WASHINGTON ― The president’s eldest son is scheduled to appear at a business summit in New Delhi on Friday. He will speak just minutes before the prime minister of India. His remarks are titled “Reshaping Indo-Pacific Ties: The New Era of Cooperation.”
Will Donald Trump Jr. offer the country’s business leaders a peek into a new U.S.-India relationship in trade? Defense? Terrorism?
Don’t ask the United States government. It claims not to have any idea.
The State Department, usually an authority in matters concerning America’s relations with other countries, said it wasn’t involved with Trump Jr.’s trip, which appears to be primarily about marketing luxury apartments in new buildings that will be licensed to bear the Trump name.
“I’m not familiar with what is going to be the contents of the speech, or how it was put together,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said at a briefing Tuesday. “He is there as a private citizen, and I don’t have any comment beyond that.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders similarly said the trip is unrelated to government business. “My understanding is he is there in a personal capacity,” she said.
Critics of President Donald Trump’s ongoing ownership of his various branded businesses say the speech is a perfect example of the conflicts of interest he has created and that his family is taking advantage of.
“Don Jr. has continued to blur the lines between the Trump administration and the Trump Organization,” said Jordan Libowitz with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. “He is touring Indian properties and selling off the opportunity to meet with him, while also delivering a speech on foreign policy at the same summit as the prime minister of India, all while under Secret Service protection on the taxpayer dime.”
Unlike previous presidents who placed their assets in a blind trust while in office to ensure that their decisions could not be affected by their personal financial interests, President Trump has refused to do so. Instead, he continues to profit from Trump properties such as the Trump International Hotel four blocks from the White House and his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. The hotel routinely accommodates foreign delegations visiting the city, while Mar-a-Lago doubled its initiation fee to $200,000 after Trump’s election. When visiting the Florida resort, the president frequently mingles with paying guests while excluding the journalists assigned to travel with him.
Donald Trump Jr. is executive vice president of the Trump Organization, the family business that operates his father’s various for-profit enterprises. An official there, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the India trip is purely on behalf of the Trump Organization.
“Donald Trump Jr. is speaking to the Economic Times Global Business Summit in his capacity as a businessman. I believe there are other influential business leaders speaking such as the CEO of Uber and the founder of Netflix,” the official said. “Donald Jr. is not part of the administration.”
The official did not respond to a follow-up query asking what topics Trump Jr. would be covering in his remarks, which according to the schedule posted by the sponsor are to begin at 7:35 p.m. local time and last for 15 minutes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to speak for half an hour that evening, beginning 10 minutes after Trump Jr. is finished.
Trump Jr. is attending marketing sessions in various Indian cities where apartment towers are being planned with the Trump brand attached. As has been the case with most Trump family construction projects since Donald Trump ran his casinos into bankruptcy in the 1990s and 2000s, other investors are financing the construction, while the Trump family is benefiting from licensing fees it charges to put the Trump name on the buildings.
Ads in Indian newspapers have been promising drinks and dinner with Trump Jr. if buyers make a down payment of 2.5 million rupees ― about $39,000 ― for an apartment. Flats in a tower being built in a New Delhi suburb are running for as much as $1.5 million.
In an interview with CNBC India upon his arrival in the country this week, Trump Jr. said he was impressed at how Indians always seem happy, despite living amid so much poverty. “You can see the poorest of the poor, and there is still a smile on a face,” he said. “I know some of the most successful people in the world and some of them are the most miserable people in the world, also, right?”
Libowitz said he’s not sure how and when Trump Jr.’s thoughts about “Indo-Pacific ties” became valuable enough to warrant a prestige speaking slot with India’s prime minister.
“We do not know when he became a foreign policy expert, but we would bet it had something to do with being the son of the president,” Libowitz said. “The big question is who will be paying for access to the president’s son.”