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Sale of Trump Caribbean property revives ethics concerns

By Julie Bykowicz Associated Press From Chicago Tribune

For sale: Luxury waterfront escape. Comes with two villas and 5 acres of paradise. And perhaps a bit of goodwill from the president of the United States?

President Donald Trump’s corporate trust is selling a multimillion-dollar Caribbean resort, presenting an enticing new way for a wealthy interest to get the president’s attention and creating a fresh ethical dilemma for a first family dogged by the repeated collision of its corporate ties and public service.

Just in the past few days, the Kushner Companies, the real estate company run by Trump’s in-laws, apologized for advertising its connections to the White House during a pitch to Chinese investors. Ivanka Trump and other government employees are hawking her new book on social media — despite her assertion that she won’t promote it.

Last weekend was the president’s 14th at a Trump-branded property, riling ethics experts who say the visits amount to in-kind advertising.

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It’s all part of a push and pull that has only intensified as the Trump administration wades deeper into policymaking. Although the family appears to be following the letter of the law to avoid conflicts of interest, Trump, his daughter and son-in-law Jared Kushner — the latter two White House advisers — haven’t always been able to keep their former business interests from creeping in.

In an effort to distance himself from his real estate empire, Trump put his properties and other business entities in a trust overseen by one of his adult sons and a senior Trump Organization executive. He has said he won’t seek information about the business, but he can seize back control of the trust at any time.

The sale of the Caribbean resort would be the first unloading of a major asset owned by the trust since Trump took office.

Known as Le Chateau des Palmiers, the Trump complex is at the edge of the turquoise waters of Plum Bay on the western tip of French St. Martin and features a five-bedroom ocean villa and four-bedroom garden villa, according to the listing on Sotheby’s International Realty.

Trump, who purchased it four years ago, reported the residential rental property as being worth between $25 million and $50 million and generating between $100,000 and $1 million in rental income on his personal financial disclosure forms last May.

Would a buyer pay a premium to help the president sell it in hopes of being viewed favorably by his administration? The White House would not comment on whether the president was aware of the listing and referred questions to the Trump Organization. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Previous presidents have put their assets in a blind trust managed by a third party, in an attempt to avoid the perception that their decisions might be influenced by their personal finances.

Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, said he could recall one other time a sitting president tried to sell a property: Richard Nixon’s Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan, a deal that closed shortly after he took office.

The Office of Government Ethics strongly urged Trump and his relatives working in the White House to divest as much as possible before he took office in late January, but could not make them do so.

“OGE’s ability to influence how White House appointees address conflicts of interest is rather limited,” the office’s director Walter Shaub said. “OGE is not in a position to compel a White House appointee to adopt a particular strategy, such as divestiture.”

Neither Trump nor his daughter and son-in-law have sold off all — or even most of — their business assets, meaning they can make money when their companies do well even though they’re not running them right now. That decision to retain financial interests breaks precedent with the usual approach to government service; in the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter was so worried about the appearance of impropriety that he sold off his treasured family peanut farm.

With the Trump White House, “there’s not a tremendous interest in drawing clear lines between the businesses and official duties,” said Noah Bookbinder, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “That message starts with the president himself, and his frequent use of his businesses as the place to go for official meetings.”

Bookbinder’s organization has sued Trump, alleging he has violated a clause of the Constitution that prohibits taking foreign gifts and money without Congress’ permission, something he argues is triggered by the president’s refusal to sell off his companies as Carter did.

Stanley Brand, an attorney with Akin Gump who has handled corruption cases, said the Trumps appear to be following the rules. And while the American public might want to change those policies, Brand said, “doing so midcourse just because we’ve elected someone different isn’t the right approach.”

But even short of fully divesting, the Trumps and Kushners could be doing more to prevent ethics flare-ups, some ethics attorneys and good government groups say.

For one, Bookbinder suggested, Trump could stop visiting and talking up his properties.

Trump has made appearances at his resorts, golf clubs and hotel in Washington 14 of the 16 weekends he’s been president. Last weekend he stayed at his property in Bedminster, New Jersey — a moneymaking golf club in addition to a residence.

The Trumps and Kushners have said through lawyers and spokespeople that they take ethics seriously and cannot control other people’s behavior.

Hours after Trump signed a law that renewed a way for foreigners who invest in U.S. real estate projects to obtain visas, Jared Kushner’s sister was in China trying to raise capital through that same immigration program.

Nicole Meyer mentioned Kushner and showed a photo of Trump as one of the people in charge of the visa program during her investor pitches in Shanghai and Beijing. Meyer told the would-be investors that the New Jersey project she was trying to fund “means a lot to me and my entire family,” according to The New York Times.

Coverage of the events prompted the company to apologize “if that mention of her brother was in any way interpreted as an attempt to lure investors. That was not Ms. Meyer’s intention.”

Associated Press writers Chad Day and Ben Fox contributed to this report.

IMAGE: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on May 4, 2017. A luxury Caribbean property Trump purchased four years ago is for sale, raising the possibility that a buyer could see it as a way to get on the president’s radar. (Evan Vucci / AP)

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