Could the Trump family business prove to be his undoing?
Opposition to the Trumps' business entanglements is gaining momentum
The Trump International Hotel in Washington. Photograph: Stephen Crowley/New York Times
The Old Post Office in central Washington has an interesting history. The majestic Victorian building escaped demolition in the 1920s when the “federal triangle” area of the city, comprising a vast complex of official buildings and government offices, was developed.
In the 1970s it was almost torn down again, but was ultimately saved following a campaign to preserve it. Today its 315ft clocktower soars above the low-rise buildings of central Washington. The building also has a new owner: Donald Trump.
In October last year the then presidential hopeful opened a lavish 263-bedroom hotel in the property. The words “Old Post Office” on the central arch were replaced with a sign emblazoned with the words “Trump International Hotel”. A few months later Trump was to move into the White House a few blocks west along Pennsylvania Avenue.
Today the hotel, which boasts an Ivanka Trump-branded spa, is doing a roaring trade. On any given evening the glitzy bar, located beneath the impressive atrium, is busy. The mix of cowboy hats and exotic apparel indicate a clientele that includes Republican diehards and foreign visitors – lots of them. Donald Trump himself has dropped in and dined at the hotel several times since becoming president, including a visit with Nigel Farage in February.
It is this uncomfortable proximity between executive power and commercial interest that has caught the attention of Brian Frosh and Karl Racine, the attorneys general of Maryland and DC respectively. This week they launched a lawsuit against the American president, accusing him of “flagrantly violating” the constitution by accepting payments from foreign governments.
Citing the “emoluments clause” of the US constitution, which prohibits sitting presidents from accepting gifts from foreign dignitaries, they specifically homed in on the Trump International Hotel in DC. They noted that at least 10 foreign governments have held events or stayed there, in some cases switching their reservations from other hotels.
This case is not the first. In January restaurant owners joined a suit taken against the president on similar grounds by an advocacy group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics.
Also this week, 200 Democrats in Congress filed a federal lawsuit accusing Trump of profiting from business dealings with foreign governments.
Unsurprisingly, the White House dismissed the moves, accusing the Democratic attorneys general of Maryland and DC of partisan politics.
Legal experts have questioned whether their lawsuit will stand up in court – emolument cases are very rare. But the case brought by Maryland and DC could have important consequences. If the case were to reach discovery phase, the president could be forced to disclose his tax returns, something he has resisted doing.
As Democrats continue to maintain pressure on Trump over his business dealings, his daughter Ivanka has also been in the spotlight for alleged conflicts of interests.
The 35-year-old is the owner of a $50 million fashion and jewellery brand and also has a stake in the Trump International Hotel in DC. She was appointed in March as an unpaid federal employee and adviser to the president, with an office in the West Wing.
On April 6th she sat next to Chinese premier Xi Jinping at a dinner at her father’s estate in Mar-a-Lago in Florida. The next day three Ivanka Trump trademarks were approved by the Chinese authorities. Her five-year-old daughter also performed a song for the Chinese leader in Mandarin, which was shared widely online in China.
Chinese officials had already been courting Ivanka and her husband, Jared. Ivanka and her daughter also made a surprise appearance at the Chinese New Year reception at the Chinese embassy in Washington 10 days after her father’s inauguration.
Harrowing factory conditions
Focus has also turned to her company’s operations in China. Two weeks ago activists investigating conditions at a Trump shoe factory there were detained. A report in the Guardian this week revealed harrowing conditions at factories in China and Indonesia that manufacture Ivanka Trump products.
She has argued that she has taken steps to distance herself from her business interests, absenting herself from day-to-day management. Her company’s assets are now run by “independent” trustees: her sister-in-law and brother-in-law.
This week, in an interview on Fox News’s morning show, Ivanka Trump said she was surprised at the “viciousness” in Washington of the attacks on her father, noting that she and her husband had relocated from New York to DC to “do big things, important things”.
As the series of scandals embroiling the Trump administration continue to accumulate, there is a danger that the president’s business entanglements may be lost from view.
With many experts believing that any financial links between Trump and Russia may prove to be the president’s undoing, maintaining scrutiny of his business dealings, through lawsuits or otherwise, is an important step in holding the 45th president to account.