Donald Trump’s unadvertised meeting with Indian business partners, revealed over the weekend, raises new questions about what he’s actually disclosed about his foreign entanglements. But the structure of his business holdings makes it vexing for anyone outside his inner circle to understand potential conflicts.
A review by McClatchy of the most recent financial disclosure statement by Trump shows that of the 564 companies on which he reported holding an executive position, at least 120 of them were tied to his business dealings abroad.
Trump’s global businesses include hotels, golf courses, condominiums and merchandise that all bear his name, spread across Asia, Latin America, North America, the Middle East, Europe and the Caribbean.
“You would worry about the president-elect and his administration pulling their punches when it comes to foreign affairs because it would damage the business of Mr. Trump,” said Matthew Sanderson, a government ethics attorney who has worked on GOP presidential campaigns.
The potential conflicts of interests are multiplied across the globe, he said.
“If I’m his attorney, that’s kind of the easy call for me, telling him you’ve got to at least sell off the foreign partnerships so it doesn’t continue to be a drag on the presidency,” Sanderson said.
Trump has not provided details about how he will divorce himself from his businesses, saying little beyond that his children will run his organization.
Knowing the nature of Trump’s businesses and their structure is complicated because the Trump Organization is a privately held company. As such it doesn’t operate like Apple or Boeing, which file quarterly and annual reports that report earnings, allowing investment analysts to scrutinize the smallest details.
Where Trump’s companies are actually incorporated adds another layer of impenetrability.
On his disclosure report filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics last May 16, Trump listed New York addresses for almost all of the 564 firms although a large percentage are actually incorporated as limited liability companies in Delaware. During an April campaign event in Delaware, Trump boasted that 378 of his companies are incorporated there.
The full extent of his financial interests remains unclear, in part because he was the first presidential candidate in modern history to decline to release his tax returns to the American public.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., in a letter sent to the Office of Government ethics
That low-tax state is a favorite for companies looking to incorporate because state law requires virtually no information about the mission of these companies or their organizational structure. A limited liability company is one where members of the company, not listed publicly, cannot be held liable personally for a company’s debts or actions.
The Delaware incorporation documents reveal so little that it is unclear to the outside world whether any of Trump’s companies have foreign partners who also might gain from the decisions he will be making, or have leverage against him when he makes foreign policy decisions.
Shortly after Trump filed his last disclosure statement, it was reported in late May that he’d transferred 110 registered or pending trademarks to Delaware. These companies, including well-known properties such as Mar-a-Lago and Trump Tower, were consolidated under a company called DTTM Operations LLC.
The move appeared to be designed to avoid state taxes elsewhere by consolidating in Delaware, which doesn’t tax income gained from royalty payments on so-called intellectual property, in this case the Trump brand. Trump potentially may have saved millions. But since Trump never released his tax returns, it’s also impossible to know the true sources of income and what percentage of his wealth comes from his wide array of businesses.
Open government and ethics watchdogs have called for Trump to place his sprawling business assets and investments into a blind trust, warning that he risks conflicts of “unprecedented magnitude” if he does not disassociate himself from the empire that bears his name.
The top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Delaware’s Tom Carper, wrote to the Office of Government ethics Monday seeking information on how it would monitor Trump’s distance from his many businesses.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has also asked for a review of Trump’s business operations, “to ensure that he does not have any actual or perceived conflicts of interest.”
Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway on Monday brushed aside concerns about the meeting with Indian partners and conflicts of interest, but acknowledged that Trump’s empire makes him a unique president-elect.
“I’m very confident he is not breaking any laws. He has various lawyers, accountants and advisers who tell him what he must do and what he can’t do,” Conway told reporters. “He’s a businessman, he’s also working on transition. He’s the president-elect. We’re in unprecedented times.”
Trump spokesman Jason Miller on Monday wouldn’t disclose whether legal counsel is sitting in on, or weighing in on the ethical or legal ramifications of the meetings.
Miller said only that “counsel is comfortable with” the meetings that have taken place. “And I would say that as things move along, obviously we’ll be moving into the White House, at which point ... you have the White House general counsel.”
So far, the Trump transition team is volunteering little about business being discussed inside Trump Tower meetings. The participation of daughter Ivanka Trump, who will manage the Trump business, in a meeting between the president-elect and the prime minister of Japan was disclosed by the Japanese. The meeting with the Indian business partners was revealed by the Indian news media.
One of the Indians with whom Trump met – Atul Chordia – appears as a director of an offshore company created or managed by Mossack Fonseca, the controversial Panamanian law firm that earlier this year was subject to the largest-ever leak of information about secretive shell companies.
Trump himself has said he doesn’t use offshore shell companies, in part because there are plenty of ways to avoid a hefty tax bill beyond complex offshore tax shelters. But reporting by McClatchy earlier this year on the Panama Papers found a number of his associates operating in the offshore world.
While not illegal and sometimes serving legitimate purposes, the Panama Papers reports revealed that dictators, politicians, drug cartels and the uber wealthy used offshore companies to hide assets or ownership of properties.
Atul Chordia is listed as a director on P-Vision Sports Private Ltd, and his business and families held an initial 33 percent stake, according to a memorandum of understanding found in the Panama Papers. The offshore company was created through the Isle of Man office of Mossack Fonseca. The Indian Express, a partner of McClatchy’s in the Panama Papers project, reported that the company was formed to bid on a cricket team for the city of Pune.
Lesley Clark contributed to this report