It was improbable, unexpected and unprecedented. President-Elect Donald Trump’s meeting with Nigel Farage, just days after his election win and ahead of official sessions with bona fide world leaders, catapulted the interim Ukip leader to international prominence and highlighted the ad-hoc nature of a transition in disarray.
Yet the meeting gave an unexpected detail on how Trump’s business interests are becoming a feature in his meetings with foreign politicians.
According to a former communications director for the Leave.EU referendum campaign present at the Trump-Farage meeting, the property tycoon urged him and Farage to “campaign against getting rid of wind farms in the way they currently stand”.
”He has got a bugbear - he doesn’t like wind farms at all,” Andy Wigmore said. “He says ‘when I look out of my window and I see these windmills, it offends me. You’ve got to do something about these windmills. Let’s put them offshore, why spoil the beautiful countryside?’”
“He is dismayed that his beloved Scotland has become over-run with ugly wind farms which he believes are a blight on the stunning landscape,” Wigmore added to the Express.
The insight into the discussion has already prompted a wave of concerned reports. And his other business interests have seen an impeachment has already mooted. But what does the wind farm discussion tell us about a President Trump? According to one prominent scholar - it illustrates just how astoundingly little Trump knows about the office he’s about to occupy. And campaigners have used it to show just how little he knows about the renewable energy debate.
Trump’s opposition to Scottish wind farms long predates his sensational run for the US presidency and was inspired, if not solely guided, by the fact a then-proposed offshore farm in 2012 threatened to “damage” the landscape near his £500m golf resort in Aberdeenshire.
Giving evidence to members of the Scottish Parliament in 2012, Trump said his opposition to wind farms was in order to protect tourism.
“If you dot your landscape with these horrible, horrible structures you will do tremendous damage,” Trump said. Asked for “clinical” evidence of the damage farms might cause to tourism, Trump responded: “I am the evidence, I think I’m a lot more of an expert than the people who you’d like me to hire who are doing it to make a pay cheque. I am an expert in tourism.”
Speaking to reporters when the wind farm gained approval in 2013, Trump said: “We will spend whatever monies are necessary to see to it that these huge and unsightly industrial wind turbines are never constructed.”
Together with his reported comments during transition meetings, Trump’s obsession with Scotland’s wind farm policy looks likely to continue to the White House.
I am the evidence Donald Trump to inquiry into Scottish wind farms in 2012
The apparent prominence of Trump’s business interests in his transition meetings has been enough to prompt questions over the clear conflicts of interest a billionaire property tycoon might have when ascending to America’s highest political office.
Asked about these conflicts during during a near 75-minute on-the-record conversation with journalists at the New York Times on Tuesday, Trump said his company was “so unimportant” to him relative to the transition - but he still stood by his position on Scottish wind farms.
“My company is so unimportant to me relative to what I’m doing, ’cause I don’t need money, I don’t need anything,” Trump said. “I don’t care about my company. It doesn’t matter. My kids run it.”
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“I don’t care. Because it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters to me is running our country,” he added.
When asked about his reported discussion of wind farms with Farage, Trump admitted he “might” have raised the topic, his opposition was guided by where turbines are produced and the number of birds killed by the structures.
“So, if I talk negatively. I’ve been saying the same thing for years about you know, the wind industry,” Trump said.
Defending himself against claims of conflicted interests, Trump insisted:
As far as the, you know, potential conflict of interests, though, I mean I know that from the standpoint, the law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest. That’s been reported very widely. Despite that, I don’t want there to be a conflict of interest anyway. And the laws, the president can’t. And I understand why the president can’t have a conflict of interest now because everything a president does in some ways is like a conflict of interest, but I have, I’ve built a very great company and it’s a big company and it’s all over the world.
While Trump’s re-visiting of the topic during his meeting with Farage may matter little in terms of realpolitik - Farage as an MEP for south-east England has no ties to Scotland or its decision making - it does, according to a prominent academic, reveal a president-elect with no concept of the responsibilities of the highest political office in the United States.
Iwan Morgan, Professor of US Studies and Head of US Programmes at the Institute of the Americas, University College London, told The Huffington Post UK that Trump’s insistence the president can’t have a conflict of interest is “absolute rubbish” suggestive of his lack of understanding of what being president actually entails.
“This notion that the president cannot have a conflict of interest is absolute rubbish, the whole notion of presidential infallibility went down with [President Richard Nixon and] Watergate,” Morgan said. “I think Trump was wholly unaware of the obligations of the presidency. He knows the power of the presidency but not the obligations - and he’s just learning that now.”
Yet the conflict of interest surrounding Trump’s businesses won’t be unique to his presidency.
“When I heard Trump talk about his business interests, the president I was reminded of was Lyndon B. Johnson,” said Morgan. “Johnson was a senator then vice-president, and then president, and he acquired a radio then a TV station in Austin, Texas, and it grew, and grew, and grew. When he became president his wife took over the running of it.”
Although the radio station was in Lady Bird Johnson’s name under Texas law, having been purchased with her inheritance, significant regulatory challenges were reportedly overcome by her husband’s Washington D.C. connections.
“That was definitely a conflict of interest as he was always seeing the regulatory body that could have ruled he had a monopoly situation in the local area. By and large it was assumed that it had paved the way for his success during his political career,” Morgan said.
“...the law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest” Donald Trump, November 2016
“Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal” Richard Nixon, May 1977
Yet for politicians and campaigners in Scotland, Trump’s comments are nothing but unwelcome. Mark Ruskell MSP, Scottish Green Party’s energy spokesperson, told HuffPost Trump’s history of opposing wind farms in the country meant his presidency was a “horrific” prospect.
“It’s pretty horrific the fact that he is now US president,” Ruskell said. “He is now opposing [wind generation] as a technology. I have no concept of how his mind works and this is an incredibly detailed localised planning issue in the UK and to make sweeping generalisations about wind destroying the landscape just doesn’t cut it.”
“There are areas where wind is opposed legitimately. But these sweeping generalisations don’t reflect the reality here on the ground or in the US either. Wind is providing jobs in the States,” Ruskell added.
World Wildlife Fund Scotland’s director Lang Banks suggested Trump’s apparent continued obsession with Scottish wind farms is taking time away from what the president-elect ought to be doing.
“One would have thought Mr Trump would have far more important issues to be dealing with,” Banks said. “The reality is that offshore wind turbines are already making a significant contribution to the UK’s power supply. And, given that Scotland is home to a quarter of Europe’s offshore wind resource, we should be aiming to make the most of this clean power source.”
For Ruskell, relief comes in the fact that, even as president, Trump’s powers in Scotland will be constrained. “Thankfully, he doesn’t have any jurisdiction in Scotland,” Ruskell said. “The Scottish government learned a long time ago that you shouldn’t rewrite the rules for someone with business status.”
Constraint for Trump might be much closer to home, however. “My suspicion is that Trump will try to manage the presidency as a chief executive officer,” Prof Morgan said. “If the CEO tells one of your minions to jump, they ask ‘how high?’ But if the president tells someone in the executive branch to jump they’ll ask ‘what do you mean by jump?’ It’s a different world. Yes he’s a commander in chief but this is about being the persuader in chief.”
In time it will be clear whether Trump’s opposition to Scottish wind farms foretells his own power of persuasion.