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Trump’s unusual conflict: Millions in debts to German bank now facing federal fines

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Bedford, N.H. (John Locher/AP)

Donald Trump’s business empire owes hundreds of millions of dollars to a giant German bank cast into crisis by settlement negotiations with the Justice Department, a relationship some lawyers say sheds light on the massive financial entanglements he could face as president.

Federal regulators are seeking a $14 billion fine from Deutsche Bank, Trump’s top lender, to settle claims that the bank issued toxic mortgages amid the housing crisis. German media have suggested the bank has sought a state bailout that could lead to partial ownership of the bank by the German government.

A settlement could be reached before a new president takes office, but government-ethics experts say the Deutsche Bank situation is a stark reminder of how Trump could face a conflicting set of interests as the nation's negotiator in chief.

As head of the executive branch, he’d oversee the Justice Department and the United States' relations with the rest of the world. But he’d still have a lengthy series of financial relationships with private institutions and countries with business before the United States.

“It’s certainly foreseeable that he could intervene with the DOJ so as to not upset the financing of his companies,” said Trevor Potter, a former Federal Election Commission chairman and general counsel of George H.W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

It’s “unthinkable in recent history,” Potter said, that “there’s the possibility of a president being able to affect his own personal financial interests, conceivably to the detriment of the general public.”

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Alan Garten, executive vice president and general counsel of the Trump Organization, said, “I don’t see the conflict,” and drew a parallel to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s global philanthropy.

“Under your theory, no one who has ever done anything before can be elected to the highest office,” he said.

Ethics advisers have called for Trump, if elected, to sell his business interests or sequester them in an independent holding company to lower the risk of him being beholden to foreign powers while in the White House.

But Trump has resisted. The candidate, Garten said, has pledged only to give his companies to his children, a transition that lawyers say would not be enough to sever Trump’s financial ties.

In the Deutsche Bank case, it’s impossible to predict exactly how the bank’s settlement discussions could intersect with Trump’s financial interests if he wins the election — or if they would. But lawyers say the bank could have unusual leverage over him as it searches for a way out of its current crisis.

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If Deutsche’s financial health was in danger, that could also potentially threaten Trump’s corporate interests, because the bank could freeze future lending to his companies. If the German government partially owned the bank, lawyers said, Trump’s dual rule as a business executive and chief diplomat could come into conflict.

“The level of entanglements here are unprecedented,” said Ken Gross, the former elections enforcement official and lawyer who has advised presidential candidates from both parties, speaking generally outside the Deutsche case.

“He’ll have to deal with conflict entanglements almost on a daily basis, based on the holdings he has, particularly those involving international issues. It’s just going to plague him, one way or another.”

Deutsche is Europe’s biggest investment bank and one of the world’s largest financial institutions. It is also the biggest lender to Trump’s real estate businesses, the candidate reported in financial disclosure filings this spring.

But the Justice Department negotiations have led to a panic over the bank’s financial health. Big hedge funds have rushed to withdraw holdings from the bank, and investors have sent the bank’s share price plunging about 50 percent this year.

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Justice Department investigators accused the bank of misleading investors while bundling and selling disastrous mortgage-backed securities between 2005 and 2007. The bank said this month that it was negotiating a settlement with the Justice Department and had no intent to settle “anywhere near the number cited.” The department declined to comment.

The bank has also been the subject of wide-ranging criminal investigations in the U.S. and other countries. The bank agreed last year to pay $2.5 billion in fines following a scandal over the bank’s rigging of loan interest rates.

In June, the Federal Reserve said the bank’s U.S. subsidiary had failed a key stress test, and an International Monetary Fund report said the bank was one of the biggest “contributors to systemic risks in the global banking system.”

Trump’s history with Deutsche Bank shows a deep relationship — and a sometimes contentious one.

Trump financial-disclosure filings show that Deutsche is the creditor on four of his companies’ 16 loans, with principals totaling about $360 million. About $125 million of that debt was lumped into two 2012 mortgages for Trump National Doral, his South Florida golf complex.

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A third loan was for Trump International Hotel and Tower, his Chicago high-rise. Trump filings state the loan was worth $25 million to $50 million, but county property records show the loan was actually for $69 million.

The most recent Deutsche debt, incurred last year, was a $170 million line of credit put toward the development of Trump’s newly opened luxury hotel near the White House, the Trump International Hotel in Washington. All four loans will mature, or come due, by 2024.

Deutsche is the only big Wall Street bank on Trump’s filings that has continued to lend even as Trump companies filed six bankruptcies. Since 1998, Deutsche has been a lender or co-lender in at least $2.5 billion in loans to Trump or his companies, a Wall Street Journal analysis found in March.

But Trump and Deutsche have also clashed. In 2008, the bank asked for Trump to make payments on a $640 million construction loan for the Chicago tower given by a Deutsche-led group of lenders. Instead, Trump sued, saying the bank should pay him $3 billion because it had undermined his project, in part, by creating “the current financial crisis.”

The bank countersued, saying the lawsuit was “classic Trump” and an attempt “to avoid living up to the deal he reached with Deutsche Bank.” Trump and the bank settled, and the loan has since been repaid.

A Trump presidency would be ethically compromised

The Ethics in Government Act of 1978, enacted after Watergate, established strict rules requiring members of Congress to recuse themselves from matters in which they have financial interests. Presidents, however, were exempt, so as to not interfere with the wide-ranging job.

Though not required, many in the modern Oval Office — including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and both Bushes — have sought to minimize red flags by placing their assets in “blind trusts,” run by independent trustees who keep complete control.

Trump’s business empire shows many ties to foreign countries. Trump has praised Russian President Vladi­mir Putin and for years shared hopes that he could develop properties there. Some of the more than 500 companies listed on Trump’s financial disclosures are in countries with sensitive ties to the United States, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China.

Trump has said he would have no involvement in his businesses because they would be run by his children. “His focus is going to be solely on improving the country,” said Garten, the Trump general counsel. “The business is not going to be a factor or an interest at that point.”

But lawyers say that would create only the appearance of a barrier between Trump and the businesses he’s been involved with for several decades.

“It’s silly to suggest there’s any avoidance of conflict by having your family run the interests,” Potter said. “He talks to his family all the time.”