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Thursday
May042017

The Trump Family Empire Expands

(Note, this piece first appeared in TomDispatch, May 2nd)

President Trump, his children and their spouses, aren’t just using the Oval Office to augment their political legacy or secure future riches. Okay, they certainly are doing that, but that’s not the most useful way to think about what’s happening at the moment. Everything will make more sense if you reimagine the White House as simply the newest branch of the Trump family business empire, its latest outpost.

It turns out that the voters who cast their ballots for Donald Trump, the patriarch, got a package deal for his whole clan.  That would include, of course, first daughter Ivanka who, along with her husband, Jared Kushner, is now a key political adviser to the president of the United States.  Both now have offices in the White House close to him.  They have multiple security clearances, access to high-level leaders whenever they visit the Oval Office or Mar-a-Lago, and the perfect formula for the sort of brand-enhancement that now seems to come with such eminence. President Trump may have an exceedingly “flexible” attitude toward policymaking generally, but in one area count on him to be stalwart and immobile: his urge to run the White House like a business, a family business.

The ways that Jared, “senior adviser to the president,” and Ivanka, “assistant to the president,” have already benefited from their links to “Dad” in the first 100 days of his presidency stagger the imagination. Ivanka’s company, for instance, won three new trademarks for its products from China on the very day she dined with President Xi Jinping at her father’s Palm Beach club.

In a similar fashion, thanks to her chance to socialize with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, her company could be better positioned for deal negotiations in his country.  One of those perks of family power includes nearing a licensing agreement with Japanese apparel giant Sanei International, whose parent company’s largest stakeholder is the Development Bank of Japan -- an entity owned by the Japanese government.  We are supposed to buy the notion that the concurrent private viewing of Ivanka’s products in Tokyo was a coincidence of the scheduling fairy. Yet since her father became president, you won’t be surprised to learn that global sales of her merchandise have more or less gone through the roof.

Here’s where things get tricky. We can’t pinpoint the exact gains generated from any one meeting of the next generation Trump. They rely on the idea that, because their brand was so huge to begin with, profits and deals would have come anyway. That’s why we won’t ever see their books or tax returns.

Conflicts of interest? They now permeate the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but none of this will affect or change one thing President Trump holds dear -- and believe it or not, it’s not the wishes of his base in the American heartland.  It’s advancing his flesh and blood, and their flesh-and-blood-once-removed spouses and relatives.

Federal Regulations and Trump Family Interpretations

The Trumps and Kushners will behave in ways that will benefit their global businesses. There’s just one catch.  They have to get away with it, legally speaking. So the first law of family business in the Oval Office turns out to be: get stellar legal counsel. And they’ve done that. Their lawyers have by now successfully created trusts that theoretically -- but only theoretically -- separate Ivanka from her businesses and deflect any accusations over activities that may, now or in the future, violate federal rules. And there are two of those in particular to consider.

The Code of Federal Regulations is a set of rules published by the executive departments and agencies of the government. Title 18 section 208 of that code deals with “acts affecting a personal financial interest.” This criminal conflict of interest statute states “an officer or employee of the executive branch of the United States Government” can’t have a “financial interest” in the result of their duties. What that should mean, legally speaking, for a family occupying the executive office is: Ivanka could not have dinner with the president of China while her business was applying for and receiving provisional approval of pending trademarks from his country, if one of those acts might impact the other. To an outsider, the connection between those acts seems obvious enough and it’s bound to be typical of what’s to come.

Meanwhile, there are real penalties for being convicted of violating this rule. These include fines or imprisonment or both as set forth in section 216 of Title 18.

Certain lawyers have argued that Ivanka’s and Jared’s appointments don't violate Rule 208 or other nepotism statutes because they are not paid advisers to the president. In other words, because Ivanka doesn’t get a salary for her service to her... uh, country... conflicts automatically vanish. She’s already done her Trumptilian best to demonstrate her affinity for ethical behavior by cordoning herself off from her business responsibilities (sort of). According to the New York Times, “Ivanka has transferred her brand’s assets into a trust overseen by her brother-in-law, Josh Kushner, and sister-in-law, Nicole Meyer.” Phew, no family connections there!  Or maybe she just doesn’t care for her siblings-in-law.

