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He’s the President, yet we’re still trying to answer basic questions about how his business works: What deals are happening, who they’re happening with, and if the President and his family are keeping their promise to separate the Trump Organization from the Trump White House. “Trump, Inc.” is a joint reporting project from WNYC Studios and ProPublica that digs deep into these questions. We’ll be layout out what we know, what we don’t and how you can help us fill in the gaps. WNYC Studios is a listener-supported producer of other leading podcasts, including On the Media, Radiolab, Death, Sex & Money, Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin, Nancy and many others. ProPublica is a non-profit investigative newsroom. © WNYC Studios
- 120 - The Business of SilenceWed, 03 Oct 2018
- 119 - Elliott Broidy's All-Access PassWed, 26 Sep 2018
- 118 - Two Convictions That Shook Trump-World
In April, we published an investigation into Michael Cohen’s past. That episode traced how so many of Cohen’s associates over the years have been convicted of crimes, disbarred or faced other legal troubles.
But — at the time of the episode — the president’s former lawyer had himself never been convicted, or even accused of a crime.
Well, it’s time for an update.
Cohen pleaded guilty Tuesday to eight felony counts, including tax fraud, lying to a bank and campaign finance violations. The same hour he was pleading guilty in a New York courthouse, a federal jury some 200 miles away found another former Trump aide guilty: Paul Manafort, the erstwhile campaign chairman. Also eight counts. Also bank and tax fraud. Though the jury couldn’t reach a final verdict on 10 other counts.
Trump, Inc. podcast co-hosts Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz sat down with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer for a live radio segment to break down the action. And we’re posting it here for you. Enjoy.
And keep an eye on your podcast feeds, because season two of Trump, Inc. is coming your way in September! Sign up to the notified.Wed, 22 Aug 2018
- 117 - Manafort, Inc.
Paul Manafort was Donald Trump’s campaign chairman for three critical months in 2016, leading up to the Republican Convention. But for a decade before that, he did political work in Ukraine. And it's the money Manafort made from that work that is now under the microscope in a Virginia courtroom. Manafort stands accused of tax fraud and bank fraud in the first case in the Mueller investigation to go to trial. Allegedly, Manafort set up secret offshore bank accounts, took in tens of millions of dollars, and avoided the Internal Revenue Service. And later, when the work in Ukraine dried up, and he was short of cash, Manafort allegedly lied to banks to get loans. Trump, Inc.'s Ilya Marritz and Andrea Bernstein dissect the trial's opening with Franklin Foer, a staff writer at The Atlantic who profiled Manafort in his article The Plot Against America.Thu, 02 Aug 2018
- 116 - Government Employees Spend Your Money at Trump HotelsThu, 28 Jun 2018
- 115 - Trump, Inc, Live: From ‘The Art of the Deal’ to the DossierFri, 18 May 2018
- 114 - The "King of Debt"? He Pays Cash.Fri, 11 May 2018
- 113 - The Hidden Hand of a Casino Company In Trump’s Contact with VietnamWed, 25 Apr 2018
- 112 - The Company Michael Cohen KeptWed, 18 Apr 2018
- 111 - Trump’s Company Is Suing Towns Across the Country to Get Breaks on TaxesWed, 11 Apr 2018
- 110 - Trump, the Ex-Lobbyist and 'Chemically Castrated' Frogs
This week, we’re doing a couple of things differently on Trump, Inc. Instead of focusing on President Trump’s businesses, we’re looking more broadly at business interests in the Trump administration. We’re also giving you, our listeners, homework.
Last month, ProPublica published the first comprehensive and searchable database of Trump’s 2,685 political appointees, along with their federal lobbying and financial records. It’s the result of a year spent filing Freedom of Information Act requests, collecting staffing lists and publishing financial disclosure reports.
We’ve found plenty in the documents. We know there are lots of lobbyists now working at agencies they once lobbied (including one involving an herbicide that could affect the sexual development of frogs). We know there are dozens of officials who’ve received ethics waivers from the White House. We know there are “special-government employees” who are working in the private sector and the government at the same time.
But there’s so much more to do. Remember, we have multiple documents for nearly 2,700 appointees. And we need your help. For example, you can help us unmask who is actually behind LLCs listed in officials’ financial disclosures. (A reader did that last year and turned us on toan interesting below-market condo sale the president made to his son, Eric Trump.)
You can also contact us via Signal, WhatsApp or voicemail at 347-244-2134. Here’s more about how you can contact us securely.
You can always email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.Wed, 04 Apr 2018
- 109 - The Many Red Flags of Trump’s Partners in IndiaWed, 28 Mar 2018
- 108 - Former Indian Official: Donald Trump Jr. Pushed 'Blatantly Illegal' ProjectWed, 21 Mar 2018
- 107 - Where’d Trump’s Record Inauguration Spending Go? 'It’s Inexplicable'
Last month, the committee that ran President Donald Trump’s inaugural festivities released basic details about its revenues and spending. Trump raised $107 million, almost twice the previous record, and spent $104 million. The committee’s tax filing showed that $26 million of the spending went to an event planning firm started in December by a friend of the First Lady.
