In China, princelings are privileged relatives of high-level government officials. Princelings benefit from nepotism and cronyism, using their family ties to conduct business and accumulate wealth. They also serve as conduits for currying favor with their official relations.
Now President Trump has given us the ultimate Chinese import: American princelings. They are his sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Each engages in business activities and trades on their relationship with the president to pursue business deals and accumulate wealth.
Princelings Donald Jr. and Eric run President Trump’s worldwide business enterprises, although the president still owns and profits from his businesses.
Trump is the first president in modern times to refuse to divest ownership of holdings that were bound to cause conflicts of interest and create the impression of trading U.S. policy for personal financial gain. They were also bound to result in multiple violations of the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, which prohibits the president from receiving financial benefits from other governments without the consent of Congress, in order to prevent corrupting influence from abroad.
When the princeling sons tour the world developing business opportunities, they do so in the long shadow of the president. Every prospective partner knows they are dealing with the president’s sons, and this creates unique opportunities for foreign interests and governments to curry favor and buy influence with the president.
A recent example: In a move that stunned Trump’s own advisers, and reversed the government’s previous position, Trump tweeted on May 13 that he wanted to help China’s telecom giant ZTE avoid going out of business. ZTE’s problems stemmed from violating American sanctions and a subsequent settlement of criminal and civil charges for those violations. This had led to a ban on U.S companies exporting to ZTE, which prevented it from receiving American technology — the ban Trump undermined.
Lo and behold, it emerged that on May 11, two days before the presidential tweet, a Chinese state-owned construction company announced that it would make a loan of $500 million to Indonesian developers to help finance construction of a theme park. The Trump Organization, operated by the princeling sons, is a partner in the theme park venture that reportedly will include a Trump-branded hotel and golf course. Because Trump still owns his businesses, he is the beneficiary of all of this.
Today there are reports that Trump has reached a final deal with ZTE. These events raise at least the appearance of a corrupt bargain between China and Trump. The American people have no way of knowing whether U.S. policy was sold in return for advancing a major Trump business venture in Indonesia. The questions only intensified when observers reported that China walked away from the latest round of trade negotiations with far more than they gave up. This pattern raises serious questions about Trump violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause.
Princeling Jared Kushner was appointed to the White House staff as Trump’s senior adviser with a broad range of responsibilities, including the Middle East and China. Kushner partially divested some of his real estate business when he joined the White House staff, but he continued to own major real estate interests. According to government financial disclosure reports, Kushner’s real estate holdings and other investments are valued at as much as $761 million.
Kushner was known to need large sums of money for his real estate ventures.
Last year, after a founder of Apollo Global Management had multiple White House meetings with Kushner, the company loaned $184 million to the Kushner family real estate firm. Similarly, shortly after Kushner met in the White House with the chief executive of Citigroup, the company lent the Kushner family real estate group and a partner $325 million.
Now the Kushner family real estate business is reportedly close to entering a deal with a company linked to Qatar that could bail Kushner Cos. out of a flagship troubled property and a huge financial hole. Jared Kushner had previously sold his stake in the property involved to a trust run by his mother. Nevertheless, the Kushner family real estate business stands to lose an enormous amount of money without this bailout, and Qatar certainly knows that Kushner’s White House portfolio includes the Middle East.
Meanwhile, U.S. policy towards Qatar has apparently softened after Trump originally took a hard line against the country.
Are these events just coincidences, or do they involve the exchange of U.S. policy for financial benefits? The transactions create the appearance of a conflict of interest for Kushner, and through him for Trump. Here too, there is no way for the American people to know what happened behind the scenes. This is why it is so important for officials like Kushner to divest holdings that could cause conflicts and why it is so dangerous when they do not.
Princeling Ivanka Trump is also a White House official. She has, despite partially divesting, maintained a number of business ventures which sell products all over the world. A key to her business ventures is the ability to obtain Ivanka Trump trademarks for products. According to media reports, her enterprise as of spring 2017 held more than 180 pending and registered trademarks in the U.S., Europe and other nations including Canada, India, Japan, Israel, Mexico, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This included more than 30 trademark applications pending in China, with four marks granted preliminary approval.
Here is the princelings’ game in operation: Ivanka Trump’s company last year won provisional approval from the Chinese government for three new trademarks on the same day that she and Kushner sat next to Chinese President Xi Jinping of China at a dinner at Mar-a-Lago.
By last summer, Ivanka Trump’s business had reportedly obtained preliminary approval for four more trademarks in China. Five additional trademarks were approved earlier this month. Not unknown to China is the fact that, in addition to Ivanka Trump being the president’s daughter, her husband Jared Kushner has China as part of his White House portfolio.
When foreign governments do business with Ivanka Trump, they know that they are dealing with the favored daughter of the U.S. president who also works in her father’s White House. Some countries will no doubt see this as a way to curry favor with President Trump. Other countries may see the business requests made by his daughter’s company as requests they cannot refuse.
All of these issues cause serious credibility problems for the president and his family of princelings with the American people. A president sets the standards for his administration. President Trump’s standard is that public office can and should be used for private financial gain.
It is way past time for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump to end their ongoing conflicts of interest that come at the expense of the American people. They need to either fully divest their business enterprises or leave their White House jobs.
It is also irresponsible and an abuse of office for the president to continue to own his worldwide business enterprises. But since the president refuses to divest his businesses, his princeling children need to stop misusing the presidency and leave the Trump businesses.
Fred Wertheimer is President of Democracy 21. Norman Eisen, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, is the chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
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