President Donald Trump, already facing criticism for choosing not to divest his businesses, mentioned one of his company's golf courses Friday in his first press conference with a foreign leader since he took office.
Appearing at the White House with British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump was asked about whether he will uphold pledges to strike a trade deal with Britain following its vote to leave the European Union. During his answer, Trump noted that he went to the ribbon-cutting for his Turnberry, Scotland resort around the time of the EU referendum, incorrectly stating that it took place the day before the vote. He actually went the day after.
"Brexit was an example of what was to come. And I happened to be in Scotland at Turnberry cutting a ribbon when Brexit happened and we had a vast amount of press there. And I said Brexit — this was the day before, you probably remember, I said Brexit is going to happen and I was scorned in the press for making that prediction. I was scorned," Trump said.
Trump did not outwardly promote the golf course even though he referenced it.
Mentioning the Turnberry course in an event with the British prime minister is not clear legal wrongdoing on Trump's part. But it does not help to quell concerns that Trump will still be thinking about his businesses while he makes policy with foreign officials.
"It raises the question of whether the reason he saw the UK PM first was in order to promote his business interests and seek unconstitutional emoluments (that is, benefits) from foreign lands. It is unsavory on its face, and it is an illustration of how his decisions will be clouded by the constant overhang of his conflicts," said Norman Eisen, a former top ethics lawyer for former President Barack Obama.
When he became president, Trump did not divest from his businesses, handing over management to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric and a Trump Organization executive. Therefore, he maintains ownership of his existing businesses and can come back to them when he leaves office.
Trump has resigned from his namesake company and affiliated entities, but he has not divested or put his assets into a blind trust, as the executive branch ethics watchdog called on him to do. Some critics, including Eisen and another former White House ethics lawyer, say that Trump businesses profiting from foreign officials or diplomats violates a constitutional clause.
Richard Painter, a former top ethics lawyer for former President George W. Bush, did not see a problem with Trump referencing the golf course and expects him to mention other businesses during his presidency. However, he worried that Trump could make his holdings a priority when the U.S. and Britain negotiate a trade deal as the latter plans an exit from the European Union.
"It sends a message that if we work through this trade agreement, that golf course is going to be pretty important," he said, noting that Trump may promote things like tourism during negotiations because of his interests.
A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Trump's administration has previously noted that the president is exempt from criminal conflict of interest laws and argued that Trump has already done more than he needed to distance himself from his businesses.