It’s not clear how the firm spent that money, or how most of the money raised for the inauguration was used. The tax filing doesn’t show spending by subcontractors, nor is it required to do so.
In this week’s episode of Trump Inc., we dig into the inauguration. We’ve found that even experienced inaugural planners are baffled by the Trump committee’s massive fundraising and spending operation. We also noticed that two members of the inaugural committee have been convicted of financial crimes, and a third — the committee’s treasurer — was reportedly an unindicted co-conspirator in an accounting fraud.
Greg Jenkins led President George W. Bush’s second inaugural committee in 2005, which raised and spent $42 million (that would be $53 million in today’s dollars). Asked about how Trump’s team managed to spend so much more, Jenkins said, “It's inexplicable to me. I literally don't know.”
“They had a third of the staff and a quarter of the events and they raise at least twice as much as we did,” Jenkins said. “So there's the obvious question: where did it go? I don't know.”
Steve Kerrigan, who led both of President Obama’s inaugural committees, agreed. “There was no need for that amount of money,” said Kerrigan.” We literally did two inaugurations for less than the cost of that.”
According to Trump’s filing, slightly more than half of the money went to four event-planning companies, including the firm owned by the First Lady’s friend, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff. Her company, WIS Media Partners, paid the co-creator of “The Apprentice,”Mark Burnett, to help with the festivities, as the New York Times reported.
Melania Trump has since cut off her work with Wolkoff after the disclosure of the spending. Wolkoff and WIS Media Partners did not respond to a request for comment.
We asked the White House and the inaugural committee about fundraising and spending related to the inauguration. Officials did not agree to be interviewed on the record.
We also looked at members of the inaugural committee, which had about 30 people in leadership and fundraising roles.
The committee’s treasurer, Doug Ammerman, was named by prosecutors as an unindicted co-conspirator in a tax shelter fraud in the early 2000s, according to the Wall Street Journal. Ammerman was a partner at the accounting firm KPMG, which later admitted criminal liability. A Senate investigation from the time includes emails from Ammerman suggesting he was aware of the scheme.
Ammerman is also currently accused in a shareholder lawsuit of dumping stock in a grilled chicken chain, El Pollo Loco, where he was on the board, ahead of a bad quarterly report. Ammerman did not respond to requests for comment.
The finance vice-chair for the inaugural committee, Elliott Broidy, pleaded guilty in 2009 to paying bribes to get investments from the New York State pension fund. His felony conviction was later downgraded to a misdemeanor. Broidy, a top Trump fundraiser, has also come under scrutiny in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Broidy did not respond to requests for comment.
Another inaugural organizer was Rick Gates, the former deputy to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Gates pleaded guiltythis year to lying to the FBI and to conspiracy in a vast money laundering scheme, charges that came from Mueller’s office.
At the time that Gates worked on the inauguration, he had not been indicted, but his dealings with former Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych had already come under scrutiny. Gates’ business partner, Manafort, was forced off of the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016 after it was reported he got nearly $13 million of undisclosed payments from Yanukovych. Gates did not respond to requests for comment.
We found one more thing that set this inauguration apart: Some of the donations are almost impossible to trace. As the Center for Responsive Politics reports, two “dark money” groups, which do not disclose their donors, gave $1 million each. Trump’s inaugural committee appears to have been the first to accept significant donations from dark money groups.
Kerrigan, Obama’s inauguration chief, said he would have rejected a check from a group designed to preserve donor anonymity. “I would have said, ‘Prove who you are and if you can’t pass vet, I’ll have to give the check back,’” Kerrigan said.
There are also, of course, many donors we do know about. Like other presidents, Trump raised millions from corporate contributions and wealthy individuals. The securities and investment industry contributed the most, nearly $15 million. Other top industries included real estate, casinos, oil and gas, and mining — each of which later benefited from various presidential initiatives and policies. The existence of a contribution, of course, doesn’t mean that’s the reason for a policy change.Wed, 14 Mar 2018
- 106 - Son-in-Law Inc: The (Other) Secretive Real Estate Scion in the White House
We’ve seen headline after head-spinning headline about Jared Kushner, son-in-law of President Donald Trump. We’ve heard that his company has been on aglobal search for cash, that it got giant loans from two big financial institutions after Kushner met with officials from those companies at the White House, and that countries believed they could manipulate Kushner through his “complex” business arrangements.
Like his father-in-law, Kushner has not fully divested from his family’s business, Kushner Companies. His disclosure forms show he owns at least $761 million in assets. Meanwhile, the company owes hundreds of millions of dollars in debt that comes due in less than a year.
All of this while Kushner Companies has worked very hard to keep some of its partners a secret.
It gets back to a familiar question: How can we know whether Kushner is operating in the interests of the country or his company?
