the Trump Organization will rake in almost $3.7 million in licensing and consulting payments from Lido, along with another project in Bali. The company will also earn management fees, and be “eligible for additional unspecified incentives.” (Upon entering the White House, Trump turned over day-to-day management of the family business to his sons Donny Jr. and Eric, but chose not to divest himself financially from the company.)
Of course, we can’t entirely be sure that the financial injection was the reason for Trump’s sudden soft spot for Chinese jobs. Other theories for the change of heart include the fact that the president knows he needs China’s help during next month’s North Korea summit; that the economic nationalists in the White House are losing ground to the free-traders like Larry Kudlow; and that Trump sees helping ZTE as a way to get a trade deal with China. (According to the Washington Post the Chinese government gave and the U.S. a list of economic and trade demands and bullet point 5 was “announce adjustment to the [ZTE] export ban.”) But we also know that this is a president for whom kissing the ring goes very, very far. “You do a good deal for him, he does a good deal for you. Quid pro quo,” Richard Painter, the White House ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, told HuffPost. “This appears to be yet another violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution,” Painter added, referring to the prohibition against the president receiving payments from foreign governments.
The White House, naturally, isn’t commenting on any of this. “You’re asking about a private organization’s dealings that may have to do with a foreign government. It’s not something I can speak to,” Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said Monday when he was asked about the Lido City deal. Luckily for Trump, the Trump Organization can’t speak to questions involving the president, either. And so any ethics issues involving either Trump or the businesses putting money in his pocket necessarily disappear into a metaphysical black hole.
Robert Weissman, president of the advocacy group Public Citizen, called the turn of events “stunning.” “They perpetually find new things to surprise me,” he said. “The idea of the president intervening in a law-enforcement matter to satisfy a foreign government is extraordinary. And it’s extraordinary because it doesn’t happen. Opening that door threatens the integrity of all corporate law enforcement. The Chinese government seems to have figured out a way to manipulate President Trump,” Weissman added. “It’s exactly why this anti-bribery clause of the Constitution is common sense.” As Christopher Balding, an economics professor at Shenzhen’s HSBC Business School, told A.F.P., “Even if this deal is completely and entirely above board, it simply furthers the perception of impropriety” concerning Trump’s business dealings. “Especially with the potential trade war, this is not a good look . . . Critics will be entirely right to demand answers.” We’re sure the administration, whose motto is basically “We’re open for business, baby,” will get right on that.
Seems the President is a liability.