Trump’s “great relationships” with world leaders make sense for his empire

Power networking.
Power networking.
Image: Reuters/Jorge Silva
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On his recently completed trip through Asia, Donald Trump boasted about having a great relationship with at least three heads of state. He said it of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, just two days after first meeting him. He said it of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, with whom he ate a hamburger. And he claimed to have a “great chemistry” with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Going further, he said it of all the leaders who joined him at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, among them Russian president Vladimir Putin. ”I’ll be honest with you, I think I have a great relationship with every single one—every person in that room today,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on Nov. 11. And in September, Trump touted his “great friendship” with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Some of these leaders, of course, face criticism for their poor human rights records or authoritarian tendencies, and could reasonably expect the US president, as leader of the free world—remember that?—to pressure them to change their ways. In Trump’s case, however, such pressure tends to be minimal or nonexistent.

There could be a number of reasons. It might simply be that Trump is relationship-building the way he did before becoming president. It could also be a deliberate strategy to gain more influence for the US over these leaders: forming a bond rather than creating alienation. Viewed through the lens of a business opportunity, it would also make sense for him to build good will in countries with existing or potential Trump properties.

The Trump real estate empire has room to expand in countries like China, the Philippines, and Turkey. It also has existing properties to consider. Regarding Turkey, in a December 2015 interview with Breitbart News, Trump said, “I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul… It’s called Trump Towers… I’ve gotten to know Turkey very well. They have a strong leader.”

Manila has a new Trump Tower, too, and Trump’s local business partner on it, Jose E.B. Antonio, was named a “special envoy” to the US by Duterte in October 2016, shortly before the US presidential election.

Given his properties, it’s often in Trump’s self-interest to maintain a “great relationship” with the political elite in foreign countries—and to brush aside human rights violations or democracy-eroding power grabs taking place under their watch. Last year Duterte became enraged at US criticism of his violent anti-drug campaign, which has claimed the lives of innocent victims, and hurled profanities at Barack Obama.

Not all leaders receive the “great relationship” treatment from Trump. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has been the target of Trump’s colorful Twitter insults—but then again, the odds of a Trump Tower in Pyongyang have never looked good.

To considerable controversy, Trump has retained ownership of his real estate empire while serving as president. Earlier this year, Walter Shaub, head of the independent Office of Government Ethics, criticized him over his failure to divest from his business holdings. This summer, Shaub, troubled that Trump simply turned over his investments to his two oldest sons, resigned early, reminding staff in a departing note that “public service is a public trust” that entails putting “ethical principles above private gains.”

Trump replaced Shaub with acting director David Apol, who argued the agency was being too rigid (paywall) in interpreting conflict-of-interest laws.

Quartz reached out to the White House for comment, but has so far received no reply.

Meanwhile in Washington business is roaring at Trump International Hotel, an opulent new property just blocks from the White House, fueling criticism that Trump is profiting from the presidency (paywall).

Judging by his power networking in Asia and elsewhere, he’ll profit from it well after he leaves office.