Trump’s invitation to Rodrigo Duterte highlights why he and his kids must sell their business

Trump Tower in Manila will “exude luxury,” the Trump children say.
Trump Tower in Manila will “exude luxury,” the Trump children say.
Image: screenshot from promotional video
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In a “friendly conversation” on April 29, US president Donald Trump invited Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte to the White House, despite Duterte’s violent and bloody crackdown on drug users and dealers that has already resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings.

The visit is “necessary” to counter the threat from North Korea, advisor Reince Priebus said, citing the importance of regional cooperation. Duterte does not necessarily share this same view, however. He told reporters Monday he might not be able to make it to the US anytime soon, because he is “tied up” with upcoming visits to Russia and Israel.

Trump’s invite is already drawing criticism because of Duterte’s human rights record, which Trump has yet to publicly criticize. The fact that Duterte might not accept, despite the tens millions of dollars in aid that the US traditionally gives to the Philippines, is a reflection in part of how tense the US-Philippines relationship became after Duterte took office.

But it also highlights the potential for messy conflicts that Trump’s businesses bring to US foreign policy, and once again raises questions about the strength of Trump’s negotiating position in countries where his business has ongoing deals.

Duterte’s invitation comes as the Trump Organization is on the brink of opening a new $150 million, 57-story skyscraper in Manila, where one-bedroom apartments start at $450,000, as Quartz has previously reported. The Trump Organization has partnered with Century Properties on the project, a local firm run by developer Jose E.B. Antonio. Antonio was named a special government trade representative to the US just days before the US election in November.

Donald Trump Jr., left, and Eric Trump, right, sons of real estate developer Donald Trump, pose with local developer Jose E. B. Antonio during a press conference on the launching of Manila's Trump Tower project Tuesday, June 26, 2012 in the financial district of Makati, Philippines. The US$150-million, 56-story residential building using the brand name and mark under license from the New York-based Trump will be constructed by a local construction company.
Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump with Jose E. B. Antonio, the Trump Organization’s business partner in the Philippines.
Image: AP Photo/Pat Roque

While most details of the contract between the Trump Organization and Century Properties are not public, Century will manage the Manila property, and Antonio paid as much as $5 million to the organization for the use of the Trump name, Bloomberg reported.  If the deal is structured like some other Trump real estate deals, like the Trump-branded condos in Las Vegas (paywall, page 1) or Trump International Realty deals (also page 1), the Trump Organization will receive a commission on the sales of the building units.

The Trump Organization is also working with Antonio on resort properties in the Philippines, Antonio’s son Robbie told the New York Times (paywall).

This means the Trump Organization could still be receiving payments from Antonio, a Filipino government official, even as Trump and Duterte craft a new US-Philippines relationship. This matters because while Trump has handed over management of his business to his sons, he has not sold it entirely. Ethics experts say the only way to avoid conflicts of interest is to do the latter.

The fundamental problem with Trump’s business conflicts is that “policies may be set and decisions taken not in the best interests of the nation and the public but rather to advance the private financial interests, which in many cases would mean a different policy or decision,” Paul R. Pillar, a former Central Intelligence Agency deputy director, wrote in the National Interest.

The Trump family has also in the past been heavily involved in the marketing of the Manila tower. Ivanka Trump, who is now a US government employee after joining the White House as an assistant to the president, was featured prominently in advertising for the development. (This Getty photo was taken in 2012).

Ivanka Trump was also featured in a 2012 promotional video about the complex, in which she and her brothers promise it will “exude luxury.”

While Congress and members of the judicial branches are beholden to relatively strict ethics rules, the American chief executive has far more discretion over what constitutes a conflict of interest. And as Trump has repeatedly pointed out, the president is not legally prohibited from maintaining business ties that may intersect with his professional duties. It is precisely because we don’t know how Trump’s business interests factor into his diplomatic negotiations that there should be absolutely no connection between the Trump Organization and the Trump family.