Eric Trump Says He Will Keep Father Updated on Business Despite ‘Pact’

Eric Trump has said he will give his father “quarterly” updates on the family’s businesses – which the president has refused to divest from – in spite of the sons’ promises to separate the private companies from their father’s public office.

In an interview with Forbes magazine, Donald Trump’s middle son at first said the family honored “kind of a steadfast pact we made” not to mix business interests with public ones.

“There is kind of a clear separation of church and state that we maintain, and I am deadly serious about that exercise,” he said. “I do not talk about the government with him, and he does not talk about the business with us.”

But he went on to say that he would keep the president abreast of “the bottom line, profitability reports and stuff like that, but you know, that’s about it”.

He said those reports would be “probably quarterly”.

“My father and I are very close,” he added. “I talk to him a lot. We’re pretty inseparable.”

Since their father handed day-to-day management of the Trump Organization to his adult sons, Eric and Donald Jr, the family has insisted they do not discuss the business with president. Ethics attorneys of both parties and the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics have called the arrangement a failure to prevent potential conflicts of interest – for instance, Trump hotels selling rooms to foreign diplomats.

Eric Trump’s statement alarmed ethics experts, including Lisa Gilbert, a director at the not-for-profit watchdog Public Citizen. “It confirms our worst assumptions about the lack of separation between his business and current office,” she said. “There’s no way to reconcile quarterly updates from your son.”

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Gilbert said there were signs that the Trump family was already profiting from the presidency, including increased business at his golf clubs. His south Florida club, Mar-a-Lago, doubled its entrance fee to $200,000 in January, and in February the first lady, Melania Trump, filed court documents arguing that the White House was an opportunity to develop “multimillion-dollar business relationships”.

“It’s not a single thing,” Gilbert said. “Their businesses are doing better because there is more cachet around them.”

The watchdog released a report this week analyzing the first two months of the Trump presidency. It concluded that Trump had broken several promises to “isolate” himself from the business, that his White House was “clouded by corruption and conflicts”, and that he had surrounded himself “with the same major donors and Wall Street executives he claimed he would fight if elected”.

A Washington DC wine bar sued Trump and his new hotel this month, alleging that his ownership provides an illegal competitive advantage. The president still holds direct ties to his businesses, DC liquor board documents show, as the sole beneficiary of a revocable trust.

The White House and Department of Homeland Security have declined to answer questions about whether taxpayer dollars have profited the Trump family, for instance through Secret Service rental payments to Trump properties.

“Eric Trump and his father the president are doing what we thought they would do all along,” said Richard Painter, who served as chief ethics attorney for George W Bush. “This of course makes no difference for conflict of interest purposes because it is his ownership of the businesses that creates conflicts of interest, regardless of who manages them.”

Painter added that Trump’s remarks show that “the businesses is an important concern for the president”.

Gilbert compared the arrangement to other possible conflicts in the White House. Trump has appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a senior adviser, despite anti-nepotism laws, and the president’s daughter, Ivanka, has acquired a security clearance and an office in the White House, although she has no official role. In November, Trump denied that he had sought security clearances for his children.

“We don’t really have a mechanism to enforce the ethics rules,” Gilbert said. “It’s left us without a lot of ground to stand on.”

Like the president, Kushner and his wife have said they will separate themselves from their family businesses, but have only done so partially, if at all. Kushner retains parts of his billionaire family’s real estate empire, White House documents show, and Ivanka Trump has so far failed to resign, as promised, from the family business, according to documents acquired by ProPublica.

Possible conflicts have already arisen for both of the president’s family confidantes: Kushner’s family is negotiating a $400m deal with a Chinese firm connected to Beijing’s leadership, and one of Ivanka Trump’s brands was promoted, in violation of ethics rules, on national television by another of the president’s advisers.

In Dallas this month, Donald Jr told Republican fundraisers that he had “basically zero contact” with his father. His brother, similarly, told Forbes that he tries to “minimize fluff calls that you might otherwise have because I understand that time is a resource”.

But he also echoed an earlier boast about the family brand being “the hottest it has ever been”.

“We’re doing great in all of our assets,” he said, before arguing that being the family in the White House also entailed “great sacrifices” for the business, especially “when you limit an international business to only domestic properties, when you put hundreds of millions of dollars of cash into a campaign, when you run with very, very tight and strict rules and the things that we do every single day in terms of compliance.

