What would happen to Donald Trump’s Scottish businesses if he wins?

Mr Trump unveils the multi-million pound refurbishment of the Trump Turnberry clubhouse. Picture: John Devlin
Mr Trump unveils the multi-million pound refurbishment of the Trump Turnberry clubhouse. Picture: John Devlin
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There is a caricature in a vestibule off Trump Turnberry’s Caledonia ballroom that offers a rare glimpse of the venue’s history on the world stage.

The framed print depicts Margaret Thatcher flanked by Douglas Hurd, her then foreign secretary, and James Baker, his US counterpart. The trio are surrounded by a phalanx of mounted police and riot officers, while in the distance, a squadron of tanks and a missile battery can be seen lurking on the rolling South Ayrshire hills.

The cartoon, by the late George Gale, commemorates a 1990 meeting of the North Atlantic Council. It is an incongruous fit amid the glittering baubles newly installed by Turnberry’s present owner, which may explain why it has been relegated to a corner near a gents lavatory.

Yet the image could well prove prescient should the unlikely come to pass in the small hours of tomorrow morning and, against all the odds, Donald Trump wins the race for the White House.

Such a scenario has invited widespread speculation over how the controversial magnate would reconcile a political life with his multifarious business interests. As an executive, trustee, director or member of around 480 corporations, partnerships and limited liability companies, Mr Trump’s corporate empire would pose a unparalleled ethical dilemma in the 227 year history of the presidency.

It is a network that spans the globe, with his interests and holdings in countries such Azerbaijan, Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Turkey sure to be seen as particularly sensitive given they could clash with - or indeed, shape - future US foreign policy under a Trump government.

By comparison, his portfolio in Scotland - comprising Trump Turnberry, Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeenshire, and DT Connect Europe, a helicopter operations firm - would be viewed as less contentious.

In any case, the prestige assigned by Mr Trump to his Scottish golf courses means it is unlikely he would cede ownership of them upon assuming office.

Indeed, Mr Trump’s decision to attend the grand reopening of Turnberry in June, a time when his presidential campaign was in full swing, gave some indication of where his priorities lie. During the visit, a day after the EU referendum, he offered a unique assessment of Brexit’s impact. “You know, when the pound goes down, more people are gonna come to Turnberry,” he reflected.

Mr Trump has since held news conferences at his hotels and golf courses, with paid campaign advertisements featuring the frontages of his most coveted properties.

Kenneth Gross, a former associate general counsel at the Federal Election Commission, told The Scotsman he found it unlikely the Republican candidate would change course if he reached the Oval Office.

“Based on past conduct, I have no doubt that Mr Trump will likely use any opportunity to slip in a not too subtle promotion of his or his family’s holdings,” he said.

Whatever questions of conflicts of interest arise, a President Trump could chose to let them go unanswered, Silvio Berlusconi-style. There is no provision under US federal law which forces presidents or vice-presidents to sell off their financial interests or delegate authority in their interests.

A longstanding convention has seen presidents such as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton put their personal investments in blind trusts, but as the extraordinary battle between Mr Trump and Hillary Clinton has demonstrated, convention has no place in 2016.

Richard Painter, who was the chief White House ethics lawyer under the administration of George W Bush, the last Republican president, told The Scotsman that Mr Trump would effectively to run his businesses side by side with the nation.

“The problem is, he can do pretty much whatever he wants as president, even though he has financial conflicts of interest,” he said. “The statute that applies to everybody else does not apply to the president.”

The one legal hurdle Mr Trump would face is the emoluments clause, an obscure provision in the US constitution which prohibits officials from taking money or gifts from foreign governments without the consent of congress. In practice, this could extend to bank loans extended to Mr Trump’s businesses by the likes of the Bank of China.

The source of his financing for his Scottish enterprises is unclear, obscured by the fact that both Trump Turnberry and DT Connect Europe Limited - a helicopter operations firms centred around Mr Trump’s interests at Prestwick airport - are owned by a New York-based revocable trust. Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeenshire, meanwhile, is ultimately controlled by a limited liability company in Delaware, a state with longstanding appeal as a secretive corporate domicile.

However, the emoluments clause also extends to banning payments from entities controlled by foreign administrations, meaning that Mr Trump’s dealings with Prestwick, owned by the Scottish Government, would invite close attention.

Such arrangements, Mr Painter said, would have to come under the microscope. “Every one of these holdings outside of the US would need to be scrutinised to make sure that money was not going getting into them via the front door or the back door from a foreign government,” he said. “Any effort to get money into his pocket from foreign governments or corporations controlled by foreign governments would be a violation of the clause.”

At various times during his campaign, Mr Trump has said that if he becomes president, he would follow the blind trust model and turn the reins of the Trump Organisation and its dizzying number of subsidiaries over to his three children, Donald Jr, Ivanka, and Eric, the latter of whom is already credited with spearheading the Turnberry redevelopment. But the Office of Government Ethics stipulates that so-called blind trustees cannot be relatives. Mr Trump’s proposal, if it comes to pass, would enter uncharted legal waters.

Mr Gross explained: “Putting assets in trust with his children in charge is not a blind trust and does not absolve him of conflicts of interest. When assets are put in a blind trust, the holder of the assets does not get a sudden case of amnesia. Mr. Trump won’t suddenly forget that he owns a golf course in Scotland.

“In addition, his desire for its success is not abated with his children getting the benefits of the success. Thus, all conflicts remain.”

Even if such a blind trust were to be ratified, there is no guarantee Mr Trump would not keep a close interest in the performance of his businesses. After Lyndon Johnson became the first president to set up a blind trust so that his family could retain control of KTBC, a Texas television station, he had a private telephone line installed in the White House so he could chat freely with the lawyer charged with managing his portfolio.

The only acceptable solution to the unique problems posed by the prospect of a Trump presidency, Mr Gross believes, would be for him to disassociate himself from the empire which bears his name.

“The only way he could absolve himself of the conflicts is to sell the assets and agree not to repurchase them,” he added. “I realise this will be difficult because many of the assets are illiquid but until he succeeds in doing so, he will live with the constant thorn of alleged conflicts of interest in carrying out foreign policy and other international official acts.”

Indeed, the alternative, many fear, would be a president that makes foreign policy decisions for the benefit of the Trump Organisation, whatever the cost to the country he is elected to serve.

The wholesale breakdown in relations between Mr Trump and the Scottish Government over the £300m Vattenfall offshore windfarm development near his Aberdeenshire golf resort is an instructive example of the potential for conflict, according to Mr Painter, now a professor of law at the University of Minnesota.

“If he gets in a fight with a foreign government over something to do with his business interests, that would impact on US foreign policy,” he added. “What would he do vis a vis Scotland in his capacity as president of the United States? All sorts of problems come up.”

Any further deterioration in Mr Trump’s relationship with the Scottish Government would have significant repercussions beyond the usual war of wards. The US remains Scotland’s largest overseas trading partner and inward investor, to say nothing of its importance for tourism.

Mr Painter said the “completely unpredictable” nature of Mr Trump means there is no way of knowing what he would do with his overseas businesses if he became president, but until the prospect of a Trump presidency can be ruled out in the early hours of Wednesday, there is every chance the overwrought scene drawn by George Gale depicting politicians, armed police and members of the military convening at Turnberry could become reality once again.

There is even a chance that the Ayrshire resort could host global figures wielding considerably more power than the likes of Mr Hurd and Mr Baker. Back in 1998, Turnberry played host to a meeting of the notorious Bilderberg group. Among the usual suspects such as Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller, one member of the guest list stood out: President Clinton.

If Mr Trump has his way, you can be sure some aspects of history will not repeat themselves.