Among the biggest questions about President Donald Trump’s foreign policy approach is why he lavishes praise upon — or often refuses to condemn — some of the world’s worst autocrats. A New York Times investigation into his tax returns sheds new light on how his investments raise conflict of interest concerns abroad.
According to a Times report this week, in the first two years of his presidency, Trump’s businesses continued to receive income from countries led by officials with an authoritarian bent or shoddy human rights records: $1 million from Turkey, $3 million from the Philippines and $2.3 million from India.
While those numbers are dwarfed by Trump’s other businesses, including the $427 million he earned from his star turn on NBC’s “The Apprentice,” they offer what experts say pose conflicts of interest which have national security consequences if the president decides to act more in his own interests rather than those of the country.
Even more important is the sheer scale of the president’s debt — he is responsible for some $421 million in liabilities, much of which comes due in the next four years when he could be into his second term. Trump has refused to detail who his creditors are, a secret that American adversaries could exploit if they know the identities.
“The president has hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and the American public doesn’t know who owns that debt and in effect owns a substantial amount of the president’s financial future,” said Donald Sherman, deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “These are exactly the kinds of issues that the national security agencies examine when they perform security clearances.”
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Many of the president’s potential conflicts were already known. Questions have long swirled around his relationship with Turkey and Turkey-U.S. Business Council Chairman Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, who helped negotiate a 2008 licensing deal for a pair of Trump towers in Istanbul.
While Yalcindag told the Times he’s “remained friendly” with Trump, he said communications to the administration “go through formal channels.”
Although many of the president’s potential conflicts were previously known, the tax documents underscore the degree to which Trump opened himself up to manipulation and how easy it has been for foreigners looking for an edge to use his business to try to curry favor. The story cites Trump’s tax returns in 2010-2018 as showing he collected millions of dollars from Azerbaijan and Dubai, and offset business expenses with hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees.
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Trump has dismissed the New York Times report, calling it “fake news” without address specific allegations. In a tweet on Sept. 28, he said the media was “bringing up my Taxes & all sorts of other nonsense with illegally obtained information & only bad intent.”
One country that doesn’t appear much in the tax reporting is Russia. The president’s persistent efforts to improve ties with Vladimir Putin’s government has led him to meet with the Russian president without any other officials present and to say he believes the former KGB agent’s explanations about election meddling over the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies.
All that has long raised speculation the president could have a financial motive in his dealings with the country.
The president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen said he was still negotiating with officials in Moscow about a potential real estate project while Trump was running for president in 2016. But that Trump Tower project never materialized and, as a result, the president doesn’t own any properties in Russia which would provide income.
Moreover, senior administration officials have said Trump is right to seek better relations with countries such as Russia, and they cite new sanctions and the expulsion of Russian diplomats to bolster their claim that the administration has been tougher on Putin’s government than any other.
For years, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has documented how foreign governments have poured money into the president’s properties in an apparent bid to curry influence, including at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, just down the street from the White House.
Even so, the Times’ documents offer no financial smoking guns to explain Trump’s deference to some of the world’s autocrats.
On Russia, however, there is one new detail: the report says he pocketed about $2.3 million from the Miss Universe pageant in 2013, when it was hosted in Moscow, making it the most successful one he arranged.
— With assistance by Laura Davison
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