A spokeswoman for the Kushner Companies said in an email that it “is financially very strong” and that “Jared Kushner is not in any way involved in the management of the business.”
Peter Mirijanian, spokesman for Jared Kushner’s attorney, said in a statement Kushner’s meetings are “to hear ideas about improving the American economy” and that he “has followed the ethics advice he has received for all of his work which include the separation from his business and recusals when appropriate.”
Joining us on this episode are David Kocieniewski andCaleb Melby of Bloomberg, who’ve broken a series of stories about the Kushner Companies' financial stress. They take WNYC and ProPublica on a tour of some of the real estate company's marquee properties.
Then we take a different kind of tour with ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis. For the past year, he's been tracking the travails of tenants living in apartment complexes in Baltimore owned by Kushner Companies -- and the extent to which the real estate company has gone to keep its partners secret.Wed, 07 Mar 2018
- 105 - Trump Org Ordered Golf Markers With the Presidential Seal. That May Be Illegal.Mon, 05 Mar 2018
- 104 - The Mysterious Loan Trump Made to Himself and MoreWed, 28 Feb 2018
- 103 - Trump, Russia and 'Alternative Financing'
After Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians for an intensive, elaborate effort to interfere with the 2016 elections, President Trump reacted as he has before — with bluster and bellicosity, at everyone but Russia.
This week on Trump Inc., we’re exploring the president’s, persistent weirdness around Russia: Why has Trump been so quiet about Russia and its interference?
Glenn Simpson has a theory—that one cannot understand the Russian collusion scandal without understanding Trump’s business.
Simpson is the head of Fusion GPS, the investigative firm behind the now-famous Trump dossier. Before that, he was a Wall Street Journal reporter who specialized in the nexus of money, politics and international skullduggery. Simpson was hired, first by conservatives and then by Democrats, to dig into Trump’s business record.
Simpson has been pilloried on the right as a tool of the Clinton campaign — or worse. He’s been sued multiple times. But amid all the charges, few have followed the details of what Simpson concluded: After a string of Trump failures, disappointments, and bankruptcies, Western financiers shut him off. Trump still needed money to fund his projects. Where did he get it? Simpson came to believe it came from Russia and Russian-connected sources. It came via golf courses, condos, and other conduits.
The eventual result, Simpson suggests, is that Trump ended up beholden to those providing his businesses with “alternative financing.”
One note: The Trump Organization and White House declined to answer our questions for the podcast.
And remember, we want to hear from you: We’re always eager for tips. We also want to hear your questions. What would you like to know about Trump’s businesses? What confuses you? Contact us.
“Trump, Inc.” is a production of WNYC Studios and ProPublica. Support our work bybecoming a supporting member of WNYC or visiting donate.propublica.org. Subscribe here or wherever you get your podcasts.Wed, 21 Feb 2018
- 102 - Money Laundering and the Trump Taj MahalWed, 14 Feb 2018
- 101 - Open For BusinessTue, 13 Feb 2018
- 100 - Trump's 'No Conflict Situation'Wed, 07 Feb 2018
- 99 - Andrea Bernstein introduces Dead End: A New Jersey Political Murder Mystery
Andrea Bernstein introduces WNYC colleague Nancy Solomon's new podcast: Dead End: A New Jersey Political Murder Mystery.
New Jersey politics is not for the faint of heart. But the brutal killing of John and Joyce Sheridan, a prominent couple with personal ties to three governors, shocks even the most cynical operatives. The mystery surrounding the crime sends their son on a quest for truth. Dead End is a story of crime and corruption at the highest levels of society in the Garden State.Tue, 03 May 2022
- 98 - Introducing Will Be Wild
Andrea Bernstein introduces Will Be Wild, a new 8-part series about the forces that led to the January 6th insurrection and what comes next. Through in-depth stories from a wide range of characters – from people who tried to stop the attack to those who took part – hosts Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz explore the ongoing effort to bring autocracy to America, the lasting damage that effort is doing to our democracy, and the fate of our attempts to combat those anti-democratic forces. Because January 6th wasn't the end of the story, January 6th was just a practice run.Mon, 25 Apr 2022
- 97 - And Now, The End Is Near
A birth certificate, a bar receipt, a newspaper ad, a board game, a Ziploc bag of shredded paper, a pair of museum tickets, some checks, and a USB drive. The series finale of Trump, Inc.
This episode was reported by Andrea Bernstein, Meg Cramer, Anjali Kamat, Ilya Marritz, Katherine Sullivan, Eric Umansky, and Heather Vogell. We assembled our time capsule at Donald J. Trump State Park; it will be stored until 2031 with WNYC's archives department.
Trump, Inc. is produced by WNYC Studios and ProPublica.
This is the last episode of Trump, Inc. But it's not the end of our reporting: subscribe to our newsletter for updates on what we're doing next. Show your support with a donation to New York Public Radio.Tue, 19 Jan 2021
- 96 - Nobody Wants To Work With The Trumps Anymore
In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and an unprecedented second impeachment, a growing number of businesses, governments, and financial institutions are severing ties with President Trump.