“I don’t know,” he concluded. “You could look at it either way.”

(h/t The Guardian)

Ivanka Trump’s Expanded White House Role Raises Ethical Issues

After months of attending meetings of world leaders and visiting factories with her father, the role of first daughter Ivanka Trump is officially expanding – creating new ethical issues for an administration that has been heavily criticized over its potential conflicts of interest.

She will not have a specific title, but Trump will have an office in the West Wing, a government-issued phone and computer and security clearance to access classified information, and she will advise her father.

“While there is no modern precedent for an adult child of the president, I will voluntarily follow all of the ethics rules placed on government employees,” she told Politico in a statement.

But following the ethics guidelines should not be voluntary, said Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who served as chief ethics lawyer for George W Bush between 2005 and 2007.

“Given what she’s going to do, I don’t think she has any choice,” he said. “She has a West Wing office, she has equipment, she has a White House email address, she’s going to be doing policy work,” said Painter.

“For purposes of the conflict of interest statute, I believe she is a government employee,” he added.

Ivanka Trump’s lawyer, Jamie Gorelick, argues that since she will earn no salary and not be sworn in, she does not count as a government employee. There is no precedent for adult children whose father is president working in the White House, although two presidents – Andrew Jackson and James Buchanan – had their nieces serve in the role of first lady since Jackson was a widower and Buchanan a bachelor.

Trump has handed control over the day-to-day running of her eponymous clothing business to an executive and its assets are maintained by a trust managed by two of her husband’s siblings.

As part of the trust rules, outlined in the New York Times, Trump can veto any potential business deals for her clothing company that might create a conflict with her political work.

That means, points out Painter, that Trump has to know about any new deal that might put her at risk of breaking the statute, meaning she can be held responsible.

“She’s got accountability on that stuff. She can’t just blame the trustee,” he said.

Trump’s marriage to her father’s senior adviser, the real estate developer Jared Kushner, poses additional potential problems, because both could benefit financially from each other’s businesses.

Painter warned that the pair should avoid official political discussions involved with trade agreements regarding textiles, real estate and even bank deregulation, since that can affect real estate.

That means if the premier of China visits the White House – most of Ivanka Trump’s clothing line is made in China and Hong Kong – it is fine for her to attend the meeting, but she should not mention trade and if the discussion begins to focus on trade, she should excuse herself, says Painter.

The ethics expert noted approvingly that Ivanka Trump engaged Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, the same legal services used by the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, former head of ExxonMobil, to handle issues of conflict of interest. Kushner also used the DC-based lawyers to manage his potential conflicts of interest with his family business after taking the role of adviser in the Trump administration.

“It’s a criminal statute, so people better not mess up under it. But I think she’ll do the right thing,” said Painter.

(h/t The Guardian)

Betsy DeVos Hands Victory to Loan Firm Tied to Adviser Who Just Quit

Americans who default on some of their federal student loans are likely to pay more after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reversed an Obama administration directive limiting some fees. But it turns out the Trump administration decision has some beneficiaries—including the father of a key DeVos lieutenant who just quit.

DeVos’s decision, announced Thursday in a memorandum to the student loan industry, allows companies known as guaranty agencies to charge distressed student debtors fees equivalent to 16 percent of their total balance, even when borrowers agree within 60 days to make good on their bad debt.

The reversal is almost certain to hand United Student Aid Funds Inc., the nation’s largest guaranty agency, a victory in its two-year legal battle against her department. The fees could translate into an additional $15 million in annual revenue for the company, filings in a related lawsuit suggest. Until Jan. 1, United Student Aid Funds was led by Bill Hansen, who served as Deputy Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush. His son, Taylor Hansen, a former for-profit college lobbyist, was until three days ago one of the few DeVos advisers with professional experience in higher education.

The younger Hansen resigned from the Education Department on Friday, department spokesman Jim Bradshaw said in an e-mail. Hansen couldn’t be immediately reached for comment on his departure.

Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a persistent critic of the new Republican administration, said on Twitter the rule change was “an early Father’s Day gift in the Hansen household.” U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, was equally blunt: “There’s no question” that Taylor Hansen’s family ties posed a conflict of interest.

