After he leaves the White House, Donald Trump is expected to do something no president before him has done: cut multimillion dollar deals with foreign governments and companies for his own private business.
Trump’s namesake company plans to resume foreign real estate projects, likely luxury hotels, as it grapples with a tarnished brand in the United States and the need to pay off hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, according to three people familiar with the plans, not to mention past public statements from Trump's children. Company officials have already vowed to look into more developments in India and will be expected to give a second look to projects they had considered in China, Turkey, Colombia and Brazil before Trump entered office.
The arrangement is already being criticized as one that could be used to pay back Trump for his policies as president or to influence U.S. policy through a former president — and possibly a future presidential candidate.
Other former presidents have faced allegations they were monetizing the presidency with their post-presidency ventures, including paid speeches abroad, seven-figure book advances and foreign donations to presidential libraries. Most recently, Bill Clinton raised millions of dollars from foreign governments and foreign donors for his family’s global charity.
But Trump’s return to overseas dealmaking as a private businessman raises a new set of ethical issues no ex-president has ever confronted. Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, is sprawling and extensive — it comprises more than 500 businesses, including hotels, resorts and golf clubs around the globe. And since it’s not a charity or publicly held, it has fewer financial disclosure requirements. To cap it off, few American financial firms are still willing to lend Trump money, meaning he increasingly has had to go abroad to seek financing.
“There are some boundaries that didn’t exist before, and I have no doubt that he will blow past those boundaries and not respect any of them,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the House Oversight Committee, which launched an investigation into whether Trump is violating the Constitution by profiting from foreign governments.
Trump’s decision to maintain his grip on his real estate empire while president — he handed over day-to-day operation to his children but still retained ownership — created a vast web of potential conflicts of interest that prompted accusations Trump’s business interests were driving policy decisions and that he may be breaking the law with his arrangement.
Yet Trump managed to skirt significant accountability for what critics called an abuse of power. Congress failed to secure Trump’s financial records and then declined to include financial allegations of wrongdoing in articles of impeachment approved against Trump in 2019.
Now, as he prepares for his post-presidency, Trump, like every modern president, will have to decide how to balance a political past with a desire to make money.
“I don’t think he’d be the first former president to do those things,” said Andy Card, former chief of staff to President George W. Bush. “He’ll be a citizen who was a former president. He’d have stature from the past. He wouldn’t have stature at that time.”
Trump lost his bid for a second term to Joe Biden but has yet to concede, falsely asserting voter fraud led the election to be stolen from him. Still, he has told allies he is considering running for president again in 2024, which means any foreign deals could lead to potential conflicts of interest for him both as a former president, traveling around the globe with a Secret Service entourage, and possible future president.
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said all former presidents have faced controversy with their post-office activities, especially after ex-President Ronald Reagan traveled to Japan to deliver a $1 million speech. But Trump’s ventures, Brinkley said, go far beyond that.
“What Trump is doing is trying to make a vast fortune, which has never been tried before, parlaying his presidency into massive amounts of money abroad,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment.
After winning the presidency in 2016, Trump ignored calls to fully separate from his company. His holdings were placed in a trust that he can withdraw money from at any time, without the public’s knowledge.
When Trump became president, he pledged his company would press pause on any new foreign deals.
But the Trump Organization has continued to promote and profit from existing foreign properties.
Trump has properties and branding deals in countries around the world — from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to the Philippines and South Korea to Ireland and Scotland. He's building properties in Indonesia and the Dominican Republic. In some countries, Trump’s company partnered with state-owned companies on the construction. In others, governments are spending their own money on roads and other infrastructure around Trump-branded properties.
“He’ll do what he does. He’ll license his name and he will do Trump towers in different cities — Moscow, Seoul, who knows? It’s going to generate more money for him,” said Barbara Res, a longtime executive in Trump’s real estate company who recently released a new book about Trump called “Tower of Lies.” “There are two things that make him run — ego and money. Looking at it from the point of the money, he’s going to have people who give him money to build Trump towers.”
Despite Trump’s frequent boasts about his exorbitant wealth, he may be in need of a financial boon after leaving the White House.
The Trump Organization is presumed to have lost millions of dollars during the coronavirus outbreak, and Forbes estimates that Trump’s net worth dropped $1 billion during the global pandemic.
Meanwhile, Trump has to pay back $421 million in loans that he has personally guaranteed, much of it to foreign creditors, most due in the next four years, according to a New York Times examination of Trump’s personal and business tax returns. The investigation also found Trump attempted to secure a $72 million refund from the IRS in 2010 by claiming $1.4 billion in losses in 2008 and 2009, triggering a yearslong audit that could cost him millions in back taxes.
Trump’s family has made no secret about its desire to eventually pursue new overseas business ventures.
The president’s sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, have repeatedly said the company has lost significant amounts of money because of their father’s presidency and vowed they would be back developing properties once their dad leaves office.
Eric Trump told an Argentinian news site in January 2019 that they will start looking at foreign business ventures when his father leaves office.
“We will consider the options,” he said. “Every day we have many offers.” In June, he told The Wall Street Journal the company wants to focus on overseas luxury hotels after Trump’s presidency.
In 2018, Donald Trump Jr. spent several days in India promoting the family’s existing developments, bringing in millions of dollars in new sales.
“After politics, we would certainly look at India and other markets,” Trump Jr. told the Indian newspaper Mint in 2019. But India, he said, “would be a big focus of mine. Frankly, it would be easier for me to get going in India because of the relationships we have built up in the last decade.”
Despite Trump's pledge not to engage in foreign deals while he was president, Trump received more than $200 million in income from his interests in foreign countries since 2016, according to an analysis from OpenSecrets, which tracks money in politics. And, the group found, Trump held up to $150 million in foreign assets at the end of 2019.
Trump’s finances are also tied up in potential court cases.
The New York Attorney General’s Office is investigating whether Trump and his company misreported assets on financial statements used to seek loans, tax breaks and economic benefits. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance is looking into whether Trump paid off two women to keep them quiet about extramarital affairs as well as possibly tax crimes and bank and insurance fraud, according to court filings.
“The president does not feel bound by actual legal prohibitions much less merely ethical or moral ones,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House Oversight Committee. “We can expect that he will continue to operate his business in conjunction with foreign businesses and governments.”