Even if Donald Trump hadn’t been running for President, 2016 would have been an important year for him in his role as the head of the Trump Organization. His hotel operation, in particular, is on course for a rapid worldwide expansion, from fourteen hotels to more than a hundred, according to a June interview with Eric Danziger, the C.E.O. of Trump Hotels. The firm added three new hotels, in Washington, D.C., Canada, and Panama, during the year and is looking at opportunities in the Dominican Republic, London, Frankfurt, Munich, Amsterdam, and Tel Aviv. In Asia, a hotel and residential complex in Bali, Indonesia, is under way, as are projects in Mumbai and Pune, India. Buildings with his name in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Istanbul have faced some problems, but the company is undaunted.
Any company trying to gain access to foreign markets needs to develop ties with business and government figures in those countries. This is partly why it was startling to see Ivanka Trump, who is one of the people entrusted with running Trump’s businesses as he serves as President, sitting in a meeting on Thursday with her father, the President-elect, and Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan. The only reason we know she was there is that the Japanese government released pictures from the event. The Trump transition team made no public statement, nor did it allow the press access to the meeting. (Typically, at a minimum, photographers are invited to take pictures at the beginning or end of such conversations with foreign leaders.)
Donald Trump has decided not to put his businesses in a blind trust, a mechanism by which his assets would be managed by people with no direct connection to the President. Instead, he has asked his children to continue to manage the global operation, which raises the possibility of an appearance of a conflict of interest. In the case of Ivanka Trump’s presence at a discussion with the Japanese premier, however, the conflict became explicit. In her new role as co-director of the companies, she will oversee negotiations with real-estate developers around the world. While the company hasn’t announced any projects in Japan, it seems reasonable to assume she might talk to companies there. (The Trumps seem to have recognized the awkwardness of the photographs: the Times reported that “an individual close to the family hinted that Ms. Trump would not be attending meetings like this in the future.”)
The very nature of Trump’s business is rooted in the subjective value of being associated with Donald Trump and his family. The Trump Organization’s business model, as Danziger describes it, has shifted from building its own projects to selling rights to the Trump name, and to its newest brand of hotels, Scion. As Paul Waldman points out in the Washington Post, the price of such a license is subjective, determined by the buyer’s perception of its value. Licensees—say, a hotel developer in Japan—would have commercial calculations, such as how much business the Trump and Scion brands bring. Those potential buyers may now also have political calculations. How helpful would it be for any other venture they are involved in to also be business partners with the family of the President of the United States? In many countries, being known as an entryway to conversation with the Trump family could, on its own, be worth many millions of dollars. Many have written about fears of overt corruption in a Trump Administration. But even if there is no explicit corruption, it’s impossible for Trump’s Presidency not to affect the way his partners value their associations with him. At the very least, his hotels—particularly the new one in Washington, D.C.—are likely to do a brisk business. As the Washington Post reported, diplomats see staying at the hotel as “an easy, friendly gesture to the new president” and quoted one unnamed Asian diplomat as saying, “Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’ ” It seems clear that he and his family will be enriched by his term as President.
American Presidents generally exit the White House with expectations of greater wealth. The office creates value; soon after leaving office, a former President can expect to receive a few million dollars for writing a memoir and additional millions for speeches. President Obama told Bloomberg BusinessWeek that he is considering joining a venture-capital firm when he leaves office, a role that could net him a fortune. However, Trump is unique in that his businesses will sell the value of association with him and his name globally while he is sitting in office. Even if Trump doesn’t discuss the family business with those family members who are running it, the nature of the Trump Organization—real estate and hotels—makes it impossible to hide. Trump famously reads every article and watches every TV program about himself, and, through the media, can easily learn about any significant expansions of his business empire. He could know which countries have become central to his firm’s growth and which have rejected his company’s proposals.
Trump himself has admitted that his business ventures make even discussing world affairs a difficult proposition. A year ago, in an interview with Stephen Bannon before Bannon became his adviser, when he was still running Breitbart News, Trump said it was hard to answer a question about ISIS, Russia, and Turkey, because “I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul.” He continued, “It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers—two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.” It was a stunning comment. Trump has argued that the fight against ISIS is the No. 1 issue facing the country, yet he was unable to freely discuss his plans because of a building project in Istanbul. What will happen when he has dozens more projects all over the world?