David J. Apol, acting director and general counsel at the ethics office, responded last week that he thought concern was warranted. But because the president is not bound by the same conflict-of-interest laws as most federal employees, he said Congress is responsible for holding the president in check.
At issue is a report in the South China Morning Post saying the Chinese government is issuing $500 million in loans for the project in Jakarta, Indonesia. Days later, Trump announced his support for Chinese-backed telecommunications firm ZTE, a departure from his previously aggressive stance toward Chinese industry.
There is no evidence the two issues are linked. However, the Democrats raised concerns about the deal that amplify arguments being made against the president and his company, the Trump Organization, in a series of court cases.
In their letter, they argued that the loan may be a violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clauses that forbid the president from accepting gifts or payments from foreign governments.
The Trump administration has “completely failed to address the suspicious timing between this policy reversal and the Chinese government’s loan to a Trump-backed project,” they wrote.
Language in a recently introduced appropriations bill would place restrictions on the use of government funds to purchase equipment produced by ZTE.
“At the outset, I agree that the information cited in your letter raises serious concerns,” Apol said. However he said the agency had “no authority to opine on Emoluments Clause issues.” The office declined to comment further.
Neither White House nor Trump Organization officials responded to requests for comment. Trump resigned his positions with the company upon entering office but retained his financial stake in the business, which includes office buildings, hotels and residential properties in America and abroad.
This is not the first time congressional Democrats have urged the ethics office to take action, and they have received similar rebuffs previously.
A year ago, Democrats, led by Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), made a similar request of the ethics office, only to be told by then-Director Walter M. Shaub Jr. that it was outside his purview.
Shaub, now working for the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, has become a fierce critic of the president.
“Unless the Department of Justice decides to pursue this as a criminal matter, only Congress has jurisdiction to conduct oversight here, and the Congressional majority has made clear that it’s out of the business of conducting meaningful oversight of the executive branch as long as Trump is president,” Shaub said in an email.
The Trump Organization has retained an outside ethics adviser, Washington attorney Bobby R. Burchfield, to review new deals the company proposes to try to ensure that business partners aren’t seeking political advantage with the president and would pay a fair price in the transactions.
In comments published in the Texas Review of Law and Politics earlier this year, Burchfield compared Trump’s business activities to those of previous officials, including President George Washington, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.
“President Trump has gone beyond the legal requirements to insulate himself and his businesses from ethical issues,” Burchfield wrote.
Eric Yoder contributed to this report.