David Fahrenthold is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who covers the Trump family and its business interests for The Washington Post. Zach Everson reports on who patronizes the Trump family businesses for the newsletter 1100 Pennsylvania.Fri, 15 Jan 2021
- 95 - Donald Trump's Legal Hangover
Donald Trump's presidency is coming to end, but there are ongoing legal investigations that will be following him out of the White House. We examine two of the pending probes into potential wrongdoing by Trump and Trump Organization. One, led by Washington, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine for potential civil violations, the other by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance into possible criminal activity.
We speak with AG Racine about his pending legal action.Thu, 17 Dec 2020
- 94 - Midnight Regulations
This story was co-published with ProPublica. Sign up for email updates from Trump, Inc. to get the latest on our investigations.
Six days after President Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection, the U.S. Department of Agriculture notified food safety groups that it was proposing a regulatory change to speed up chicken factory processing lines, a change that would allow companies to sell more birds. An earlier USDA effort had broken down on concerns that it could lead to more worker injuries and make it harder to stop germs like salmonella.
Ordinarily, a change like this would take about two years to go through the cumbersome legal process of making new federal regulations. But the timing has alarmed food and worker safety advocates, who suspect the Trump administration wants to rush through this rule in its waning days.
Even as Trump and his allies officially refuse to concede the Nov. 3 election, the White House and federal agencies are hurrying to finish dozens of regulatory changes before Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20. The rules range from long-simmering administration priorities to last-minute scrambles and affect everything from creature comforts like showerheads and clothes washers to life-or-death issues like federal executions and international refugees. They impact everyone from the most powerful, such as oil drillers, drugmakers and tech startups, to the most vulnerable, such as families on food stamps, transgender people in homeless shelters, migrant workers and endangered species. ProPublica is tracking those regulations as they move through the rule-making process.
Every administration does some version of last-minute rule-making, known as midnight regulations, especially with a change in parties. It’s too soon to say how the Trump administration’s tally will stack up against predecessors. But these final weeks are solidifying conservative policy objectives that will make it harder for the Biden administration to advance its own agenda, according to people who track rules developed by federal agencies.
“The bottom line is the Trump administration is trying to get things published in the Federal Register, leaving the next administration to sort out the mess,” said Matthew Kent, who tracks regulatory policy for left-leaning advocacy group Public Citizen. “There are some real roadblocks to Biden being able to wave a magic wand on these.”
In some instances the Trump administration is using shortcuts to get more rules across the finish line, such as taking less time to accept and review public feedback. It’s a risky move. On the one hand, officials want to finalize rules so that the next administration won’t be able to change them without going through the process all over again. On the other, slapdash rules may contain errors, making them more vulnerable to getting struck down in court.
The Trump administration is on pace to finalize 36 major rules in its final three months, similar to the 35 to 40 notched by the previous four presidents, according to Daniel Perez, a policy analyst at the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center. In 2017, Republican lawmakers struck down more than a dozen Obama-era rules using a fast-track mechanism called the Congressional Review Act. That weapon may be less available for Democrats to overturn Trump’s midnight regulations if Republicans keep control of the Senate, which will be determined by two Georgia runoffs. Still, a few GOP defections could be enough to kill a rule with a simple majority.
“This White House is not likely to be stopping things and saying on principle elections have consequences, let’s respect the voters’ decision and not rush things through to tie the next guys’ hands,” said Susan Dudley, who led the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Office of Management and Budget at the end of the George W. Bush administration. “One concern is the rules are rushed so they didn’t have adequate analysis or public comment, and that’s what we’re seeing.”
The Trump White House didn’t respond to requests for comment on which regulations it’s aiming to finish before Biden’s inauguration. The Biden transition team also didn’t respond to questions about which of Trump’s parting salvos the new president would prioritize undoing.
Many of the last-minute changes would add to the heap of changes throughout the Trump administration to pare back Obama-era rules and loosen environmental and consumer protections, all in the name of shrinking the government’s role in the economy. “Our proposal today greatly furthers the Trump administration’s regulatory reform efforts, which together have already amounted to the most aggressive effort to reform federal regulations of any administration,” Brian Harrison, the chief of staff for the Department of Health and Human Services, said on a conference call with reporters the day after the election. Harrison was unveiling a new proposal to automatically purge regulations that are more than 10 years old unless the agency decides to keep them.
For that proposal to become finalized before Jan. 20 would be an exceptionally fast turnaround. But Harrison left no doubt about that goal. “The reason we're doing this now is because,” he said, “we at the department are trying to go as fast as we can in hopes of finalizing the rule before the end of the first term.”Wed, 25 Nov 2020
- 93 - You're Fired
As the Trump campaign wages a haphazard legal campaign against the rightful outcome of the 2020 election, the Trump administration is working to remake the federal bureaucracy.