But not all assets, it turns out, are created equal. So the daughter-in-chief will, it seems, keep her stake in the Trump International Hotel, a 15-minute stroll from the White House, which just happens to boast "the Ivanka Trump Suite" and "The Spa by Ivanka Trump." ("The Spa by Ivanka Trump™ and Fitness Center transitions guests from the Technogym setting of the Fitness Center to the tranquil spa haven that is calming, balancing, purifying, revitalizing, and healing...") There, many a foreign diplomat or special interest mogul can "calm, energize, [and] restore" himself or herself, while angling for an "in" with the family. We don’t know precisely the nature of what the Trump family stands to gain from the hotel because its books aren’t made public, but it’s reasonable to assume that we’re not talking losses. Besides this other D.C. domain, Ivanka and Jared will remain the beneficiaries of their mutual business empires now valued at about three quarters of a billion dollars, according to White House ethics filings.

But wait. There’s an even more explicit rule against using public office (like, say, the White House) for private gain: Title 5 section 2635.702. On that subject, the section states that “an employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service, or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity.”

Okay, that’s wordy. And though the rule doesn’t apply to the president or vice president -- we have Nelson Rockefeller to thank for that, but more on him later -- for any other executive office position, the rule explains that “status as an employee is unaffected by pay or leave status.” That means that you can’t say someone is not an employee just because she isn’t drawing a paycheck, which means she isn’t, in fact, exempt just because she can’t show a W-2 form.

The second rule of family business is undoubtedly: control the means of enforcement. And President Trump just got his man onto the Supreme Court, so even if ethical charges rose to the highest court in the land, the family has at least a little insurance.

Bankers and Presidents: A Walk Through History

The idea of powerful bloodlines collaborating is nothing new in either business or politics. At the turn of the twentieth century, mogul families routinely intermarried to spawn yet more powerful and profitable business empires. And when it comes to Oval Office politics, American history is littered with multi-generational public servants with blood ties to presidents.  Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, a Republican, served as secretary of war in the administrations of Presidents James Garfield and Chester Arthur, and finally as U.S. minister to Great Britain during President Benjamin Harrison’s administration. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s son, John, became a decorated brigadier-general, served as assistant staff secretary in the White House while his father was in office and was later appointed ambassador to Belgium under President Richard Nixon (once his father’s vice-president). But neither of them inflated the coffers of the family business in the process.

Whether family business connections might influence prominent figures in the White House isn’t a subject new to the Trump era either. In 1974, when Gerald Ford, who took over the presidency after Richard Nixon’s impeachment, nominated Nelson Rockefeller to be his vice president, Nelson’s brother David ran the Chase Manhattan Bank (now JPMorgan Chase).  Questions naturally arose about the notorious wealth and political reach of the Rockefeller family. Nelson, the grandson of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, had even worked at the bank and had been on the boards of multiple oil companies.

That same year, the Department of Justice conveniently concluded that conflict of interest laws did not apply to the office of the vice president -- but not before Democratic Senator Robert Byrd asked, “Can't we at least agree... that the influence is there, that it is a tremendous influence, that it is more influence than any president or vice president ever had?"  And yet, as fabulously wealthy and linked in as Nelson Rockefeller was, his situation doesn’t even compare to the family business tangle in the Trump White House.

There have been other family members than the Trumps and Jared Kushner in positions of significance in the White House. When, for instance, Woodrow Wilson fell gravely ill in 1919, his second wife, Edith, stepped in to act on his behalf, essentially running the government in a blanket of secrecy from his bedside. Her intention, however, was never to make hay with a family business, but to ensure that her husband’s policies prevailed.  The two Bush presidents, with a business and banking legacy that snaked back a century, were elected, not handed power.  And though Bill Clinton’s reign in the Oval Office enabled wife Hillary to garner enough public recognition (and banking connections) to successfully run for senator in New York State, become secretary of state under President Obama, and launch two ultimately unsuccessful presidential bids, the Clintons only became super-wealthy after Bill’s time in office. Though their charity foundation’s ties to foreign governments remain suspect, they never had a private business while Bill was in the White House.

What can’t be found in the historical record is someone’s child, wife, or relations holding court in the West Wing while expanding a family business, no less a network of them. The present situation, in other words, is unique in the annals of American history. Only 100 days into Donald Trump’s presidency, he already has something of the look of the authoritarian kleptocrats elsewhere on the planet who siphon state wealth into their own bank accounts and businesses.

