There's a sprawling infrastructure of conflicts of interest, entanglements with foreign governments and shady characters, and flat-out lies.
BY JACK HOLMES
JUN 5, 2019
Corruption, it increasingly appears, is inseparable from authoritarianism. It's not just that people who run or are willing to join would-be autocratic regimes lack any kind of ethical principle. It's that the money greases the wheels of the machine. Vladimir Putin's Russia is a prime example, where the leader essentially serves as a mob boss, with various vassals—the oligarchs and mafia barons—making money hand over fist in exchange for unflinching loyalty. That increasingly appears to be the model the United States is pursuing, as Donald Trump, American president, oversees The Great American Heist.
After all, it's not just that the Cabinet is full of folks living high on the hog on the taxpayer dime, or ex-lobbyists who are basically gutting the agencies they run in ways that just happen to line up with the interests of the industries they're nominally tasked with regulating. It's that Trump himself has set about monetizing the nation's highest office at every turn, treating the Executive Branch like every other organization he's ever run.
Don't forget: the Trump Foundation and Trump University have already shuttered amid allegations of fraud. The Trump Organization, the Trump campaign, and the Trump inaugural committee are all under investigation by various state and federal prosecutors. The New York Times found the president participated in suspect tax-avoidance schemes over decades which at some points rose to the level of outright fraud. He infamously took work from contractors, then shorted them by as much as 80 percent when it came time to pay the bill. When they fought back, he bled them to death in court. It only makes sense Donald Trump would bring this business model to his administration when he became president.
There is, of course, the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., which has become the beacon of the New Swamp. It's a haven for lobbyists and foreign actors who are looking to shape U.S. policy in their interests by putting money in the president's pocket. (Trump engaged in a sham divestment from his holdings. And the idea Trump handed over the business to his sons, who would run it entirely separately as Trump the Elder ran the country, took another hit when the whole gang went over to meet the Queen this week.) There are multiple active lawsuits alleging Trump is in violation of the Constitution's Emoluments Clause, which forbids the president from accepting payments from foreign leaders or governments.
Washington D.C. Exteriors And Landmarks - 2016
The Trump International Hotel in D.C. is the beacon of the New Swamp.
A stunning new report from Anna Massoglia and Karl-Evers Hillstrom at OpenSecrets, published Tuesday night, illustrates just how sprawling these violations could be.
Two years into his presidency, Donald Trump continues to make money from properties and licensing deals in nearly two dozen countries around the world, fanning the flames of concerns that the Trump administration is subject to unprecedented levels of foreign influence.
Trump continued to hold more than $130 million in foreign assets in a revocable trust as his second year in office came to a close, according to OpenSecrets’ analysis of the president’s most recent annual personal financial disclosure released by the Office of Government Ethics last month. Trump’s business entanglements continue to leave him with positions, assets, trademarks and other business interests in more than 30 countries.
The list of countries in which Trump reportedly has business interests includes Argentina, Azerbaijan, Bermuda, Brazil, Canada, China, Dominican Republic, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Mexico, Panama, Philippines, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, South Korea, St. Martin, St. Vincent, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Uruguay.
In every one of these instances, Trump's dual role as a businessman making money in the country and a president making policy concerning that country presents a basic and incontrovertible conflict of interest. Every time he has to make a decision with regard to Saudi Arabia, which is pouring money into his hotels, the American public cannot be sure he's made it in their interest or his own personal business interest. This is why President Jimmy Carter was forced to divest from his peanut farm (!): if you occupy an office of the public trust, the public must be confident you can be trusted to act, to the best of your ability, in their interest alone. And you wonder why the president is so desperate to keep his tax returns secret after every major-party candidate since Watergate released theirs.
Speaking of Saudi, what does OpenSecrets have to say about that?
“Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million,” Trump said at a 2016 campaign rally, “Am I supposed to dislike them?”
The same day he spoke favorably about Saudi spending on his properties, Trump incorporated multiple new limited-liability companies that appear to be related to potentially expanding his vast business empire into Jeddah, the second largest city in Saudi Arabia. With names like THC Jeddah Hotel Manager Member Corp and DT Jeddah Technical Services Advisor LLC, records of the companies reflect a naming convention similar to those for other Trump branding of prospective business deals.
While no development has been publicly divulged, financial disclosures to the Office of Government Ethics indicate Trump held a position with at least two of the companies through Nov. 15, 2016, days after his election...
...Saudi foreign agents and lobbyists came under fire for spending more than $270,000 to put up a group of veterans at Trump International Hotel...A single “last minute” visit by the Saudi Crown Prince drove Trump International Hotel in Manhattan’s room revenue up 13 percent in the first three months of 2018 following a two-year decline. A 2018 report to Trump Hotel Chicago investors on foreign and U.S. customers broken down by country originally obtained by the Washington Post showed a 169 percent increase in Saudi Arabia-based patrons since 2016. Planning documents, agendas and conversations with organizers indicate that the Saudi government paid for more than 500 nights in Trump hotel rooms.
