WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump’s abandonment of one of the United States’ strongest allies in the fight against Islamic State terrorists also happens to reward the authoritarian ruler of Turkey, where the U.S. president personally profits from the Trump Towers in Istanbul.
It is not known whether the residential and commercial complex has ever come up in the various private conversations between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since Trump took office. Seven years ago, Erdogan, then the country’s prime minister, attended the grand opening of the twin skyscraper project, and Trump’s elder daughter Ivanka praised him for doing so.
The White House announced late Sunday night, without consulting U.S. allies in Europe or members of Congress, that Trump had agreed in a phone call with Erdogan to let Turkey occupy a strip of northern Syria, which is currently controlled by ethnic Kurds. The Kurds, who in recent years have proven to be the United States’ most effective allies in the fight against ISIS terrorists, have a centuries-old dispute with Turkey over their right to self-rule.
Critics of the president said the announcement was exactly the sort of problem they have been highlighting since Trump announced his candidacy.
“We’ve warned for years that Trump’s decision to hold onto his business empire, particularly the properties in places like Turkey, would one day lead to a national security decision shrouded by his conflicts of interest,” said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Trump promised during his campaign that he would separate himself from his family business, which holds licensing deals with Trump-branded hotels, golf courses and condominiums all over the world. He reneged on that pledge and continues to profit from the Trump Organization, the holding company that owns the various elements in Trump’s portfolio.
A financial disclosure that Trump filed in May claims he earned between $100,001 and $1 million from the Istanbul project in the past year, the same range he claimed for the previous year. In a June 2017 filing, Trump claimed he’d earned between $1 million and $5 million from the project in the preceding 12 months.
Exactly how much income the Istanbul project brings him, and how much of a tax write-off it generates, cannot be determined because Trump has refused to make his tax returns public, breaking with four decades of post-Watergate precedent.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Monday that Trump’s decision had nothing to do with the Trump Towers Istanbul building complex. “Of course not,” she said.
Whether the White House press office can reliably represent Trump’s statements or views, however, is unclear. On Aug. 15, for example, Grisham described as “inaccurate” a report that Trump was encouraging Israel to prohibit Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib, of Michigan, from entering that country. Within an hour, Trump tweeted: “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit.”
Previously, Trump’s press office had denied that Trump knew about his former lawyer’s payment to a porn star to buy her silence about an affair she said he’d had with her. In fact, Trump had conspired with Michael Cohen to make the $130,000 payment, and then wrote checks from the White House to repay him.
The White House’s decision on Turkey this week has been criticized by the Kurds, by human rights groups and by Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Apart from the Istanbul project, Libowitz said Turkish officials, including the trade minister, the defense minister and the ambassador to the United States, have made 14 separate visits to Trump’s hotel a few blocks from the White House since his inauguration.
“We unfortunately have to ask how much he was influenced in this decision by his personal profits from Turkey,” Libowitz said.
Robert Weissman, president of the liberal group Public Citizen, said it’s impossible to know whether Trump was guided primarily by his personal interest in his Istanbul project ― or, alternatively, by pressure from Erdogan based on keeping secret details about the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by Saudi Arabian government assassins in Istanbul last year.
“But a potential slaughter is in the making, and the sad truth is that it may be due in substantial part to Trump wanting to protect his licensing fees,” Weissman said.