Donald Trump's business ties explain a lot of his dictator worship

As Donald Trump praises Rodrigo Duterte's death squads in the Philippines, Trump Tower Manila is going up.

Brian Klaas
Opinion columnist
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President Trump makes more money when he embraces regimes that violate human rights. From the Philippines to China and Turkey to Saudi Arabia, the president’s adoration for authoritarian abusers is bad for those being oppressed but good for his wallet.

Saudi King Salman presents President Trump with a medal in Riyadh on May 20, 2017.

Staggering conflicts of interest that directly link Trump’s bank account to despots around the world are already transforming U.S. foreign policy. Trump is selling America’s moral authority to make more money by slapping TRUMP on shimmering new buildings.

Last week, a transcript leaked of a call between Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Trump praised Duterte for the “unbelievable job” on dealing with “the drug problem.” He was referring to a state-sponsored murder campaign dressed up as an anti-drug initiative. Duterte’s goverment uses death squads to kill people in cold blood in the streets. An estimated 7,000 people have already been slaughtered. Most victims are poor. There is substantial evidence that the police often kill first, plant drugs on the victim second, and then falsely claim self-defense third.

Trump explicitly endorsed this barbarism. Then, as icing on the cake, he invited Duterte to the White House — even though he’s a bloodthirsty despot who bragged about personally killing people and likened himself to Hitler.

Of course, Trump has long viewed murderous strongmen the same way that kids look up to sports stars. But if you look at Trump’s business ties, his praise for despots like Duterte who abuse their own people makes perfect, self-serving sense.

Trump Tower Manila opens this year. That gives Duterte lucrative leverage over Trump. But it’s worse than that. As Duterte’s crackdown intensifies, his regime is touting dubious stats showing an urban crime reduction — intended to boost investor confidence. If it succeeds, property values in Manila are likely to increase. In other words, Trump is not just hostage to a government that could easily cost him a huge sum of money if it pulled the plug on his branding deal; Trump also stands to profit more from extrajudicial killings as he uses the power of the presidency to endorse them.

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To make matters even shadier, Duterte appointed Trump’s business partner as an official envoy to the United States. Jose Antonio, who broke ground on Trump Tower Manila smiling alongside Trump’s two sons, is now an official representative of the Philippine government to Washington. Trump’s sons are still working with Antonio on the project, while Antonio works with their dad’s administration on U.S. foreign policy toward the Philippines.

As if it couldn’t be any more of an ethical quagmire, according to the New York Daily News, there are patents pending in he Philippines for the clothing line of Ivanka Trump Marks LLC and others for Trump Marks LLC.

Profiting from regimes that abuse human rights has become a familiar pattern. Just last week, the Trump Organization had another lucrative trademark approved in China. Coincidentally, several applications have been rapidly processed since Trump won. President Trump has since backed off his fiery campaign rhetoric toward China and reversed course on his pledge to label China a currency manipulator. He has also ended the longstanding bipartisan consensus of chastising Beijing for its poor human rights record.

In Turkey, President Trump was the first foreign head of state to call and congratulate the autocrat of Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on rigging a referendum that demolished democracy. That vote came after months of authoritarian purges, jailing journalists and abusing human rights. But of course, Trump’s embrace of Erdogan couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with what Trump previously called “a little conflict of interest,” embedded in the steel and concrete of not one but two Trump buildings in Istanbul.

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Finally, Trump’s first foreign visit as president was to Saudi Arabia, one of the worst regimes for human rights on the planet. While there, White House officials held a news conference without U.S. reporters after doing a sword dance in a country that has no free press and beheads dissidents with swords.

Again, it makes sense. In 2015, Trump registered eight companies that are each possibly linked to a development project in the second largest Saudi city, Jeddah. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud bailed Trump out twice in the past, including buying one of Trump’s yachts when his Atlantic City casinos were going bust. Even if Trump doesn’t ink any new deals during his presidency, praising the Saudis as president will pay off when Trump leaves the White House and cashes in on that goodwill. Conversely, if he does the right thing and publicly criticizes them for beheading dissidents or treating women as second-class citizens, future business deals would be jeopardized.

Past presidents have been guilty of colossal human rights failures. At least we didn’t have to wonder whether Bill Clinton failed to intervene in the Rwandan genocide because he was worried about Clinton Tower Kigali, or whether Barack Obama failed to stand up to the Assad regime in Syria because Malia had a clothing line pending in Damascus.

Trump, to his credit, took limited action in Syria, where he has no business interests. But when he must choose between his wallet and a just foreign policy that advances America’s interests, his choices are already clear for all to see.

Brian Klaas, a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, is author of The Despot's Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @brianklaas.

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