Deal With Bahrain Revives Questions About Trump's Conflicts

Written by Kaelin Delaney on March 31, 2017

Editor's note: Kaelin Delaney is a Common Cause intern.

President Trump’s promise of an “America First” policy has changed the tune of American politics. But the president’s acts raise questions about whether “America First” means a focus on US interests, or the interests of President Trump himself.

The State Department recently informed Congress of plans to sell F-16 fighter jets to the Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain. Bahrain has a Shiite majority and a Sunni-led government that has been struggling with protests and has committed multiple human rights violations to shut them down. The potential F-16 deal would remove the Obama Administration’s requirement that Bahrain curb human rights abuses before buying American weapons.

The Trump administration argues that the deal is in America’s strategic interest because Bahrain is a strong U.S. military ally.  But Bahrain’s government also has been a strong personal ally of President Trump.

On Dec. 2, between the U.S. election and the new president’s inauguration, Bahrain’s embassy booked an event at the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, a few blocks from the White House. It may have been innocent, but in the context of the later arms deal, the hotel booking looks suspiciously like a pre-payment for the jets. At the least, it illustrates a conflict of interests the president could and should have avoided by putting the hotel and the rest of his real estate empire in a blind trust before he took office.

The president argues that he’s exempt from the conflict of interest rules that apply to other federal employees. But he’s not exempt from the Constitution. The Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution (Article 1, Section 9) states that no federal officeholder can “accept any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State” without Congress’ explicit approval.

This clause was intended to minimize corruption through the bribery of U.S. officials. Even if Bahrain paid for use of the Trump hotel space before the president’s inauguration on Jan. 20, this potential link between the president’s business dealings and potential political favors is worrisome.

Common Cause has petitioned the president to put his assets in a blind trust, as most of his recent predecessors have done, to protect against conflicts and potential violations of the Emoluments Clause. It looks like the “America First” philosophy touted by the Trump administration might be a cover for unsavory and potentially illegal business interactions between our president and other foreign nations.

The intermingling of personal and official business at work in the Bahrain deal is part of a pattern for Trump and his family. The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka, who until recently did not have an official position, are among his closest advisers in the White House. His sons Eric and Donald Jr., who the president has said are running his businesses, apparently are giving him regular reports on their balance sheets.

The prior business relationship our president had with Bahrain calls into question his true motive for abandoning human rights conditions for that country’s purchase of U.S. military hardware.


Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Ethics

Tags: Executive Ethics

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