• Adam Klasfeld is a senior investigative reporter and editor for Law & Crime.• Denise Turner Roth, an Obama appointee, served as administrator of the Government Services Administration from 2015 to 2017.• Robert Shea was associate director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush.• Ronald Sanders, who until last month was chairman of the Federal Salary Council, resigned over an executive order he warned would politicize much of the federal workforce. (Read his letter of resignation here.)
Sign up for email updates from Trump, Inc. to get the latest on our investigations.Thu, 12 Nov 2020
- 92 - Radiolab: What If?
We're all wondering how the 2020 election will pan out. Our colleagues at Radiolab went looking for answers.
This episode was reported by Bethel Habte (who's now a producer at the Gimlet podcast Resistance), with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music.
You can read The Transition Integrity Project’s report here. Sign up for email updates from Trump, Inc.to get the latest on our investigations.Sat, 31 Oct 2020
- 91 - Trump, Inc.
Go to New York Magazine to read our list of insiders who profited off the Trump presidency.
On April 30, 2018, nine top executives from T-Mobile checked in to the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., with their names on a list of VIP arrivals. They landed in Washington at a critical moment: Just the day before, T-Mobile had announced plans for a merger with Sprint. To complete the deal, the company needed approval from the Justice Department, one block away on Pennsylvania Avenue. Hanging out in the lobby in his trademark hot-pink-and-black T-Mobile hoodie, then CEO John Legere was instantly recognizable to hotel guests. His company wasn’t just patronizing the president’s hotel. It was advertising that it was doing so.
That evening, in a closed-door suite just off the hotel lobby, a small group of political donors got to have dinner with the president of the United States. The guests included a steel magnate, who complained to the president about rules limiting the number of hours a trucker could be on the road, and a property developer, who suggested holding the next summit with Kim Jong-un at a site he had built near Seoul.
Also in the mix were two then-obscure businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. They had secured an invite to the dinner after promising a $325,000 donation to a Trump-aligned super-PAC. Like the other guests, they came with an agenda. Parnas and Fruman wanted to build an energy business in Ukraine but felt the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, Marie Yovanovitch, stood in their way. Parnas fed the president a fabrication that was sure to get his attention: that Yovanovitch was an anti-Trumper. “She’s basically walking around telling everybody, ‘Wait, he’s going to get impeached,’ ” Parnas told the president. Trump was enraged.
Parnas and Fruman and the T-Mobile executives were pulling the same lever that night. And they all got results. T-Mobile’s merger was later approved, and Ambassador Yovanovitch was abruptly removed from the U.S. Embassy in Kiev. Later, Parnas and Fruman were indicted on a -campaign-finance-violations charge (they had concealed the origins of their super-PAC donation) and were arrested with one-way tickets to Vienna in hand. (They have pleaded not guilty and face trial in 2021.) Trump claimed he did not know them.
This is the Washington Trump has built these past four years, where people who patronize Trump businesses can expect preferential treatment, where a deputy secretary can oversee a bailout that benefits his family’s company, where administration officials fly in private jets paid for by the public — and where top government officials don’t bother to divest from industries whose policies they oversee.It started at the top, of course. Just nine days before his inauguration, Trump held his first news conference as president-elect. Presiding over a table with towering stacks of folders, Trump’s lawyer suggested there would be a “wall” between Trump’s business and his presidency, even though Trump himself made it quite clear that he would not be divesting. “I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president,” Trump said. “I could run the Trump Organization, great, great company, and I could run the company — the country,” he added. “I’d do a very, very good job, but I don’t want to do that.”
Trump never separated himself from his company in any meaningful way. Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, also didn’t fully divest from their business interests. The couple made tens of millions of dollars from an array of limited-liability companies while also serving in the White House. Trump’s Commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, pledged to Congress that he would largely sell off his assets, then took dozens of meetings with executives to whose companies he had personal financial ties. Others did divest, but then proceeded to use their agency budgets as their personal piggy banks.
Friends, donors, and hangers-on also thrived. Top GOP financier Elliott Broidy leveraged his fundraising into access, including a meeting in the Oval Office. Broidy attempted to use that access as a calling card with foreign officials from whom he sought security contracts.
Like several other beneficiaries of Trump’s generosity, Broidy eventually found himself in legal trouble, pleading guilty to violating foreign-lobbying laws on behalf of Malaysian and Chinese clients. But many Trump affiliates benefited in ways that are perfectly legal. Attorney William S. Consovoy, who argued before an appeals court last fall that Trump could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and be shielded from all consequences (the judges were unpersuaded), brought in $2 million from the RNC and Trump-campaign committees. Others sought the ultimate benefit: freedom. Roger Stone, who would not turn on Trump despite the threat of jail time, was one of many Trump loyalists and allies to receive clemency from the president.
