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Donald Trump has a favorite carmaker, and that might be a problem

Ed Welburn, left, then-General Motors vice president of global design, watches the world debut of the 2015 Cadillac Escalade with Melania and Donald Trump in 2013. (Cadillac)

The love affair between Cadillac and Donald Trump peaked in the late 1980s, when they teamed up on a line of limousines called “the Trump Series.” The most luxurious model came with black, Italian-leather seats, aircraft sound insulation, a television and VCR, a cellular telephone, 24-karat-gold plating, a hidden safe and a paper shredder. The car stretched nearly 23½ feet long.

“I’m very honored that they built me the first one,” Trump said, unveiling the Golden Edition in 1988, “and, frankly, I deserve it.”

Trump has enjoyed a long and sometimes lucrative relationship with Cadillac, the brand his father drove when Trump was a child. General Motors, which makes Cadillacs, was a regular advertiser on Trump's television show, “The Apprentice,” where its products were sometimes featured in challenges for contestants. Cadillac was a longtime sponsor of a golf tournament at a Trump-owned course in Florida. Trump, in turn, has appeared at launch events to promote GM vehicles on several occasions, including one for the 2015 Cadillac Escalade.

Trump is now president-elect, and he has styled himself as a critic in chief of American companies that move factory jobs to foreign countries. On the campaign trail, he made a few mentions of GM, which is in the middle of a $5 billion plan to expand production in Mexico. But the automaker has largely escaped the worst of Trump's wrath.

In a statement sent to reporters in June, Trump criticized GM's Mexico expansion. “Many companies — like Ford, General Motors, Nabisco, Carrier — are moving production to Mexico,” the statement read. But in the version of the statement posted to the campaign's website, the reference to GM has been removed.

A GM spokesman said Trump has no business relationship with Cadillac. There is no evidence that his past relationships with GM have influenced his conduct as a candidate and president-elect. But the difference in how he has treated GM and, say, Ford — both iconic Detroit automakers — highlights a challenge Trump will face as president: how to avoid the appearance of playing favorites with companies he has done business with.

Trump frequently criticized Ford on the campaign trail for its plans to move small-car production to Mexico. Last month, he announced that he had persuaded Ford not to move a production line of sport-utility vehicles from Kentucky to Mexico, a decision that the company and union officials said did not affect any American jobs.

In a statement, Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump, said GM, “along with many other companies he is speaking to, will be encouraged to keep jobs here in the United States.”

But Trump has not criticized GM for its plans to import an SUV built in China, or for large investments in production facilities in South Korea. He did not speak out when GM announced last month that it will lay off 2,000 workers at factories in Ohio and Michigan, nor when the company said this week that it would lay off 1,300 workers in Detroit. (The company blamed both moves on softening U.S. demand for smaller cars and sedans; one of the sedans produced at the Ohio plant facing layoffs is the Cruze, which is produced, in hatchback form, in Mexico.)

GM produces about 19 percent of the cars it sells in North America in Mexico, similar to the figure for Fiat-Chrysler, according to data from the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Ford produces about 12 percent there. There are GM plants at four locations in Mexico, and the company announced two years ago that new investments would create about 5,600 new positions for Mexican workers.

GM also imports the Buick Envision from China, a decision that has drawn the ire of organized labor. Workers have nicknamed the Envision the “Invasion.”

On the campaign trail, Trump largely stayed mum on those decisions, even as he criticized Ford. For instance, in the opening minutes of his first debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Trump falsely claimed Ford had plans to lay off employees.

“Ford is leaving — you see that,” Trump said. “Their small-car division — thousands of jobs, leaving Michigan, leaving Ohio.”

While Ford does plan to relocate its small-car production to Mexico, the company said its employees in the United States will continue working, building larger vehicles.

One of the few moments when Trump mentioned GM on the trail came in Grand Rapids, Mich. a week before the election. There, he used layoffs at one of the company's plants to attack not the company but his Democratic opponent.

“GM laid off 314 workers at the Lake Orion assembly plant in 2013 because of imports from the South Korean trade deal pushed by Hillary,” Trump said.

After winning the election, Trump appointed GM's chairman and chief executive, Mary Barra, to an economic advisory panel.

In the past, Trump was a regular at the automaker's events. In 2005, he appeared at the New York International Auto Show with Bob Lutz, then GM's vice chairman. The pair held a news conference on the new Cadillac XLR-V, a muscle car, according to news reports. In 2013, Donald and Melania Trump appeared at the debut of the latest Escalade. The couple sat with Ed Welburn, then the company's vice president for global design.

“I think they've done a great job, really great job. They've really done a fantastic job. We love it,” Trump said, according to footage of that event from Cadillac.

Melody Lee, the director of brand marketing at Cadillac, said the company frequently invites “celebrities and influencers” to its events.

“It's a standard process,” she said, “and the Trumps must have been on that invitation list.”

Last year, his campaign told The Washington Post that a Cadillac Escalade was one of two American cars that Trump owned at the time, along with a Tesla. GM also promoted its products on “The Apprentice,” his reality-television show. The Pontiac appeared on the show in 2005 and 2006, according to a statement from the company. Also in 2006, contestants were tasked with planning a three-hour training session for Chevrolet dealers, focused on the Tahoe.

Luigi Zingales, an economist at the University of Chicago, said Trump's divergent treatment of GM and Ford on the stump raises the specter of government favoritism to specific companies, a practice economists generally believe can hurt the economy.

“It looks more and more [like] the behavior of a crony capitalist,” Zingales said. “The issue is you don’t want to be in a country where the president picks and chooses who to blast and who to promote in completely arbitrary fashion.”

Not every past partnership with Trump has worked out for GM. The Trump line of limos, for example, never really made it to the road.

At the unveiling, Trump called the car “the ultimate limousine to be found anywhere in the world.” In his book “The Art of the Deal,” Trump wrote that he received a “beautiful gold Cadillac Allanté” as a gift from the company on completing the deal.

GM says today that only three of the Trump-edition cars were ever produced.