As with everything attached to the Trump name, the visit of the US President’s son, Donald Trump Jr. to India this week has been characteristically over-the-top.
Trump Jr.’s first day in the country saw front-page advertisements in top newspapers around the country blare out, ‘Trump is here, are you invited?”, offering anyone who buys a flat in a Trump tower the opportunity to have dinner with the US President’s son. Then the Trump heir said his family should get more credit for the business opportunities it gave up after his father became president. He followed that up with appreciation for the Indian poor because no matter what, “they’re always smiling”. And on Friday, Trump Jr. will deliver a foreign policy speech at an event with Prime Minister Narendra Modi – a speech that the US embassy says it has no prior information about.
He may not have the utter bombast of his father or the celebrity quotient that comes with his sister and her husband, but Trump Jr. is certainly living up to his family name.
Conflict of interest
Friday’s foreign policy speech is the best example of just how brazen Trump Jr.’s visit is. After all, this is a business trip. He does not have any official position in the US government and is simply steering the Trump real estate business, which counts India as its biggest international market. The US State Department, America’s version of a foreign ministry, has said that he is in India as a “private citizen.” It claims its only support has been to book rooms and help with security. Trump Jr has spent all of his professional life in his father’s company but the speech he is giving is entitled “Reshaping Indo-Pacific Ties: The New Era of Cooperation”. Modi attendance lends the event great legitimacy.
This has brought up obvious questions of conflicted interests and many have suggested that it is an attempt by the Trumps to further their businesses by selling access to the first family. Vox described Trump Jr.’s India visit as being “staggeringly corrupt”. The Atlantic asked, “Who does Donald Trump Jr. speak for?” The Washington Post noted that Trump Towers picked up more than $15 million in business on Monday, the day the dinner offer appeared in newspaper ads. Meanwhile, some are defending the criticism of Trump Jr.’s comments about India’s smiling poor as incorrect or misplaced since, they claimed, he was simply noting that Indians are unique in being both impoverished and happy.
Of course, this sort of behaviour would not even raise eyebrows in India. Consider the details: He is a dynast who is using his family’s business and political connections to try and make money while insisting that the family has actually made sacrifices for the nation, with a bit of casual elitism and a heavy dose of conflict of interest thrown in for good measure.
As if to underline the idea, the actual business that Trump Jr. is here to conduct quite literally traffics off of his last name. The Trumps themselves do not run any of the Trump towers in India, spread across Pune, Mumbai, Gurgaon and Kolkata. Instead, they licence their name to local business partners who do the work of actually building and selling the property.
Does the visit mean anything for India’s official ties with the US? There have been suggestions that poor business could lead to retribution from the White House on the foreign policy front, but that is unlikely to be a problem in India which has both got along well with the senior Trump and also continues to be a thriving market for the Trump brand. India’s official establishment seems willing to give enough importance to Trump Jr – Modi will after all be at the same event on Friday – especially since the US president has described relations in transactional terms in the past.
But ties between New Delhi and Washington are also so wide-ranging and complex that they are unlikely to be influenced by an event like this, although nothing is beyond the pale for the current occupant of the White House.
The bigger danger is likely to belong to those who have put money into Trump Towers. That decision might seems clever at the moment but potentially dangerous if what they thought they were buying was influence with the White House. It might be even of a problem if, for whatever reason, the Trump brand experiences a sudden, precipitous drop in popularity. Considering the investigation into the US president’s campaign and actions, and the possibility that an early morning tweet could easily upend everything, that seems like a genuine risk that comes alongside being associated with the Trump brand.