To be sure, a lot of people found ways to benefit from Trump’s time in office: journalists, progressive nonprofits, high earners — Trump donors or not. But Trump profiteers went far beyond what used to count as standard-issue Washington swampiness. New York partnered with WNYC’s Trump, Inc. podcast to identify 51 such insiders, whose unprecedented ability to gain from the Trump presidency will go down in history. Their schemes became ever more brazen these past four years, even as their goals shifted. The initial grifts tended to be strictly transactional on the model of the Trump Organization itself, through which the Trump name could be had by nearly anyone for the right price. Later on, not just money but power became the president’s currency. The quids became subtler: shielding Trump from legal consequences, investigating a political opponent, providing an intellectual rationale for understanding the presidency as Trump sees it — not as a civic duty but as a business.Wed, 28 Oct 2020
- 90 - Who Matters In America
Trump, Inc. co-host Andrea Bernstein sits down with Kai Wright, host of The United States of Anxiety, to discuss how American history informs the 2020 election. The conversation, called "Who Matters in America 2020?," was part of Reporter's Notebook series at The Greene Space.
Sign up foremail updates from Trump, Inc.to get the latest on our investigations.Thu, 22 Oct 2020
- 89 - Trump, Mnuchin, And The 2017 Tax Overhaul
President Trump ran for president on three promises: He'd build a wall on the Mexican border, repeal Obamacare, and overhaul the nation's tax system. And approaching the 2020 election, Trump's only accomplished one of them — and even that didn't live up to the hype.
"It's important to point out is the impact has been not what he said it would be," says Sally Herships, host and co-executive producer of The Heist, a new podcast from the Center for Public Integrity. "It has not been what he promised, which was, a sizable increase in jobs, higher wages ... just kind of this rainbow-like better life for many Americans."
“Not only will this tax bill pay for itself," promised Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, "but it will pay down debt.” Yet nearly every analysis said the changes would add more than $1 trillion trillion to the national debt. This episode of The Heist, "Buyer's Remorse," looks at how the Trump administration rushed the law through.
Sign up foremail updates from Trump, Inc.to get the latest on our investigations.Wed, 14 Oct 2020
- 88 - Why We Still Don't Know The Truth About Russia
In his new book, "Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation," prosecutor Andrew Weissmann offers a new account into the inner workings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into President Trump.
Sign up foremail updates from Trump, Inc.to get the latest on our investigations.Wed, 07 Oct 2020
- 87 - The Kushners’ Freddie Mac Loan Wasn’t Just Massive. It Came With Unusually Good Terms, Too.
After the news broke in May of last year that government-sponsored lending agency Freddie Mac had agreed to back $786 million in loans to the Kushner Companies, political opponents asked whether the family real estate firm formerly led by the president’s son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner, had received special treatment.
“We are especially concerned about this transaction because of Kushner Companies’ history of seeking to engage in deals that raise conflicts of interest issues with Mr. Kushner,” Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Tom Carper (D-Delaware) wrote to Freddie Mac’s CEO in June 2019.
The loans helped Kushner Companies scoop up thousands of apartments in Maryland and Virginia, the business’s biggest purchase in a decade. The deal, first reported by Bloomberg, also ranked among Freddie’s largest ever. At the time, the details of its terms weren’t disclosed. Freddie Mac officials didn’t comment publicly then. Kushner’s lawyer said Jared was no longer involved in decision-making at the company. (He does continue to receive millions from the family business, according to his financial disclosures, including from some properties with Freddie Mac-backed loans.)
Freddie Mac packaged the 16 loans into bonds and sold them to investors in August 2019. But Kushner Companies hadn’t finished its buying spree. Within the next two months, records show, Freddie Mac backed another two loans to the Kushners for an additional $63.5 million, allowing the company to add two more apartment complexes to its portfolio.
A new analysis by ProPublica shows Kushner Companies received unusually favorable loan terms for the 18 mortgages it obtained with Freddie Mac’s backing. The loans allowed the Kushner family company to make lower monthly payments and borrow more money than was typical for similar loans, 2019 Freddie Mac data shows. The terms increase the risk to the agency and to investors who buy bonds with the Kushner mortgages in them.
Moreover, Freddie Mac’s estimates of the Kushner properties’ profitability — a core element of any decision to back a loan — have already proven to be overly optimistic. All 16 properties in the firm’s biggest loan package delivered smaller profits in 2019 than Freddie Mac expected, despite the then-booming economy. The loan for the largest property lagged Freddie Mac’s profit prediction by 31% last year.
U.S. taxpayers could be responsible for paying back much of the nearly $850 million in Freddie Mac financing if Kushner Companies defaults and its properties drop significantly in value. During the last real estate crash, taxpayers had to bail out Freddie Mac and its larger sibling, Fannie Mae, to the tune of $190 billion as the agencies plunged into the government equivalent of bankruptcy. (The agencies ultimately repaid the money and more.)