And remember, the Trump empire is also the Kushner empire.  Jared's family business depends on global investors hailing from countries that just happen to be in his White House portfolio. He, for example, led the efforts to prepare for the state visit to Mar-a-Lago of the Chinese president (while the Kushner business was engaged in high-level talks with a major Chinese financial conglomerate).  A Russian state-owned bank under U.S. sanctions whose chairman met with Jared in December referred to him as the head of Kushner Companies, though he was already visibly if not yet officially a Trump adviser.

He is similarly the administration’s point man for Middle East “peace,” even though his family has financial relationships with Israel. Meanwhile, in his role as head of the newly formed White House Office of American Innovation, the potential opportunities to fuse government and private business opportunities are likely to prove endless.

Nepotism on Parade

Faced with the dynasty-crushing possibility of selling his business or even placing it in a blind trust, Donald Trump chose instead to let his two older sons, Eric and Donald Jr., manage it. Talk about smoke and mirrors.  While speaking with Forbes in March, Eric indicated that he would provide his father with updates on the Trump Organization “quarterly” -- but who truly believes that father and sons won’t discuss the family empire far more frequently than that?

The family has already racked up a laundry list of global conflicts of interest that suggest ways in which the White House is likely to become a moneymaking vehicle for the Trump line. There’s Turkey, for instance, where the Trump Organization already has a substantial investment, and where President Trump recently called President Recip Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on his power-grabbing, anti-democratic victory in a disputed election to change the country’s constitution.  Given Trump business interests globally, you could multiply that call by the world.

Meanwhile, Ivanka’s brand isn’t just doing business as usual, it’s killing it. Since 2017, according to the Associated Press, “global sales of Ivanka Trump merchandise have surged.” As a sign of that, the brand’s imports, mostly from China, have more than doubled over the previous year. As for her husband, he remained the CEO of Kushner Companies through January, only then abdicating his management role in that real-estate outfit and 58 other businesses, though remaining the sole primary beneficiary of most of the associated family trusts. His and Ivanka’s children are secondary beneficiaries. That means any policy decision he promotes could, for better or worse, affect the family business and it doesn’t take a genius to know which of those options he’s likely to choose.

Kleptocrats, Inc.

Despite an already mind-boggling set of existing conflicts of interest, ranging from business affiliations with oligarchs connected to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to the Secret Service and the Pentagon leasing space in Trump Tower (for at least $3 million per year), the Trump family business is now looking to the glorious, long haul. The family is already scouting for a second hotel in Washington. Trump has reportedly used nearly $500,000 from early campaign money raised for his own 2020 presidential bid to bolster the biz. It’s evidently been poured into “Trump-owned restaurants, hotels and golf clubs,” as well as rent at Trump Tower in New York City.

According to the latest polls, the majority of registered voters believe that the installation of Ivanka and Jared in the White House is inappropriate. But that could matter less to Donald Trump. Ask Stephen Bannon or Chris Christie what happens when Ivanka or Jared don’t like you.  That’s the family version of mob-style power.

Ivanka noted in her book, The Trump Card: Playing to Win in Work and Life, that “in business, as in life, nothing is ever handed to you.” Except, of course, when your father is president and he hands you the keys to grow the family business on a silver platter.

Four decades ago, at a Senate hearing on his potential conflicts of interest, Vice President Rockefeller was asked, “Can you separate the interests of big business from the national interest when they differ?"  It’s a question some senator should pose to Ivanka and Jared, replacing “big business” with “big family business.”

Making the future yet murkier, the family may be on the precipice of major problems. The most striking of them: Kushner’s marquee building, 666 Fifth Ave (an 80-story, ultra-luxury Manhattan skyscraper) has a greater than 25% vacancy rate. It hasn’t made enough money to even cover its interest payments for several years, and in two years it will have to pay principal as well on its $1.2 billion mortgage. That’s going to hurt if foreign companies don’t step in to staunch the flow of dollars out of the firm and that, undoubtedly, could require a quid pro quo or two.

In our era, it’s no secret that presidents leave office with the promise of quickly growing exponentially wealthier. But for the first family to gain such wealth while still in the White House would be a first.  Yet the process that could make that possible already seems to be well underway. All this, as Donald Trump, his children, and his son-in-law continue to carve out an unprecedented role for themselves as America’s business-managers-in-chief, presiding not so much over the country as over their own expanding imperial domains.

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