3 Men, 1 Skyscraper And A Conflict-Of-Interest Concern In Foreign Policy

May 6, 2017
Originally published on May 8, 2017 7:52 am

When President Trump recently invited Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to visit the White House, it reopened questions about conflicts of interest between U.S. foreign policy and Trump's business interests.

The two presidents are connected by a Filipino businessman. Duterte last fall named Jose E.B. Antonio as special trade envoy to the United States. Antonio is also in business with Trump, building a 57-story, Trump-branded residential tower in Manila.

In a 2012 promotional video for the skyscraper, Antonio gave this testimonial for Trump's reputation: "We believe that Trump exemplifies the best quality of real estate anywhere in the world. It also exemplifies luxury and it exemplifies exclusivity."

Trump returned the favor, praising Antonio and his company: "True professionals, they really know what they're doing. Trump Tower Manila is going to be something special."

Also on the video, Ivanka Trump said, "We feel very comfortable with the Antonio family as the developers of this project," and Donald Trump Jr. reminisced, "Over the years dealing with the Antonios, both on a personal level as friends, and on a business level, we've just had nothing but great times and great successes."

As part of the branding campaign, photos and a billboard of Ivanka Trump were used to sell units in the building.

Antonio's Century City Development Corporation, which owns the building, paid Trump royalties of $1 million to $5 million in 2015, according to the president's most recent financial disclosure report.

Trump continues to profit from the branding deal, even in the White House. Unlike other recent presidents, he retained ownership of his businesses after he took office.

Meanwhile, Duterte has waged a steady campaign of criticism and insults at the United States. With a Dirty Harry image from his support for extrajudicial killings of drug dealers, he picked fights with the Obama administration. At a press conference last October, he said, "So you can go to hell. Mr Obama, you can go to hell."

The White House did not respond to NPR's request for comment.

"It all just looks really bad," said Stuart Gilman, an international consultant on anti-corruption policies and former official at the Office of Government Ethics. "It looks like Trump is trying to simply protect his properties."

Gilman said that if the administration encourages "these autocrats" and makes Duterte feel special, "that will undermine our desire to have a stable Filipino government."

A conflict of interest like this has deeper implications as well, running the risk of upsetting the careful process used in Washington to make foreign-policy decisions.

To develop a specific policy, "major players in the administration think about it, they consult with Congress, whatever, papers are put forward," said Joshua Kirlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He said an evolving policy is debated, refined and pushed forward, eventually reaching the top levels of the White House.

But he questioned what would happen if the process changed course without explanation. "It possibly could go in a different direction because of some business interest, it's going to leave everyone wondering; A: What was the point of the process? And, B: How do we have like a reasonable, thoughtful, honest policy-making process in the future?"

It's a question that could arise with any of the 19 other nations where the Trump Organization does business.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now, here's a story about two countries, three men and a skyscraper. NPR's Peter Overby looks at questions of how the Trump Tower in Manila might affect ties between the United States and the Philippines.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: One of the three men is President Trump. The others are Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Jose E.B. Antonio. Antonio is Duterte's special trade envoy to the United States, and he's the developer of a Trump-branded residential tower in Manila. Antonio made a promotional video for the tower in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

JOSE E.B. ANTONIO: We believe that Trump exemplifies the best quality of real estate anywhere in the world. It also exemplifies luxury, and it exemplifies exclusivity.

OVERBY: Trump in the video praising Antonio and his company.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: True professionals - they really know what they're doing. Trump Tower Manila is going to be something special.

OVERBY: And Trump's children joined in. Here's Ivanka Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

IVANKA TRUMP: We feel very comfortable with the Antonio family as the developers of this project.

OVERBY: And Donald Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

DONALD TRUMP JR.: Over the years in our dealings with the Antonios, both on a personal level as friends and on a business level, we've just had nothing but great times and great success.

OVERBY: Photos and a billboard of Ivanka Trump were used to promote the project. But Antonio's company actually owns the tower. It pays the Trump organization to use the Trump brand between $1 million and $5 million a year, according to Trump's 2015 financial disclosure report. Trump profits from this, even in the White House, because unlike other recent presidents, he retained ownership of his businesses. As for Phillipine President Duterte, the third guy in this story, his political career is marked by violence in his own country and by anger toward the United States. Here's how he dissed President Obama in October.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: So you can go to hell. Mr. Obama, you can go to hell.

OVERBY: Last month, President Trump invited Duterte to the White House. No agenda was stated. Duterte hasn't said yes or no. The White House did not respond to our request for comment.

STUART GILMAN: It all just looks really bad. It looks like Trump is trying to simply protect his properties.

OVERBY: Stuart Gilman is an international consultant on anti-corruption policies.

GILMAN: If you encourage these autocrats through U.S. attention to them, making them feel important and special, that will undermine our desire to have a stable Filipino government.

OVERBY: But a conflict of interest like this has deeper implications, too. It could upset the careful process that Washington uses to make a foreign policy decision.

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: Major players in the administration think about it. They consult with Congress, whatever, papers are put forward.

OVERBY: Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He says the evolving policy is debated, refined and pushed forward up to the top levels of the White House. But suppose the process changes course without explanation.

KURLANTZICK: And it possibly could go in a different direction because of some business interests. It's going to leave everyone wondering, A, what was the point of the process and, B, how do we have, like, a reasonable, thoughtful, honest policymaking process in the future?

OVERBY: It's a question that could come up for any of the 19 other nations where the Trump organization does business. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.