Tens of millions of dollars in revenue was at stake for companies such as United Student Aid Funds, which until 2015 had regularly charged borrowers the fee. A senior executive there last year warned in a court filing that the Obama administration’s decision to prohibit the fees—and to remind the industry that such fees had long been banned—generated “potentially massive retroactive liability” for companies such as United Student Aid Funds in the form of federal fines and lawsuits from aggrieved debtors. The company reckons it levied as much as $119 million in these fees from 2007 to 2015, or about $15 million annually.

Meanwhile, other companies active in student loan matters faced the prospect of having to reverse years of assessed fees and unravel tens of thousands of borrowers’ accounts to recalculate their balances, according to a legal filing last year by the National Council of Higher Education Resources, a Washington trade association. Had the Obama administration’s decision stood, a federal judge warned in 2015 that the entire student loan industry faced the prospect of being sued for allegedly violating anti-racketeering laws by imposing the fees.

DeVos’s decision is likely to put those concerns to rest.

With almost all senior positions at the Education Department vacant—and few political hires with professional experience in higher education—the younger Hansen may have wielded significant influence on DeVos’s policies. With his departure, the department has yet another post to fill.

“We have no idea what Betsy DeVos thinks about or wants to do on higher education policy. If one of the key people advising her is someone whose close family member is hoping to charge defaulted borrowers a lot more money, that’s not a good sign of her agenda,” Miller said before the department announced Taylor Hansen’s exit.

Both the Education Department and Bill Hansen’s current organization, of which he is chief executive, Strada Education Network (formerly known as USA Funds), said there’s no impropriety. Taylor Hansen recused himself from “all matters” related to United Student Aid Funds’ lawsuit challenging the Obama administration directive, Bradshaw said. “He served ably and without conflict and decided his service had run its course,” Bradshaw said Monday, declining further comment. But it’s unclear whether Taylor Hansen’s recusal extended to internal department discussions over the appropriateness of the fees. Bradshaw didn’t answer additional questions, and Taylor Hansen didn’t respond to emails, phone calls, and a message sent on social network LinkedIn seeking comment.

Bob Murray, a spokesman for Bill Hansen, said no one representing the company had asked Taylor Hansen to intervene on its behalf in its dispute with the department. Furthermore, he said, United Student Aid Funds is now owned by Great Lakes Higher Education Corp. Murray said that Bill Hansen declined to comment.

United Student Aid Funds said in court filings that the Obama administration unfairly changed longstanding Education Department policy when it announced in 2015 that fees added to quickly resolved defaulted loans were illegal. For example, according to industry lobby National Council of Higher Education Resources, the department had never flagged the fee as inappropriate in any of the more than 135 audits or reviews it conducted of companies such as United Student Aid Funds since 1992. The feds, the group said, “knowingly acquiesced for years.” In the eyes of the industry, DeVos is simply righting a wrong by reversing Obama’s move.

Bill Hansen nonetheless benefits from DeVos’s decision. Strada is still liable for potential costs stemming from United Student Aid Funds’ lawsuit against the Education Department, as well as a related class action lawsuit filed by borrowers over the same issue, said Richard George, chief executive of Great Lakes.

United Student Aid Funds reached a proposed settlement in January to resolve the proposed class action, filed by Minnesota resident Bryana Bible in 2013 on behalf of borrowers charged what she alleged to be illegal fees. The deal calls for 35,516 borrowers, and their lawyers, to split $23 million to partially reimburse them for as much as $119.1 million in fees assessed over eight years that, under Obama administration guidelines, they shouldn’t have been charged. A federal judge is due to decide on the proposed settlement in June.

The now-permissible fees could also beneficially impact Strada’s future revenue under an agreement that calls for Great Lakes to give Strada grants partly based on how United Student Aid Funds’ loans perform, a person familiar with the matter said. When annualized, the fees represent about 13 percent of United Student Aid Funds’ average annual income over the past five years, according to its financial reports.

For struggling borrowers, said Rohit Chopra, a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America who previously advised Obama’s Education Department and was the top student loan official at the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “this just adds insult to injury.”

(h/t Bloomberg)

Trump to Spend 7th Consecutive Weekend at Trump-Branded Property, at Enormous Cost to Taxpayers

President Trump doesn’t want to spend federal dollars on after-school programs, meals for poor people, or heating assistance that helps keep folks alive.