The involvement of Jared’s sister Nicole Kushner Meyer adds to questions about whether the family sought to exploit its political influence. Meyer, who shares her brother’s slight build, porcelain features and dark chestnut hair, lobbied Freddie Mac in person on behalf of Kushner Companies in February last year, a timeline of the deal obtained by ProPublica shows. She has previously drawn criticism for invoking her brother’s name while doing Kushner Companies’ business before.
In a statement Freddie Mac said it does “not consider the political affiliations of borrowers or their family members.” It called ProPublica’s analysis “random, arbitrary and incomplete” and asserted that the Kushner loans “fit squarely within our publicly-available credit and underwriting standards. The terms and performance of every one of these loans is transparent and available on our website, and all the loans are current and have been consistently paid.”
A spokesperson for Kushner Companies did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
There’s no evidence the Trump administration played a role in any of the decisions and Freddie Mac operates independently. But Freddie Mac embarked on approving the loans at the moment that its government overseer, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), was changing from leadership by an Obama administration appointee to one from the Trump administration, Mark Calabria, vice-president Mike Pence’s former chief economist. Calabria, who was confirmed in April 2019, has called for an end to the “conservatorship,” the close financial control that his agency has exerted over Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae since the 2008 crisis.
The potential for improper influence exists even if the Trump administration didn’t advocate for the Kushners, said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University specializing in government and legal ethics. She compared the situation to press reports that businesses and associates connected to Jared Kushner and his family were approved to receive millions from the Paycheck Protection Program. Officials could have acted because they were seeking to curry favor with the Kushners or feared retribution if they didn’t, according to Clark. And if Kushner Companies had wanted to avoid any appearance of undue influence, she added, it should have sent only non-family executives to meet with Freddie Mac. “I’d leave it to the professionals,” Clark said. “I’d keep family members away from it.”
The Freddie Mac data shows that Kushner Companies secured advantageous terms on multiple points. All 18 loans, for example, allow Kushner Companies to pay only interest for the full 10-year term, thus deferring all principal payments to a balloon payment at the end. That lowers the monthly payments, but increases the possibility that the balance won’t be paid back in full.
“That’s as risky as you get,” said Ryan Ledwith, a professor at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate, of 10-year interest-only loans. “It’s a long period of time and you’re not getting any amortization to reduce your risk over time. You’re betting the market is going to get better all by itself 10 years from now.”
Interest-only mortgages, which notoriously helped fuel the 2008 economic crisis, represent a small percentage of Freddie Mac loans. Only 6% of the 3,600 loans funded by the agency last year were interest-only for a decade or more, according to a database of its core mortgage transactions.
Kushner Companies also loaded more debt on the properties than is usual for similar loans, with the loan value for the 16-loan deal climbing to 69% of the properties’ worth. That compares with an average 59%, according to data for loans with similar terms and property types that Freddie Mac sold to investors in 2019, and is just below the 70% debt-to-value ceiling Freddie Mac sets for loans in its category. “What we generally have seen from Freddie and Fannie,” said Andrew Little, a principal with real estate investment bank John B. Levy & Company, “is they will do 10 years of interest-only on lower-leveraged deals.”
Loans right at the ceiling are “not very common,” Little said, adding that “you don’t see deals this size that commonly.”
Meanwhile Freddie Mac and its lending partner overestimated the profits for the buildings in the Kushners’ 16-loan package by 12 % during the underwriting process, according to the agency’s data. Such analysis is supposed to provide a conservative, accurate picture of revenue and expenses, which should be relatively predictable in the case of an apartment building.
But the level of income anticipated failed to materialize in 2019, financial reports show. The most dramatic overstatement came with the largest loan in the deal, $120 million for Bonnie Ridge Apartments, a 960-apartment complex in Baltimore. In that case, realized profits last year were 31% below what Freddie Mac had expected.
“That’s definitely a significant amount,” said John Griffin, a University of Texas professor who specializes in forensic finance and has studied mortgage underwriting. He co-authored a recent paper highlighting as worrisome loans in which projected profits exceeded actual profits by 5%. “It’s a problem when underwritten income is inflated or overstated,” he said. “That is a key metric that determines the safety of the loan.”
Griffin’s paper found that 28% of all loans examined had projected profits that were 5% or more greater than what the properties actually earned in their first year. Some instances of underperformance could be caused by bad luck, the paper acknowledged, but “such situations should be relatively rare.” Yet in the case of Freddie Mac’s estimates in the Kushner deal, 13 of the original 16 loans met or exceeded the 5% threshold — many by a considerable amount.Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)Thu, 01 Oct 2020
- 86 - Trump's Taxes, Finally
President Trump has spent years fighting with politicians and prosecutors who wanted to see his taxes. Now we know what he’s been hiding.
Co-host Ilya Marritz talks to ProPublica's Heather Vogell and WNYC's Meg Cramer about what's in the groundbreaking new reporting from The New York Times and the new questions raised by 20 years of Trump tax data.
