On January 20th, around the time Donald Trump was being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, James “Wally” Brewster was tendering his resignation as the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic. Now, Trump reportedly is giving that post to vocal supporter and business associate Robin Bernstein – a founding member of Trump’s exclusive Mar-a-Lago Club – raising questions about potential conflicts of interest, given that the Trump Organization is considering a licensing deal on a luxury resort in the island nation.
“We cannot have a situation where the ambassador is giving favorable treatment to Eric Trump, or lobbying the Dominican Republic government on his behalf,” says Richard Painter, who was a White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush.
The Bernstein news was reported this weekend in The Guardian, after first appearing on a South Florida tabloid site, Gossip Extra. A photo posted to Instagram last Monday by Juju Bernstein shows a woman holding an American flag with the caption, “I am so grateful and honored to be your daughter and excited to get to call you Madame Ambassador – the Dominican Republic is lucky to have you!” According to the photo tag, that woman is Robin Bernstein.
The White House has not issued confirmation of the nomination, but The Guardian reports that two other Trump friends in Florida, Patrick Park and Brian Burns, are likely to be nominated as ambassadors to Austria and Ireland, respectively. (Neither the White House nor Bernstein have responded to Rolling Stone‘s requests for comment.)
Bernstein emerged during the primary season as a spirited Trump supporter, extolling his virtues and defending him to local press. “There is a side of him that people don’t see,” Bernstein, a Florida delegate-at-large, told the Sun Sentinel last May. “They don’t necessarily see the human side of Trump.”
Bernstein and her husband Richard have had a two-decade business relationship with Trump, serving him as a client at their health care and life insurance company for high-net-worth individuals. A successful businesswoman and political strategist in her own right, Bernstein had early roots in D.C. politics, working in administrative roles for Democrats Scoop Jackson, Hubert H. Humphrey and Jimmy Carter, including a presidential appointment from Carter to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
While ambassador to a small island nation may not be the most prestigious appointment, Trump could have a personal stake in maintaining friendly relations with the country. The Associated Press reported on February 9th that the Trump Organization could be moving forward with a licensing deal for a beachfront resort, despite the president’s pledge that his companies would cease foreign development deals while in office.
According to the AP report, the Trump Organization – which Trump still owns, despite handing over management to his sons – began talks with the property’s owners, brothers Ricardo and Fernando Hazoury, in 2007. But the 2008 financial crisis and a breakdown in talks – culminating in a 2012 lawsuit in which Trump’s son Eric accused the Hazourys of “textbook fraud,” before settling in 2013 for an undisclosed amount – caused the deal to lie dormant. A February 5th photo of Eric and the Hazoury brothers touring the resort reignited the possibility of Trump branding, and adds to a growing list of potential conflicts of interest for the new president. The Trump Organization maintains the move is above board since the deal began a decade ago, but the AP says Trump’s name had “largely disappeared from marketing materials” after the talks broke down, and the original contract promised completion of construction by 2011. (The Trump Organization has not yet responded to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.)
Painter, the ethics lawyer, foresees a tough confirmation hearing for Bernstein given her multilayered relationship with Trump and the increasingly thin patience among members of Congress with the president’s growing list of possible conflicts of interest. “They’re going to ask her a lot of questions about her past dealings with the Trump family,” he says.
Painter sees Trump’s nomination of Bernstein as a show of “favoritism” that goes beyond simply rewarding a campaign contributor, as past presidents have done. His company’s potential business dealings in the Dominican Republic, and Bernstein’s business relationship with Trump, represent an ethical quandary: Will Trump’s new ambassador help the Trump family business solidify a new deal, even after Trump promised his companies wouldn’t pursue such deals at all while he’s in office?
The position of ambassador to the Dominican Republic has drawn controversy in recent years. Brewster, the recent ambassador, spent most of his three-year tenure under fire in the socially conservative, Catholic-majority country for being openly gay. Dominican leaders repeatedly called on the U.S. to remove Brewster from the post, and a 2016 White House petition created by Dominican evangelicals garnered more than 30,000 signatures. But Brewster maintained the backing of the Obama administration, and continued with his commitment to promote LGBT equality in the country.
For her part, Bernstein told the Tampa Bay Times in November that Trump’s visits to Mar-a-Lago, now known as the “winter White House” – of which she is still a member – amount to “almost a return to Camelot,” referencing John F. Kennedy’s presidency.