But he has no problem wasting more than $3 million a pop to spend weekends at his private Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. Trump has already made four trips there since becoming president on January 20, and on Friday he confirmed he’s headed there this weekend for the fifth time.

Despite vowing during his campaign that he “would rarely leave the White House because there’s so much work to be done” and “would not be a president who took vacations” because “you don’t have time to take time off,” Trump has visited Trump-branded properties each of the past six weekends. That streak will hit seven when Trump lands at Mar-a-Lago later Friday.

In fact, Trump has spent time at Trump-branded property every weekend of his presidency other than the very first, when he created chaos throughout the country by signing a Muslim ban executive order that was later stayed by a federal court.

As Quartz reported on Friday, after this weekend, Trump will have already spent about $16.5 million on trips to Mar-a-Lago. For that amount, Meals on Wheels could feed 5,967 seniors for a year and after school programs could feed 114,583 children for a year.

On Thursday, Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney defended the draconian cuts included in the Trump administration’s proposed budget by arguing that the federal government can’t ask “a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for” programs like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But one wonders whether those struggling Americans would rather have public radio or dole out their share of the $3.3 million a self-proclaimed billionaire is spending each weekend to mingle with his ludicrously wealthy club members down in Florida.

(h/t ThinkProgress)

Media

China Approves 38 New Trump Trademarks for His Businesses

China has granted preliminary approval for 38 new Trump trademarks, paving the way for President Donald Trump and his family to develop a host of branded businesses from hotels to insurance to bodyguard and escort services, public documents show.

Trump’s lawyers in China applied for the marks in April 2016, as Trump railed against China at campaign rallies, accusing it of currency manipulation and stealing U.S. jobs. Critics maintain that Trump’s swelling portfolio of China trademarks raises serious conflict of interest questions.

China’s Trademark Office published the provisional approvals on Feb. 27 and Monday.

If no one objects, they will be formally registered after 90 days. All but three are in the president’s own name. China already registered one trademark to the president, for Trump-branded construction services, on Feb. 14.

If President Trump receives any special treatment in securing trademark rights, it would violate the U.S. Constitution, which bans public servants from accepting anything of value from foreign governments unless approved by Congress, ethics lawyers from across the political spectrum say. Concerns about potential conflicts of interest are particularly sharp in China, where the courts and bureaucracy are designed to reflect the will of the ruling Communist Party.

Dan Plane, a director at Simone IP Services, a Hong Kong intellectual property consultancy, said he had never seen so many applications approved so quickly. “For all these marks to sail through so quickly and cleanly, with no similar marks, no identical marks, no issues with specifications – boy, it’s weird,” he said.

The trademarks are for businesses including branded spas, massage parlors, golf clubs, hotels, insurance, finance and real estate companies, retail shops, restaurants, bars, and private bodyguard and escort services.

Spring Chang, a founding partner at Chang Tsi & Partners, a Beijing law firm that has represented the Trump Organization, declined to comment specifically on Trump’s trademarks. But she did say that she advises clients to take out marks defensively, even in categories or subcategories of goods and services they may not aim to develop.

“I don’t see any special treatment to the cases of my clients so far,” she added. “I think they’re very fair and the examination standard is very equal for every applicant.”

Richard Painter, who served as chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, said the volume of new approvals raised red flags.

“A routine trademark, patent or copyright from a foreign government is likely not an unconstitutional emolument, but with so many trademarks being granted over such a short time period, the question arises as to whether there is an accommodation in at least some of them,” he said.

Painter is involved in a lawsuit alleging that Trump’s foreign business ties violate the U.S. Constitution. Trump has dismissed the lawsuit as “totally without merit.”

China’s State Administration for Industry and Commerce, which oversees the Trademark Office, and Trump Organization general counsel Alan Garten did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(h/t NBC News)

Following Sessions’ Mar-a-Lago Appearance, New Ethics Questions Arise

At some point during the Obama era, conservatives convinced themselves that the Democratic president took an outrageous amount of time off, traveled constantly, and vastly preferred golfing to working. The criticisms were always quite silly – especially after George W. Bush broke every modern record for time off taken by a sitting president – but the right nevertheless embraced the nonsense with great enthusiasm.

