WASHINGTON ― This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a referendum in which he narrowly won the ability to claim broad new governmental powers. The referendum was treated by international observers as a grotesque power grab, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman warned “all who value democracy ... should be concerned.”
But President Donald Trump didn’t see it that way. Instead, he phoned Erdogan to congratulate him on the win. Foreign policy experts may have been perplexed at the president’s seeming comfort with creeping authoritarianism. But soon thereafter, explanations emerged.
It wasn’t just that Trump has an affinity for strong men. His family has direct ties to Erdogan himself. Back in April 2012, the Turkish president joined the Trump family at the opening of Trump Towers Istanbul.
Never before in U.S. history have the president and his private business interests been so entangled with matters of public affairs. Trump’s affairs have led to accusations that he is hopelessly conflicted, ever more so because of his reliance on his children (themselves players in the Trump business empire) to help with his administration.
“We’ve seen an unprecedented number of conflicts of interest stemming from this administration,” said Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for the ethics watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Are the president’s comments toward Erdogan related to his support for a Trump property? We can’t know, but it’s a question we unfortunately are forced to ask.”
In response to criticisms like these, Trump has insisted that he can act independently, precisely because he has accrued enough wealth to make him incorruptible. But the case of the Turkey referendum exposes another way in which Trump’s past life is now complicating his presidency: He has numerous business-related connections with public officials from other countries with whom he now must conduct public diplomacy.
Take, for example, Trump’s schedule for this week. The president is set to welcome Argentine President Mauricio Macri to the White House in order to discuss “bilateral and regional issues, including the deteriorating situation in Venezuela.”
Macri, the son of a wealthy real estate developer, has known Trump for more than three decades. He and his father sold Trump real estate in Manhattan in the 1980s. “I spent millions of hours with him. How is Trump? He’s like that: a very showoff, very exhibitionist kind of guy,” Macri said in an interview last year. “It’s all an act, from morning till night.”
And when Macri visits the White House, it will be with a specific objective: Argentina is hoping to dramatically expand trade relations with the United States.
Already, the ties between the two leaders have raised questions about Trump’s conduct in office. Last year, the Argentine government denied a report that Trump sought help from Macri in expediting a stalled Trump construction project in Buenos Aires following his election in November.
Argentina isn’t the only nation to which Trump has ties that expand his business and political portfolios. The former president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, met with Trump and Donald Trump Jr. years ago to discuss hosting a Trump-run beauty pageant in the country. He was also there for the opening of the Trump Ocean Club, in Punta Pacifica, Panama City, where Trump reportedly referred to him as a “friend.”
Martinelli fled Panama in January 2015 after being accused of insider trading, embezzlement and using public money to illegally spy on people. He is believed to be living in Miami, and the Panama government formally requested his extradition last fall. Despite that request, Martinelli was invited to Trump’s inauguration.
It’s not just Trump’s direct ties to individuals that now complicate his foreign policy. His daughter Ivanka ― who recently took on a formal White House role ― does, too. She traveled to Baku, the capital city of the former Soviet country of Azerbaijan, in 2010 and 2014 for the construction of the Trump Organization’s luxury hotel there.
The point person for that project was Anar Mammadov, the billionaire son of the country’s transportation minister, suspected of laundering money for Iran’s military. Mammadov was included on Trump Organization press releases. At the same time, he was operating as an influence peddler in Washington, running the Azerbaijan lobbying shop there.
The Trump hotel was ripe with corruption, a job so bad The New Yorker magazine recently called it Donald Trump’s “worst deal.” The Trump Organization severed its ties with the project a month after Trump’s election victory.
Another developer, Century Properties chair Jose Antonio, also has close ties to the Trump family. A real estate tycoon in the Philippines, Antonio helped build Trump Tower Manila. Trump’s sons are photographed with him, Ivanka Trump visited the project, and Donald Trump himself praised the Antonio family as “true professionals.” Since then, Antonio has moved into a public role, named special envoy to America by the Philippines’ controversial strongman president, Rodrigo Duterte.
In light of Duterte’s gross human rights record, U.S. policy toward the Philippines has come under sharp review, with calls mounting for withholding military aid to the country. Nevertheless, Trump has heaped praise on Duterte for his anti-drug-trafficking policies, which include vows to kill addicts. Trump has reportedly invited him for a White House visit.
Trump’s ties to prominent foreign business leaders also raise questions. Qatar Airlines, the state-owned airline of Qatar, which is ruled by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, has had a “corporate campus” in Trump Tower in Manhattan since at least 2008. When the airline began flights to New York in 2007, Trump and his wife Melania attended a party alongside Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker on the red carpet.
Saudi Prince Mutaib bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a former minister in the Saudi government, and member of the Saudi royal family, reportedly lives in a floor-through Trump Tower apartment.
A trio of prominent Indian developers who helped build the first Trump-branded property in India were recently pictured with Trump and his children in New York when they visited Trump Tower. Those pictures were removed from Twitter shortly after ethics watchdogs raised alarms.
And in a New Year’s Eve 2017 speech at Mar-A-Lago, Trump gave a shout out to his wealthy Dubai business partner Hussain Sajwani and his family, whom he called “the most beautiful people.”
Sajwani’s company built the Trump International Golf Course in Dubai. “My wife and Ivanka are very good friends,” Sajwani told NBC News. “They send emails. She’s been here to my house. We’ve been in New York having lunch and dinners with them regularly. And, you know, you enjoy working with somebody — it’s not only cold business relation.”