Notice that detail about the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Then remember that, when the world learned MBS had directly ordered the assassination of a U.S. resident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump administration waved it away. Can we be sure Trump made that decision for his cited reason—that the Saudis spend a lot of money on U.S. weapons, which is itself disgustingly immoral—or because they spend a lot of money at Trump properties?
Beyond the conflict-of-interest questions, there's the fact that so many people involved in these Trump deals end up being the shadiest characters around. From OpenSecrets, here's his partner in Azerbaijan:
Developed with relatives of Azerbaijan Transportation Minister Ziya Mammadov—who a U.S. diplomat described as “notoriously corrupt even for Azerbaijan”—the project linked the Trump Organization to a family with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the Trump administration recently labeled a foreign terrorist organization...
According to leaked diplomatic cables, the Mammadovs built up significant clout in Azerbaijan, leveraging their positions in government to lucrative contracts for their businesses. The New Yorker reported that the Mammadovs paid for initial construction of the building with giant piles of cash, one of which totaled $2 million. The Trump Organization did not deny that the Mammadovs engaged in corrupt activities...
And in Brazil:
Since then, Brazilian prosecutors rolled out charges against several of Trump’s former business partners for diverting public pension funds into the projects in exchange for bribes and illegal commissions. The Trump Organization, which was not involved in funding the project, has not been implicated in the scheme.
Paulo Figueiredo Filho, the developer and owner of the luxury hotel project, was among those charged...According to Brazilian news outlets, Brazil has issued an Interpol “red notice” in an attempt to arrest Figueiredo, who currently lives in the U.S. ... In a separate investigation, another former Trump partner living in the U.S., Arthur César de Menezes Soares Filho, was charged in an alleged bribery scheme related to Rio de Janeiro’s bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games.
Funded in part by Alexandre Ventura Nogueira, a Brazilian car salesman with apparent links to convicted criminals, the Trump-branded project had dubious beginnings. Three years after getting involved with the Trump-branded project, Nogueira fled Panama amid state charges of fraud and forgery and cheating allegations by Trump Ocean Club investors. Nogueira later told Reuters that eastern Europeans with links to organized crime invested in the property. Trump did not have a stake in the building’s development, only in managing the property and licensing his brand, but Ivanka Trump played a leading role in developing and marketing the 70-foot tower.
The car-salesman angle is a nice touch.
Even in friendly Canada, things were not entirely above-board.
The [Vancouver] hotel has come under scrutiny as a way for Russian actors to funnel money to Trump. In May 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that [Russian-born investor] Shnaider funded the tower using assets he obtained by selling his stake in a Ukrainian steel mill for an estimated $850 million in 2010. Russian state-owned bank VEB, which was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2014, reportedly financed the sale.
In July 2018, the Financial Times reported that Shnaider previously made a secret $100 million payment to Moscow-based “introducers” representing the Kremlin’s interests to help facilitate the sale. The deal eventually provided money for Trump himself through his licensing and management deal. Trump reported making $559,904 in management fees in his 2017 financial disclosure.
It increasingly appears the President of the United States has business holdings all over the world that are drowning in shady money. The president made an absurd show of divesting from those business holdings with that press conference and the Manila Folders Definitely Not Full of Blank Pages that he wouldn't let reporters examine, but is there any reason to believe him when he lies about anything and everything else? After all, he and his spawn promised the Trump Organization would make no new foreign deals after he took office. Lie. They pledged to donate all profits from the Organization's business with foreign governments, but according to Massoglia of OpenSecrets, there is ample reason to believe they've given far below what they owe.
Oh, and it appears the accusations of tax evasion now extend beyond the United States: the owner of the Panama City hotel, which used to bear his brand and was under his company's management, is now suing his business claiming it defrauded Panamanian tax authorities.
The level of lying, corruption, conflicts of interest, and other malfeasance here is just gobsmacking. Anyone who believed, based on his record, that Trump was prioritizing the American public interest in office deserves a visit from the Wallet Inspector. But the situation is rapidly escalating, as the Executive Branch is hollowed out from within for the benefit of domestic corporate and special interests, while the president himself is financially beholden to foreign actors.
It points to the transnationalism of oligarchical greed, where titans of industry—above or below board—see no borders in their quest to amass a sufficient share of the resources to usher in a way of life steadily moving towards neo-feudalism. They are enabled by "nationalist" political leaders, who weaponize religious and ethnic strife to pit factions of the emerging proletariat against each other—and, in the process, distract all of them from the heist. They simultaneously undermine the mechanisms of democratic accountability, like the separation of powers or the free press or an independent system of justice, until soon enough there is no way to rein them in. So far, it seems to be incredibly effective. We are at the precipice.
JACK HOLMES Politics Editor
Jack Holmes is the Politics Editor at Esquire.com, where he writes daily and edits the Politics Blog with Charles P Pierce.