Vox recently talked to a series of CPAC attendees, many of whom continued to complain bitterly about Obama’s travel costs and downtime. Told that Donald Trump is actually spending more on travel and enjoying more downtime, conservatives were incredulous. The facts “can’t possibly be right,” one said. “That absolutely can’t be right.”

Reality, however, is stubborn. Trump headlined a political fundraiser on Friday night, before heading to Mar-a-Lago, the for-profit club he still owns, for another relaxing weekend. Over the last five weekends, the president has visited his luxury resort four times – each trip costs American taxpayers about $3 million – and as of last night, Trump had spent 31% of his presidency at Mar-a-Lago.  He’s now played golf eight times since taking office six weeks ago.

In October 2014, Trump whined via Twitter, “We pay for Obama’s travel so he can fundraise millions so Democrats can run on lies. Then we pay for his golf.” A year later, as a presidential candidate, Trump declared that if he were in office, he’d dispense with breaks. “I’d want to stay in the White House and work my ass off,” he told voters.

Like so many of his claims, Trump apparently didn’t mean a word of it. (Last week, the White House even gave the press misleading information about one the president’s golf outings.)

But this latest trip was a little different – because as the Palm Beach Post noted, Trump this time brought along some powerful friends.

President Donald Trump mingled with guests outside a charity ball at his Mar-a-Lago Club on Saturday night. As attendees danced inside the ballroom where the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute held its gala, the president was spotted nearby, shaking hands and talking with club members and guests.

Earlier, Attorney General Jeff Sessions also took a few moments from high-level meetings to greet guests at the estate.

Oh good, we’ve reached the point at which the attorney general of the United States is a prop for members at the president’s for-profit club.

What’s more, Sessions wasn’t alone. Two other members of Trump’s cabinet – Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross – were also on hand in Florida over the weekend.

I appreciate the fact that there are a variety of very serious scandals surrounding this White House, but the conflicts surrounding Trump and Mar-a-Lago are tough to defend. I’m reminded anew of this recent New York Times piece, which noted that Team Trump has created “an arena for potential political influence rarely seen in American history: a kind of Washington steakhouse on steroids, situated in a sunny playground of the rich and powerful, where members and their guests enjoy a level of access that could elude even the best-connected of lobbyists.”

… Mr. Trump’s weekend White House appears to be unprecedented in American history, as it is the first one with customers paying a company owned by the president, several historians said.

“Mar-a-Lago represents a commercialization of the presidency that has few if any precedents in American history,” said Jon Meacham, a presidential historian and Andrew Jackson biographer. “Presidents have always spent time with the affluent,” he added. “But a club where people pay you as president to spend time in his company is new. It is kind of amazing.”

And it’s not just Trump. Those who pay the $200,000 membership fee also, evidently, get access to the U.S. attorney general and other powerful cabinet secretaries, and even get front-row seats to see officials respond in real time to national security challenges, conducted in full view of civilians.

The club’s managing director conceded to the Times that Trump’s presidency “enhances” club membership – which may help explain the increase in entrance fees – adding, “People are now even more interested in becoming members.”

If you voted Republican because you were worried about Hillary Clinton and pay-to-play controversies, I have some very bad news for you. Trump is profiting from the presidency in ways no one has been able to credibly defend.

As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, we’re looking at an ethical nightmare. A president who refuses to divest from his many business ventures still owns a for-profit enterprise, in which undisclosed people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for exclusive access – and the facility itself openly acknowledges the financial benefits of exploiting Trump’s presidency.

How many lobbyists or agents of foreign governments are signing up to take advantage? We don’t know – because Mar-a-Lago doesn’t disclose its membership list.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent talked recently to Norm Eisen, the chief ethics czar under President Obama, who pointed to Trump’s dramatic use of his for-profit club as a serious problem.

Eisen argued to me … that you cannot divorce this latest story from Trump’s seemingly reflexive or deliberately thought out use of his position as president to promote his business interests or those of his family. After all, Eisen notes, the very act of inviting [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe to Mar-a-Lago itself must be evaluated as, potentially, an effort to promote his resort, given the pattern of behavior we’ve seen from this White House, which has included repeated efforts by Trump and his aides to punish Nordstrom for declining to carry Ivanka Trump’s clothing line or to drive customers to Ivanka.

