On Sunday, President Trump tweeted, “President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!”
The message was widely seen as confusing. Particularly because Trump has repeatedly excoriated China’s trade practices as unfair to American workers. And because ZTE had been fined $1.2 billion for violating U.S. sanctions toward Iran and North Korea. And because U.S intelligence had banned ZTE phones from official government business, fearing they were being used by Chinese spies.
On Monday, HuffPost reported that 72 hours before the president’s tweet, the Chinese government agreed to provide a $500 million loan to a company building an Indonesian theme park that has licensed the Trump name. Agence France-Presse reported the Trump Organization will earn $3.7 million in licensing fees from the park, plus management fees and “incentives.”
“You do a good deal for him, he does a good deal for you. Quid pro quo,” Richard Painter, White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, told HuffPost. “This appears to be yet another violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution.”
The emoluments clause prevents the president from accepting payments, benefits or gifts from foreign governments. Trump has been sued twice over Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. Competitors argue they have lost business because foreign officials are switching to “the president’s hotel,” where Trump is regularly seen dining.
“Even if this deal is completely and entirely above board, it simply furthers the perception of impropriety” surrounding Trump’s business practices, said Christopher Balding, an economics professor at HSBC Business School in Shenzhen, China. “Especially with the potential trade war, this is not a good look. Critics will be entirely right to demand answers.”
The White House wouldn’t answer questions about the Indonesia deal in Monday’s press briefing. Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah directed queries to the Trump Organization. “That’s not something that I can speak to,” he said. Tuesday’s press briefing was canceled.
Last June, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), along with 196 members of Congress, sued Trump for violating the emoluments clause by accepting foreign payments without the approval of Congress. Trump’s attorneys have asked the court to dismiss the suit. A hearing on the future of Blumenthal v. Trump has been scheduled for June 7.