For the second time in a two-week period, President Donald Trump reached out to the authoritarian leader of a country where he has business interests. On April 17, it was Turkish President Recep Erdogan, whom Trump congratulated in the aftermath of a constitutional referendum that was widely seen as a power grab. Trump owns a pair of buildings in Istanbul that he himself has described as constituting “a little conflict of interest,” which, even in the absence of having made some sort of explicit deal to be friendly toward Erdogan in exchange for preferential treatment of his properties, likely shapes his opinions toward Erdogan and his government.
With President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, where Trump also has a property, he is going a step further. On Saturday, Trump invited his Filipino counterpart to visit the White House, ostensibly to coordinate their countries’ policies toward North Korea. The invitation (which Duterte has yet to definitively accept or reject) was criticized by groups such as Human Rights Watch and leaders such as the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees because of Duterte’s horrendous record on human rights. Since he assumed office last summer, his government has been carrying out a brutal crackdown against drug users and dealers, offering tacit (and sometimes even explicit) support for vigilante justice, including outright murder.
Trump’s interactions with Duterte are colored by the fact that he has business interests in the Philippines—namely, Trump Tower Manila, which is currently nearing completion after about five years of construction. The property is one of many around the world that license the Trump name and are owned and operated by a third-party company—in this case, the Manila-based real-estate developer Century Properties Group. Nevertheless, Trump has a vested financial stake in the building’s success, as such deals often involve the licensor taking a cut of the annual revenues.
The ties go beyond a mere branding deal, though. In October, Duterte named Century’s chairman Jose Antonio as a special envoy to Washington for trade, investment, and economic affairs, prompting speculation that Duterte may have been preparing for a possible Trump presidency by placing one of Trump’s Filipino business partners in D.C. The situation creates the exact type of conflict of interest about which critics have been warning since before Trump took office: Trump’s property—along with the people with whom it places him in partnership, whether they are actual associates or leaders of countries in which he has business interests—greatly complicates his incentives when it comes to negotiating with a foreign power.
That said, one part of the response ultimately proved hyperbolic. An image shared widely on social media showed what appeared to be a blatant use of the presidency to promote the family’s business interests: a billboard featuring the president’s daughter Ivanka. The Trump Organization later clarified that the picture was several years old, and that the ad has since been taken down.
Still, as was the case with the president’s phone call to Erdogan in April, Trump’s conflict of interest in the Philippines plays into his praise for Duterte. While there’s no evidence to suggest a direct trade—i.e., tacitly legitimizing Duterte’s oppressive regime in return for financial favors for Trump’s business—there is plenty of psychological research demonstrating that even minor financial ties can create a lasting impression and engender feelings of reciprocity. It’s possible that that predisposition is already baked into Trump’s bizarrely positive attitude toward a world leader who has admitted to personally killing at least three suspected criminals and once argued that journalists “are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.”
Arguably, pointing to Trump’s financial interests is actually one of the more charitable ways to explain Trump’s fondness for notorious autocrats. The other, more alarming possibility is that he actually admires them. He’s praised Duterte’s war on drugs, calling it the “right way” to pursue the problem, and seemed to shrug off the controversy over the invitation to the White House by pointing out Duterte’s “very high approval rating in the Philippines”; Trump has similarly cited Vladimir Putin’s poll numbers to justify his admiration toward the Russian president. He’s also invited Prayuth Chan-ocha, the prime minister of Thailand who came to power in a 2014 coup, to the White House. During the campaign, Trump spoke favorably of Saddam Hussein’s handling of terrorism—“He killed terrorists. He did that so good,” the then-candidate said—characterized the Tiananmen Square massacre as an example of the Chinese government’s “strength,” and lauded Erdogan for “turning it around” by cracking down on civil liberties after a failed coup attempt.
This leaves a few possible explanations for Trump’s public fondness for authoritarians. The best-case scenario is that he sees such support as in his financial interests: By strategically praising autocratic leaders in countries where there are Trump-branded properties, he can ensure favorable returns on his investments, or at least that leaders with little regard for the rule of law will not meddle with his businesses. The worst case is that he genuinely admires dictators’ ability to work their will, even if that efficacy comes at the expense of civil liberties. Alternately, he may see expressing his respect for them as a means of reaching those members of his base who admire “strong,” nationalist leaders. Regardless of which is true—or if the truth falls somewhere in between—Trump continues to develop a track record of flattering leaders who endanger their own citizens.
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