Days after Donald Trump’s election victory, a news agency in the former Soviet republic of Georgia reported that a long-stalled plan for a Trump-branded tower in a seaside Georgian resort town was now back on track.
Meanwhile, foreign government leaders seeking to speak with Trump have reached out to the president-elect through his overseas network of business partners, an unusually informal process for calls traditionally coordinated with the U.S. State Department.
All of it highlights the muddy new world that Trump’s election may usher in — a world in which his stature as the U.S. president, the status of his private ventures across the globe and his relationships with foreign business partners and the leaders of their governments could all become intertwined.
In that world, Trump could personally profit if his election gives a boost to his brand and results in its expansion overseas. His political rise could also enrich his overseas business partners — and, perhaps more significantly, enhance their statuses in their home countries and alter long-standing diplomatic traditions by establishing them as new conduits for public business.
It is also possible, of course, that a controversial presidency inflaming international opposition could cause damage to the brand.
Trump has done little to set boundaries between his personal and official business since winning the presidency.
He has indicated that his children may take over the business, but he has also appointed them to formal roles with his presidential transition and included daughter Ivanka on calls with world leaders. And he has continued to offer signs that he may remain engaged, at least on some level, in his private ventures.
For instance, Trump took a break from selecting his Cabinet last week for a brief meeting in his Trump Tower office with the developers of a Trump project in Pune, India, shaking hands and posing for photos with the men. When asked about the meeting, Trump told the New York Times: “I mean, what am I going to say? ‘I’m not going to talk to you, I’m not going to take pictures’?”
Trump also acknowledged to the Times, after he received a congratulatory visit the weekend after the election from British politician Nigel Farage, that he “might have” encouraged the leader of the UK Independence Party to oppose offshore windmill farms, like one he has fought off the Scottish coast because he believes it will mar the view from his Trump Turnberry golf resort there.
Trump has reacted defensively to suggestions that his conversations about his private business are somehow inappropriate. He told the Times this week, “the law’s totally on my side. The president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
On Monday evening, he tweeted: “Prior to the election, it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world. Only the crooked media makes this a big deal!”
Ethics experts say that if Trump takes no action to distance himself from his business holdings, he is likely to face questions about whether he is pursuing policy in the national interest or for his own business advantage. It is also possible that Trump could run afoul of a constitutional provision prohibiting presidents from accepting favors, or “emoluments,” from foreign leaders.
Trump representatives did not respond to questions this week about his business interests in Argentina, Georgia or elsewhere.
It is unclear how much real progress Trump’s election has prompted for some of these foreign projects, several of which had stalled in recent years. Some of the promises of renewed activity could be the work of foreign partners who have paid for the use of his name and who may be looking to take advantage of the moment as a marketing opportunity.
The Trump project in Argentina, for instance, has not been issued new permits since Election Day, a city official in Buenos Aires said. But public reports that the project is moving ahead show how foreign developers could stand to benefit if their governments were to grease the skids for Trump-branded projects as a way to curry favor with the new American president.
In Argentina, President Mauricio Macri connected by phone with President-elect Trump and his daughter Ivanka on Nov. 14. Three days later, Trump’s development partner in Argentina, the YY Development Group, put out word that the $100 million project was moving forward, featuring on its website a South American news report touting the progress. “The magnate Donald Trump expands his ‘ultraexclusive’ towers in South America,” the story read.
The development firm’s chief executive, Felipe Yaryuri, has touted his personal relationship with the Trumps, particularly with Trump’s son Eric. He was in Trump campaign headquarters on election night, posting a photo of himself with Eric Trump and tweeting that he had breakfast with Eric Trump the day after the election. Again, Trump officials declined to respond to inquiries about the tweets.
Yaryuri declined to be interviewed but said in a statement that his company has filed permit requests with the city of Buenos Aires that are awaiting approval. A city official said the request was made earlier this year but that no determination had been made.
Macri, the president, denied reports in local media that Trump had mentioned the project to him in their post-election conversation. However, a spokesman confirmed that Macri had relied on the Trump business partner to put him in touch with the newly elected president, a sign of how the local developer’s stature has risen since the American election.
Entanglements between Trump’s business interests and his official relationships also appear possible in Georgia, a U.S. ally where many are fearful of Trump’s potential rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump swept into the Black Sea resort town of Batumi in 2012 and announced that a new luxury Trump Tower would soon rise from the empty field in which he stood with the country’s then-president.
Once scheduled to break ground in 2013, however, the project was halted by an economic downturn, a local land planning dispute and, some analysts said, the electoral defeat of then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a personal friend of Trump's who had championed the deal.
In recent months, long-standing roadblocks to the project's groundbreaking resolved without government assistance, said Giorgi Rtskhiladze, a U.S.-based partner working with the local developer, the Silk Road Group, which paid Trump a licensing fee to put his name on the building.
Rtskhiladze said the developers informed the Trump Organization in September or October that the project could now proceed. After Trump was elected, he said he emailed a congratulatory note to Trump’s adult children and to a top Trump Organization executive — and reiterated that developers are prepared to move forward. He said Trump executives have indicated the project is being “reevaluated,” as they discuss how his company will be operated after Trump takes office.
“We’re ready,” Rtskhiladze said. “We’re waiting for them to give us the green light.”
He said it would add distinction to the project to bear the name of the U.S. president.
“There’s only one word: Pride,” he said of how he would feel to help construct a building bearing Trump’s name. “What else can you possibly feel? You can’t even imagine it, and then suddenly it happens.”
Although the United States stood beside Georgia when it was invaded by Russia in 2008, leaders of the small nation fear that an ascendant Russia could escalate simmering hostilities. The current Georgian government is led by political rivals of Saakashvili’s, the president who brought Trump to Georgia in 2012 but who has since left the country.
Georgian officials antsy with Trump’s rhetoric on Russia and eager to forge their own good relationship with the new American president could be tempted to curry favor by pushing ahead with the proposed 47-story building bearing his name, predicted Lincoln Mitchell, an American expert on Georgian politics who served as a paid adviser to the current governing party in 2012.
“The gray areas Trump has between where his job as president ends and where his business interests begin, that’s normal in that part of the world. Renewing this deal, that’s just an obvious thing to do,” said Mitchell, who opposed Trump’s election, quitting his job this summer writing for the New York Observer, which is owned by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Indeed, on Georgian state television last week, a U.S.-based Georgian real estate entrepreneur enthusiastically predicted that Trump’s win would mean a new era of economic cooperation and growth for both countries. In a separate interview with The Washington Post, the entrepreneur, Roman Bokeria, expressed optimism that a new Trump Tower would soon rise in Batumi.
“Cutting the ribbon on a new Trump Tower in Georgia will be a symbol of victory for all of the free world,” said Bokeria, chief executive of Miami Red Square Realty.
Rtskhiladze said the project will move forward based only on the “attractive business case” that can be made for it, not any government intervention.
While Trump and his advisers have noted that U.S. conflict of interest and gift laws do not apply to the president, a bipartisan group of ethics experts has emphasized that the U.S. Constitution prohibits the president from accepting favors — emoluments is the constitutional term — from foreign leaders.
“It appears from the reports we’re seeing this week that Donald Trump may be opening up a wholesale emoluments business,” said Norm Eisen, former White House ethics counsel to President Obama, who is joining with colleagues from both parties to sound an alarm about the perils of Trump’s business holdings.
“The pattern we are seeing this week of stalled Trump projects jump-starting and the president-elect himself conceding that he may have raised business issues with a foreign official is stunning,” he said.
Irene Caselli in Buenos Aires and Nick Miroff in Havana contributed to this report.