Friday, March 24, 2017

High Friends in Rich Places

Here are just a few of Donald Trump’s partners in hotels, buildings, resorts and golf courses around the world (often beyond their individual countries of residence), billionaires all: Hary Tanoesoedibjo (Indonesia), Hussain Sajwani (Dubai), Oleksandra (former Miss Ukraine) & Phil Ruffin (Las Vegas),  Joo Kim Tiah (Malaysia with holdings in Vancouver, BC, Canada), Jose and Robbie Antonio (father and son in the Philippines), Mangal Lodha (India), Paulo Figueiredo Filho (Brazil), and Aras and Emin Agalarov (father and son in Russia). While the President has relegated running his business operations to his sons, Donald Trump still has not divested himself of the ownership or knowledge of numerous business values and opportunities reflected in deals with these global magnates.
In many cases, the Trump organization simply sells the right to use the “Trump” name on these assets, although they generally require certain levels of quality to make that work. Clearly, someone screwed up on that seemingly fraudulent Trump University that unwound quickly, generating a mega-million-dollar settlement to disgruntled students. And then there are the “can we sweep this under the rug deals,” like the magnificent five-star hotel and residence called the Trump International Hotel & Tower Baku, in Azerbaijan’s capital, that never opened.
Adam Davidson, writing for the March 13th The New Yorker, explains: “The Azerbaijanis behind the project were close relatives of Ziya Mammadov, the Transportation Minister and one of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful oligarchs. According to the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, Azerbaijan is among the most corrupt nations in the world… Ziya Mammadov became the Transportation Minister in 2002, around the time that the regime began receiving enormous profits from government-owned oil reserves in the Caspian Sea. At the time of the hotel deal, Mammadov, a career government official, had a salary of about twelve thousand dollars, but he was a billionaire…
“After Donald Trump became a candidate for President, in 2015, Mother Jones, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and other publications ran articles that raised questions about his involvement in the Baku project. These reports cited a series of cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan in 2009 and 2010, which were made public by WikiLeaks. In one of the cables, a U.S. diplomat described Ziya Mammadov as ‘notoriously corrupt even for Azerbaijan.’ The Trump Organization’s chief legal officer, Alan Garten, told reporters that the Baku hotel project raised no ethical issues for Donald Trump, because his company had never engaged directly with Mammadov.
“According to Garten, Trump played a passive role in the development of the property: he was ‘merely a licensor’ who allowed his famous name to be used by a company headed by Ziya Mammadov’s son, Anar, a young entrepreneur. It’s not clear how much money Trump made from the licensing agreement, although in his limited public filings he has reported receiving $2.8 million. (The Trump Organization shared documents that showed an additional payment of two and a half million dollars, in 2012, but declined to disclose any other payments.) Trump also had signed a contract to manage the hotel once it opened, for an undisclosed fee tied to the hotel’s performance. The Washington Post published Garten’s description of the deal, and reported that Donald Trump had ‘invested virtually no money in the project while selling the rights to use his name and holding the contract to manage the property.’
“A month after Trump was elected President, Garten announced that the Trump Organization had severed its ties with the hotel project, describing the decision to CNN as little more than ‘housecleaning.’ I was in Baku at the time, and it had become clear that the Trump Organization’s story of the hotel was incomplete and inaccurate. Trump’s company had made the deal not just with Anar Mammadov but also with Ziya’s brother Elton—an influential member of the Azerbaijani parliament. Elton signed the contracts, and in an interview he confirmed that he founded Baku XXI Century, the company that owns the Trump Tower Baku. When he was asked who owns Baku XXI Century, he called it a ‘commercial secret’ but added that he ‘controlled all its operations’ until 2015, when he cut ties to the company. Elton denied having used his political position for profit…
“[In] the case of Trump Tower Baku [Trump] oversight appears to have been extensive. The [relevant] Azerbaijani lawyer told me, ‘We were always following their instructions. We were in constant contact with the Trump Organization. They approved the smallest details.’ He said that Trump staff visited Baku at least monthly to give the go-ahead for the next round of work orders.” Ivanka Trump was the boss from the Trump side and actually made in-person, on-site inspections.
Lots of money laundering and skimming was going on, it seems. And there was even a nasty connection to political forces in Iran that popped up. Davidson notes: “No evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump, or any of his employees involved in the Baku deal, actively participated in bribery, money laundering, or other illegal behavior. But the Trump Organization may have broken the law in its work with the Mammadov family. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, passed in 1977, forbade American companies from participating in a scheme to reward a foreign government official in exchange for material benefit or preferential treatment. The law even made it a crime for an American company to unknowingly benefit from a partner’s corruption if it could have discovered illicit activity but avoided doing so. This closed what was known as the ‘head in the sand’ loophole…
