Donald Trump’s Scottish Golf Course Is An Ethical Nightmare

Turns out the President-elect hasn't quite crawled out of the hole he dug for himself

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Jan 19, 2017 at 1:53 PM ET

Perhaps the first frontier of scrutiny for Donald Trump’s conflict-ridden international business dealings as president will be a golf course in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The Trump International Golf Links is apparently set to proceed with plans to add a boutique hotel and second 18-hole course—despite a recent pledge to abstain from any new foreign deals.

News of the scheduled expansion, first reported by the Guardian, is sounding alarm bells among ethics monitors. Richard Painter, who was chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, called this a “perfect example” of the conflicts between Trump’s presidency and business, noting that the real-estate magnate could try to shoehorn new investments through existing holdings.

Trump announced plans to hand over his business dealings, including his Scottish golf courses, to his adult sons, Don Jr. and Eric. According to the Guardian, however, Trump maintained ownership of 100 percent of the Aberdeenshire shares as of Jan. 14, less than a week before his Friday inauguration. A flack for his business defended the upcoming construction as merely the next phase of previously planned development.

“Implementing future phasing of existing properties does not constitute a new transaction so we intend to proceed,” a Trump Organization spokeswoman told the Guardian.

Never mind that one of Trump’s attorneys, Sheri Dillon, said last week that “President-elect Trump first ordered that all pending deals be terminated.” Additionally, this pre-planned expansion doesn’t, Painter noted, actually separate Trump from conflicts.

“Each phase requires building permits, each phase requires financing, each phase poses additional conflicts of interest,” Painter told the AP. “Americans don’t want their president or any other high ranking official dependent on a foreign government for a building permit.”

This resort has already been embroiled in disputes about environmental impact, offshore wind farms, property line disputes, and even unplanned flag pole construction. Furthermore, Trump reportedly said he would create 6,000 jobs through this investment; the Independent noted that only 150 people are directly employed at the resort, which has suffered a loss of nearly £5 million ($6.15 million) over the last three years, according to numbers the paper cited from the UK’s Companies House database.

Kathleen Clark, a former federal ethics lawyer who is now a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told the AP that targeting fine language of his promises—what is “new” and what is a “deal?”—will bore the public, rather than incite their concern.

But what this development will bequeath everyone is another presidential debate about definitions, following in the line of Bill Clinton’s infamous comment to a grand jury: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Let’s not forget Trump’s campaign-trail quip—he said, “I know words. I have the best words.”—but using those words as they are universally defined, however, is another story altogether.