“We’ve had a lot of presidents who hosted foreign leaders away from the White House,” Eisen said. “But we’ve never in history had one do it in a place where he’s selling memberships for hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop. Trump just could not resist the opportunity to make an infomercial for his property. He’s worked hard all his life to generate free media. Now he’s hit the mother lode, and he’s not going to stop.”

There’s no reason to go along with this as if it were somehow normal.

(h/t MSNBC)

Trump Says Schwarzenegger Was Fired From ‘Apprentice.’

A line from President Trump’s speech last Tuesday to the joint session of Congress came back to haunt him on social media Saturday morning: “The time for trivial fights is behind us.”

Apparently, in Trump’s view, long-simmering feuds regarding his old reality show “The Apprentice” don’t qualify as trivial.

On Friday the show’s new host, Arnold Schwarzenegger, released a statement saying he would not return for a second season. “I loved every second of working with NBC and Mark Burnett. Everyone — from the celebrities to the crew to the marketing department — was a straight 10, and I would absolutely work with all of them again on a show that doesn’t have this baggage.”

Schwarzenegger later explained that the “baggage” to which he was referring is Trump. “With Trump being involved in the show, people have a bad taste and don’t want to participate as a spectator or as a sponsor or in any other way support the show,” he told Empire magazine.

The tweeter in chief woke up early Saturday at his Florida estate to provide his own version of events. After a stream of tweets claiming that former president Barack Obama had tapped the phones at Trump Tower, the president weighed in on “The Apprentice.”

Naturally, the Terminator wasn’t going to let that stand. He fired his own shot across the bow.

Of course, these salvos are just the latest in a lengthy back-and-forth between the two. At the National Prayer Breakfast in February, the president asked his audience to “pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings.” Schwarzenegger quickly responded with a video suggesting they change places: “You take over TV, because you’re such an expert in ratings, and I take over your job. And then people can finally sleep comfortably again.”

By midmorning Saturday, both men had moved on to other activities. Schwarzenegger was at a fitness expo. Trump headed to a golf course.

And sixth-graders everywhere rolled their eyes in exasperation.

(h/t Washington Post)

Donald Trump Takes His 4th Vacation in 6 Weeks

President Donald Trump returns to South Florida again Friday and will stay at his Mar-A-Lago estate in Palm Beach.

Trump arrived in Orlando at 1:08 p.m. and was greeted by Gov. Rick Scott. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Education Secretary Betty DeVos were on Air Force One, along with Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka, according to the press pool report.

Trump visited Orlando to tour Saint Andrew Catholic School, where he visited a fourth-grade class. Scott, who campaigned on expanding school choices for parents, and Rubio joined Trump at the school.

Students gave Trump hand-drawn cards celebrating Florida’s birthday.

Trump beckoned two students who had welcomed him to pose for a picture, and told them, “We’re going to make you famous, OK?”

(h/t The Miami Herald)

Trump’s First Dinner Out in DC: His Own Hotel

Donald Trump picked a familiar spot for his first dinner out in Washington since becoming president: his own hotel.

Trump’s motorcade arrived at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, a recently renovated property located less than a mile from the White House, shortly before 8:30 p.m. on Saturday.

The White House said Trump was dining with his daughter Ivanka Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is also a senior adviser to the president.

Scenes posted on social media from inside the hotel also showed Trump with Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and former U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, a campaign backer.

The group of White House reporters that trails Trump, known as the “pool,” was held in vans and not permitted to enter the building.

The visit is likely to add to buzz surrounding the president’s potential conflicts of interest stemming from his business empire.

The building that houses the hotel — the Old Post Office — was leased by Trump from the federal government.

Language in the lease says that no U.S. elected official “shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”

Critics have said that Trump is in violation of the lease agreement.

Trump has repeatedly denied that he has conflicts of interests. He announced at a Jan. 11 press conference he would take steps to distance himself from his businesses, but he has not divested in his companies.

Republican lawmakers, some of whom have been reluctant to probe Trump’s potential business conflicts, have flagged the hotel lease as a point of concern.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said last month he has requested a copy of the contract.

“I did request from the [Government Services Administration] the full, unredacted contract,” Chaffetz told reporters earlier this month. “I requested that the first part of December. I still don’t have it. It will be interesting to see what they produce and what their take on that is. But I don’t have that yet.”

Ethics watchdogs have said Trump could be in violations of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution if his properties take payments from foreign governments.