“In May, 2012, the month the Baku deal was finalized, the F.C.P.A. was evidently on Donald Trump’s mind. In a phone-in appearance on CNBC, he expressed frustration with the law. ‘Every other country goes into these places and they do what they have to do,’ he said. ‘It’s a horrible law and it should be changed.’ If American companies refused to give bribes, he said, ‘you’ll do business nowhere.’ He continued, ‘There is one answer—go to your room, close the door, go to sleep, and don’t do any deals, because that’s the only way. The only way you’re going to do it is the other way.’”
Sorry, Donald, most developed countries, especially in the West, have and enforce their versions of the F.C.P.A. All of those laws require serious due diligence on the part of their nationals to find out if there are corruption violations involved. Needless to say, the Trump organization distanced itself from this deal and all of the players in it; these officials didn’t get to be true Trump buddies and insiders.But otherwise, Trump’s family really knows how to take care of its insiders. You can tell by the billionaires who got special invitations to attend the “insider” Inauguration ceremonies for the 45th President of the United States.
“All told, at least 14 from this community of partners, from Turkey to India to the Philippines, attended the inauguration festivities… ‘People often talk about partners as not necessarily friends, almost as if they're mutually exclusive. 'If you're a partner, you're not a friend, and if you're a friend, you're not a partner,’ ’says Eric Trump, the president's son and co-chief of the Trump Organization, who now sits, with brother Don Jr., at the nexus of this global network. ‘I think that's a bad way of thinking.’…
“But perhaps the most interesting tidbit comes in the aggregate. Trump's network extends to at least 19 countries. And these guys (yes, they're all men) share a set of consistent traits, even as property developers go. This group is uniformly rich--seven are members of the Forbes Billionaires list; many more claim centimillionaire status. They reflect their partner--a mélange of bombastic marketing, over-the-top style and political connections.”, March 28th. Some of these players are finding themselves politically attractive these days, as appointees or even candidates, because of their political connections to Donald Trump. They are Donald’s friends, very, very good friends.
Donald Trump smiles at the relatively few restrictions placed on the president of the United States – as opposed to virtually every other government appointee, elected official or employee where the regulations and conflict-of-interest provisions are legion – in making money. The only such limitation on the president, it seems, is Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution, more commonly known as the “emoluments clause”: No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.
But that provision is not much of a deterrent to a man who specializes in violating rules and leaping through loopholes. And son Eric is happy to make it clear to all those “partners” that they are in business with the entire Trump family, most definitely including the president. “Eric Trump motions to a small TV in the corner of his office in Trump Tower. ‘If I turn on the TV--let's just see--I will bet you that [my father] will be on the screen in some way, shape or form.’ He picks up the remote and clicks the power button. An anchor, fresh off a commercial break, stares straight into the camera: ‘A hearing in federal court today could allow hundreds of people who were deported under President Trump's original—‘
“Eric smiles as he turns off the set. ‘I see him up there all day, every day. And I realize how big of a magnitude the decisions he makes and the things he has on his plate.’… His father's presence in the business extends beyond his office television. In January, Trump stood in Trump Tower and announced that he was handing over control of his business to his sons as part of an effort to separate it from his presidency--though by putting his assets in a trust, he's really just parking his holdings rather than divesting from them. And because he knows exactly what assets are in the trust, it's anything but blind.
“A month later, Eric seems to acknowledge this dilemma. One minute, he promises to never talk about the business with his father while he serves in the White House. Less than two minutes later, he says he will update his father on the company's financials ‘probably quarterly.’
“He also claims that the business is following through on its plan to hand over profits at its hotels from foreign dignitaries to the U.S. Treasury, even though the Trump business partner in Las Vegas says there is no such thing happening at their hotel. The pledge was intended to resolve concerns that the president would violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, a barely litigated section of America's founding document [cited above]… A group of legal scholars and bipartisan ethics experts have begun the lengthy process of suing Trump. ‘He has all of the conflicts of interest that he had before,’ says Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, who is one of the lawyers facing off against him in the suit.”
OK, we know this stinks to high hell, but for too many Republicans in general and most specifically to Trump followers, it just doesn’t matter as long as he drains the swamp, cuts government’s (i.e., Washington’s) role to the bone, adds a strong dose of religiosity to his policies, deports immigrants, cuts taxes and regulations, looks militarily strong and makes gestures that appear to be creating jobs. Let him get richer on the side; that his just being the “smart guy we elected to be president.”
Funny how “strongmen” in less-than-democratic countries all seem to prosper greatly from their position as a nation’s leader. Some say Vladimir Putin is the richest man in the world. In the world of mega-wealth, Donald Trump is just a piker… but then Putin didn’t have much when he took the helm in Russia. Trump is starting with a whole lot more than Vladdy had at the beginning… but will he wind up with more than his Russian counterpart when he retires from the presidency (if he ever does)?
            I’m Peter Dekom, and I continually have to wonder exactly which constituency Donald Trump really represents… but maybe I actually know.

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