On Tuesday, Donald Trump Jr began his week-long visit to India from New Delhi, with the stated aim of promoting the family’s luxury properties and attracting buyers for an upcoming Trump Organisation project in Gurugram.
But as the American press was quick to point out, not everything about the visit of the US president’s son was strictly to do with business.
One of the red flags was that, apart from halts at the National Capital Region, Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune, Trump Jr is also scheduled to speak on Indo-Pacific relations at a business summit on Friday. That event will also be addressed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Washington Post spoke to political watchdogs who pointed to an inherent conflict of interest in Trump Jr’s visit. “Trump’s company is literally selling access to the president’s son overseas,” Jordan Libowitz, communications director for Responsibility and Ethics, told the publication. As the newspaper pointed out, Donald Trump had not divested himself of the Trump Organisation when he assumed office as US President but merely handed over day-to-day operations to Trump Jr and his brother Eric Trump.
Similar concerns were raised on Twitter.
Huffington Post, meanwhile, pointed out that there is no clarity on what Trump Jr will talk about in his Friday speech 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?” the publication said. “Don’t ask the United States government. It claims not to have any idea.”
At a press briefing, Heather Nauert, a State Department spokesperson, had said that she was not familiar with the contents of the speech. “He is there as a private citizen, and I don’t have any comment beyond that,” she said.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the lines between business and politics had began to blur early on in the trip. At a press meet on Tuesday, when asked to compare the business climate with China, Trump Jr said that things were “substantially more above board” in India.
“I think the mentality of the people is the same. I think there is probably little bit more honesty [in India],” he said. The article pointed out that the comparison, though flattering to India, represented the “ethical and political quandaries surrounding Trump Jr’s multicity tour of the country this week” that critics had expressed concern over.
CNN took a harsher line in an opinion piece titled “Donald Trump Jr sells America’s integrity cheap”.
The article contended that the president’s son cannot distance himself from the Trump surname, which is entrenched with the US administration. “When the President’s son and the President’s company sell real estate, or anything else for that matter, with the President’s name on it, they are putting the honour of that office up for sale. And they cheapen it,” the article read.
Trump Jr’s visit was preceded by full-page newspaper advertisements that featured his photograph accompanied by the caption “Trump is here. Are you invited?” This was targeted at potential home buyers, who were lured to invest in the Gurugram property before Tuesday in return for an invitation to dine with Trump Jr on Thursday. Some American critics pointed out that this attempted to cash in on Trump, the brand.
Offering unprecedented access to someone close to the Trump administration – for a price – was very problematic, Normal L Eisein of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former Obama adviser told The Washington Post. “What is to stop a foreign national with interests before the US government from purchasing a flat, or tagging along with someone who did, simply to ask Don Junior to raise some issue or concern with his father?” Eisen said.
Sumit Ganguly, professor of political science at Indiana University, told the American broadcasting service PBS that though the administration was not selling access directly, it was clearly mixing business and politics. “If the president’s name is on this property, if his son is hawking these properties, and then giving a foreign policy address, it sort of commingles business and at the same time politics,” he told the hosts of the PBS News Hour show.
Trump Jr dismissed the ethical concerns in an interview to CNBC TV-18 in India. “I’m here as a businessman,” he told the channel. “Way before we were ever in politics, [India was] a place that we were looking to do deals and to invest in.”
Against the backdrop of this controversy, Trump Jr gave additional fodder to critics with another remark in the same interview, about poverty in India.
“I don’t want to be glib but you can see the poorest of the poor and there is still a smile on a face,” he said. “It is a different spirit than that which you see in other parts of the world, and I think there is something unique about that.”
“I know some of the most successful businessmen in the world, and some of them are the most miserable people in the world,” he added.
Meanwhile, Fox News unsurprisingly struck a more conciliatory note, contending that Trump Jr’s visit had taken the shine off Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s parallel trip to India. Many commentators have said that Trudeau was seemingly snubbed during his visit.