Trump's Scottish resort to expand, raising ethics concerns

July 25, 2018 - 4:58 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — President Donald Trump's company is planning a major expansion of one of its golf resorts in Britain that would include the construction and sale of 500 homes fetching as much as several million dollars each, raising possible conflict-of-interest issues as his administration faces tricky trade negotiations with the country.

The Trump Organization says it submitted plans to local Scottish officials on Tuesday for permission to spend nearly $200 million (150 million pounds) building The Trump Estate, a residential community of 500 luxury cottages and mansions. Ethics lawyers have said that any expansion there requiring government approval raises the possibility Trump's business could get special favors.

Matthew Sanderson, a former legal adviser to several Republican presidential campaigns, said the move shows the "flimsiness" of Trump's pledge take steps to avoid profiting from the presidency.

"Whenever a property is expanded or changed or upgraded, it raises questions of financing partners and approvals by local government," said Sanderson, a lawyer at Caplin & Drysdale. "It's not just a real estate deal when it's the president of the United States."

The Trump Organization said in a news release that it has already received "outline" approval from the local Aberdeen government for the expansion, but still needs the final go-ahead. Asked about the potential conflicts with Trump's role as president, it said in a statement that the expansion is of an existing property and was planned years ago and so does not violate Trump's pledge to shun any new foreign deals while in office.

"This is not a 'new deal' but is simply the next phase of development of a long-term mixed-use project that was originally contemplated more than 12 years ago," said George A. Sorial, the company's chief compliance counsel.

Government ethics experts from both parties have said Trump should have sold off his business before his inauguration. They argue that the "no new deal" pledge was inadequate from the start because there is ample opportunity for business interests and foreign governments to use his resorts and hotels to influence U.S. policy by patronizing the properties or facilitating expansions — regardless of whether new deals are involved.

The submission of expansion plans to officials in Scotland comes shortly after Trump's visit to Britain where he raised the prospect of hammering out a "great bilateral trade agreement" with the country.

The expansion at the Trump International Golf Links would add to its hotel there and would include plans for construction of retail space, equestrian and sports centers and 50 "hotel" cottages. The company expects to break ground early next year.

The Trump golf resort near Aberdeen overlooking the North Sea, along with its Turnberry resort on the Irish Sea, has lost money for years. Environmental groups and local homeowners have lashed out at Trump for what they say were bullying tactics in pushing through prior work there and for threatening historic sand dunes in the area.

The "no new foreign deals" has been a lightning rod for government ethics experts. Critics note that Trump had already struck deals for planned resorts in Dubai and Indonesia when he took office, and that the pending construction allowed for plenty of opportunity for influence peddling. The pledge also did nothing to stop lobbying groups and foreign officials from throwing parties and patronizing Trump's golf clubs and resorts in the U.S., especially his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and his Washington hotel down the street from the White House.

Trump gave mixed signals about its willingness to hammer out a free trade deal with Britain on his visit there earlier this month. He told a tabloid newspaper that a British decision to remain partially integrated in the European Union after its Brexit vote would probably "kill" a trade deal with the U.S., but then backtracked in a news conference suggesting "whatever you do is OK with me."

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