That clause, aimed at curbing corruption, says that “no person holding any office of profit or trust under them shall, without the consent of the congress, accept of any present, emolument, office or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”

An attorney representing the Trump said at the January news conference he would donate any hotel profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury.

China Grants Trump a Trademark He’s Been Seeking For a Decade

The Chinese government has granted President Trump and his business something they had been seeking for more than a decade: trademark protection for the use of the Trump name in the construction industry.

Trump fought unsuccessfully in Chinese courts for years to try to gain control of the trademark, but his fortunes changed suddenly last year during the latter stages of his campaign for the White House.

China’s trademark review board announced in September it had invalidated a rival claim for the Trump trademark, clearing the way for Trump to move in. In November, soon after the election, it awarded the trademark to the Trump Organization. The trademark was officially registered this week after a three-month notice period for objections expired.

The sequence of events makes some ethics experts uncomfortable: Chinese authorities reversed their position as Trump’s political star rose.

“China is going to want concessions from Mr. Trump, and this is now the first in what will be a series of efforts to influence him,” said Norman Eisen, a White House ethics counsel under President Obama. Eisen is part of a group that has sued Trump for violating the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution by accepting foreign payments through his business ventures.

But Trump Organization attorneys told CNN that it was simply trying to protect the Trump trademark from someone who had been improperly squatting on it, and that any accusation that President Trump could be compromised by the trademark decision granted by the Chinese government is completely baseless and shows a disregard for the facts.

It is difficult to assess the value of the new trademark. It covers construction-related services, not for Trump’s core hospitality and real-estate businesses.

But even if construction-related services are not a core business for the Trump Organization, the company places a great value on anything with the Trump brand.

“The Trump brand is key to the value of the Trump Organization’s assets,” Sheri Dillon, a Trump lawyer, said last month.

Trump can also argue that he’s a lot more famous in China now than he was when he first started the trademark battle there in 2006, giving him a stronger claim to the Trump name. Trump already holds dozens of trademarks in China and is seeking dozens more.

“The Trump Organization has been actively enforcing its trademark rights in China for more than a decade and its latest trademark registration is a natural result of those efforts — all of which took place years before President Trump even announced his candidacy,” said Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s chief legal officer.

The ethics concerns are fueled by Trump’s decision not to completely sever ties with his company.

Before taking office, he bucked the advice of ethics lawyers who urged him to avoid conflicts by selling off his vast business interests and putting the money in a blind trust. Instead, he pledged to place his assets in a trust run by his adult sons.

Trump talked tough on China in his campaign rhetoric, but so far hasn’t followed through on his threats to label it a currency manipulator on his first day in office, or to impose heavy trade tariffs.

China legal experts say they think Trump’s political ascendancy most likely played a role in the trademark decision.

“I’ve got clients who have fought these same cases time and time again without success. For this rapid turn of events, it does seem to be more than just a coincidence,” said Dan Plane, a China intellectual property expert in Hong Kong. “What’s striking about the Trump decision is the timing. I think it’s reasonable to assume that politics played a part — without Trump even necessarily asking for it.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington told CNN that the case was handled in compliance with China’s trademark law.

“The Chinese trademark review board does not make its decisions publicly available, so we don’t know on what basis they made their decision,” said Matthew Dresden, an international trademark attorney. “I think these decisions were not made in a vacuum.”

The White House declined to comment, referring the question to the Trump Organization.

Another interpretation of the decision may simply be that China is becoming more responsive to Western companies that want to protect their trademark. In December, China’s top court found in favor of U.S. basketball start Michael Jordan, ruling that a Chinese company sportswear company, Qiaodan, had to stop using the Chinese characters that rendered the name Jordan.

“You could say there’s a nice ray of sunshine, that perhaps things are changing for foreign brands,” said Plane. “But [the Trump decision] really was a bit of a bolt out of the blue, particularly in relation to the case’s history and the decision’s timing.”

One remaining question is whether Trump will continue to find favor in future Chinese trademark decisions.

“If there’s a consistent pattern where you have ‘wins’ in every case to which Trump’s name is attached when normally, those cases would be non-starters for anyone else, then yes, I think there’s a real concern about his being given something that others wouldn’t receive,” Plane said.

(h/t CNN)

 

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