In the midst of the tense diplomatic negotiations over the fate of an American pastor jailed in Turkey earlier this month, organizers of a Turkish-American business conference quietly moved to cancel an event that was set to take place at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., this week.
The president of the American-Turkish Council, Howard Beasey, told ABC News the group paused its plans for the annual event after it became clear to him that no senior U.S. officials would be willing to attend the annual event. Talks ultimately led to Pastor Andrew Brunson’s Oct. 12 release from a Turkish jail, but that came too late for conference organizers to get high-level U.S. officials to attend on short notice, Beasey said.
“We were on non-speaking terms, more or less, government-to-government from July until two Fridays ago,” Beasey said.
The conference is one of several international events held at the Trump Hotel that has come under scrutiny from ethics groups who question whether it is appropriate for a Trump family business to profit from foreign interests while President Trump is in office. The cancelation of a hotel function in the midst of a diplomatic spat, some critics said, only served to highlight the many potential ethical entanglements.
Jordan Libowitz of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit government watchdog, told ABC News that when Trump’s broke with decades-long precedent by not divesting from his business, many people feared that his business interests would interfere with foreign policy decisions.
“The president should be held to a higher standard and be beyond reproach, because when it comes to the president, the appearance of conflict of interest is almost as bad as having an actual conflict of interest,” Libowitz said on Thursday. “How many more cases like this are there where, even if everything was on the level, Americans have to question whether he's acted in their best interest or his own?”
Dealings between the Trump family’s Washington, D.C., hotel and foreign interests have been the focus of a lawsuit filed by the Maryland and District of Columbia attorney general offices. They argue the hotel’s foreign income runs afoul on a provision in the U.S. Constitution, a claim the Trump Organization has refuted. The case is still in the early stages.
The Trump Organization did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment on the matter. Government attorneys representing Trump in the Maryland and DC attorneys general case have sought to dismiss that suit, arguing that foreign payments to a hotel do not amount to a violation of the constitution. Following his election, Trump pledged to donate any foreign earnings for his family business to the US Treasury.
The last minute cancelation of the three-day conference -- which was set to be held this week -- does not mean the Turkish advocacy group is ending its relationship with the hotel, Beasey said. The decision to sign a two-year contract with the Trump Hotel to hold the annual U.S.-Turkey business conference was not intended to curry favor or win influence with the current administration, he said.
"I wish I was that strategic,” Beasey said, noting that the decision to move the annual function to the Trump hotel came prior to the 2016 election. “Trump gave us a good offer, a very good offer,” he said.
The run-up to the conference also coincided with another brewing international scandal -- the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey.
In the days after the journalist’s death, the Trump family faced questions about Saudi spending at the hotel -- with reports indicating that the Saudi government spent at least $270,000 at the hotel last year. That prompted Eric Trump to tell reporters, “No, we have zero financial relationships with Saudi Arabia,”adding that the assertion was part of a Democratic narrative meant to hurt the Trumps.
Beasey said the Turkish government may have helped heal any damage to relations with the U.S. by bringing to light the gruesome details about the U.S. resident’s murder.
“In this case clearly Turkey is on the right side of this, I think,” Beasey told ABC News. “ I think they are, and there's a real opportunity [for] some real political points to be gained here, and regional clout to be gained here, for Turkey.”
Beasey said his organization, along with their co-sponsor of the conference, The Turkey-U.S. Business Council (TAIK), are now moving to reschedule for next Spring.