Conflict of Interest. What’s that?

Published: November 25, 2016 - 17:39 Updated: August 8, 2017 - 15:47

Donald Trump’s presidency could soon get ensnared in the several conflicts of interest that his vested interests could create

Would you like to live in a 2 million dollar flat built by Donald Trump himself? Let’s rephrase that a little. Would you like to live in a condominium worth many crores which has the name Trump slapped across it but is actually built by an Indian developer? Rishi Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor would. They have already brought a unit at the sleek black glass Trump towers in Pune. In retrospect the decision of Atul Chordia and Sagar Chordia of Panchshil realty to associate with the Trump brand name has reaped handsome rewards. The valuation of their real estate project has gone up by 35 percent. Besides the towers in Pune the Trump Organisation has four other projects in the works in collaboration with various real estate developers. The five real estate projects that the Trump Organisation has in India make it the biggest potential market outside of North America. Which begs the question: Would Donald Trump sign deals with the Indian government which make his real estate projects even more lucrative?

During the campaign trail Donald Trump steadfastly refused to answer questions about placing his business in a genuine blind trust if he were to become president. Now that Trump is the president-elect these questions are more pertinent than ever. The nature and diversity of the Trump Organisations’ businesses mean that a wide range of government policy has direct impact on them. Including important domestic matters related to tax policy, standards for government contractors, consumer protection, the functioning of the civil justice system, financial regulation, labour rights and workplace safety and health standards, and bankruptcy law. Matters of foreign policy are also implicated because of the global reach of the Trump Organisation. Despite this the president-elect has done very little to avoid the impression that he is cashing in on the highest office in the land.

Questions of conflicts of interest have been doing the rounds of American media ever since Trump announced his candidature last year after descending the escalator in Trump Tower, New York. Concerns about potential conflicts of interest have exacerbated ever since it was revealed that Trump has been meeting with foreign business partners such as the Chordias. At the same time news has broken out that the newly inaugurated Trump hotel in Washington is soliciting business from foreign diplomats looking to attend the inauguration.

Take the latest controversy. For years, Trump and his partners have been trying to build an office building in Argentina. The project has been stuck because of its inability to obtain various permitting requirements. According to a report when Argentine President Mauricio Macri called President-Elect Trump to congratulate him on his election, Trump asked Macri to deal with the permitting issues that are currently holding up the project. The Argentinian President has denied this allegation.

Several of Trumps dealings like these may run afoul of the emoluments clause, which states that "no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present ... of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state." If a foreign government buys some expensive real estate in an upcoming Trump project then it would be a classic example of the violation of this clause. The Emoluments Clause is explicitly not limited to gifts: it prohibits "any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever." An "emolument" is a payment in exchange for something, usually employment, and by definition is not a gift. And the inclusion of the phrase "of any kind whatever" is a standard legal indication that the list of prohibitions is to be construed broadly.

Ultimately, whether Trump's business arrangements violate the Constitution is not the whole question. Foreign officials, domestic lobbyists, and favour-seekers of every kind will be glad to stay in Trump's hotels - and let the stay be known to Trump's administration. It's only a matter of time before, say, Saudi officials reserve entire hotel floors for Trump's full four-year term.

This is not the only law that a Trump presidency could violate. The culinary workers of a Trump hotel have a pending dispute with the Trump Organisation which is going to be arbitrated at the National Labour Relations Board(NLRB). The NLRB will see five new appointees selected by Trump when he becomes president. In other words Trump will select the judges who will be adjudicating a case against Trump.

It’s safe to say that Trump has already entangled himself in a web of conflicts which could well engender a constitutional crisis of mammoth proportions.