Check out some of our own stories from years of covering President Trump's taxes:
• The Accountants• The Family Business• The Numbers Don't Match • What We've Learned From Trump's Tax Transcripts• Trump and Taxes: The Art of the Dodge• Trump’s Company Is Suing Towns Across the Country to Get Breaks on TaxesMon, 28 Sep 2020
- 85 - Block The Vote
President Trump likes talking about voter fraud. He also likes filing lawsuits. Now his campaign is filing lawsuits across the country, citing the alleged dangers of voter fraud.
Plus: ProPublica reporters Mike Spies, Jake Pearson, and Jessica Huseman on secret, Republican-only meetings about election policy.Thu, 24 Sep 2020
- 84 - The Empty Office at 555 California St.
The Qatari government rents office space in President Trump's most profitable building. No one works there.
Dan Alexander is a senior editor at Forbes and author of the new book "White House Inc: How Donald Trump Turned The Presidency Into a Business." This interview is based on an excerpt of the book that ran in Vanity Fair.Thu, 17 Sep 2020
- 83 - BlindspotSat, 12 Sep 2020
- 82 - The Perry Deals
Rick Perry came to Washington looking for a deal, and less than two months into his tenure as Energy Secretary, he found a hot prospect. It was April 19, 2017, and Perry, the former Texas governor, failed presidential candidate and contestant on Dancing With the Stars, was sitting in his office on Independence Avenue with two influential Ukrainians. “He said, ‘Look, I’m a new guy, I’m a dealmaker, I’m a Texan,’” recalls one of them, Yuriy Vitrenko, then Ukraine’s chief energy negotiator. “We’re ready to do deals,” he remembers Perry saying.
The deals they discussed that day became central to Ukraine’s complex relationship with the Trump Administration, a relationship that culminated in December with the House vote to impeach President Donald Trump. Perry was a leading figure in the impeachment inquiry last fall. He was among the officials, known as the “three amigos,” who ran a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine on Trump’s behalf. Their aim, according to the findings of the impeachment inquiry in the House, was to embarrass Trump’s main political rival, Joe Biden.
Alongside this political mission, Perry and his staff at the Energy Department worked to advance energy deals that were potentially worth billions of dollars to Perry’s friends and political donors, a six-month investigation by reporters from TIME, WNYC and ProPublica shows. Two of these deals seemed set to benefit Energy Transfer, the Texas company on whose board Perry served immediately before and after his stint in Washington. The biggest was worth an estimated $20 billion, according to U.S. and Ukrainian energy executives involved in negotiating them.
If this long discussed deal succeeds, Perry himself could stand to benefit: in March, three months after leaving government, he owned Energy Transfer shares currently worth around $800,000, according to his most recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Perry appears to have stayed on the right side of the law in pursuing the Ukraine ventures. Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York questioned at least four people about the deals over the past year, according to five people who are familiar with the conversations and discussed them with our reporting team on condition of anonymity. “As far back as last year, they were already interested in events that had taken place in Ukraine around Rick Perry,” including allegations that Perry “was trying to get deals for his buddies,” says one of the people who spoke to the Manhattan prosecutors. Perry is not a target of their investigation, according to two sources familiar with the probes.
But two ethics experts say Perry’s efforts were violations of federal regulations. Administration officials are not allowed to participate in matters directly relating to companies on whose board they have recently served. Other experts say Perry and his aides may have broken a federal rule that prohibits officials from advocating for companies that have not been vetted by the Commerce Department. “Even if it skirts the criminal statute, it’s still unethical,” says Richard Painter, the top ethics lawyer in the White House of President George W. Bush, with whom we shared our findings.
Through a spokesman, Perry said he “never connected or facilitated discussions” between Energy Transfer and Ukraine’s state energy firm in one of the deals we uncovered. The spokesman declined to comment on the other ventures Perry advanced while in government, including the $20 billion deal, or on the federal probe. In response to written questions for this article, Energy Transfer said, “We are not aware of any contact between Secretary Perry and Ukrainian officials on Energy Transfer’s behalf.”
Update, Sept. 24, 2020: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a letter on Wednesday asking the Inspector General for the Department of Energy to investigate Rick Perry’s actions in Ukraine. Citing a joint investigation by the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs and the Senate’s Committee on Finance, Wyden wrote that “witness testimony in this investigation has directly implicated former Secretary Rick Perry in alleged wrongdoing and the Department more broadly in a scheme to undermine anti-corruption efforts that were implemented by Ukraine in partnership with the international community.” The letter noted that a Naftogaz board member testified that Perry “inappropriately pressured the Ukrainian government to place Robert Bensh on the Naftogaz advisory board while Department of Energy officials were also pressuring the Ukrainian government to sign a memorandum of understanding with a private business entity connected to Mr. Bensh, Louisiana Natural Gas Exports.” The letter also cites reporting by ProPublica, Time and WNYC for “Trump, Inc.,” as well as reporting by other media outlets, and asks the IG to investigate what role Perry played in “pressuring Ukraine to make changes to the Naftogaz advisory board”; what efforts Perry and his staff made to “facilitate a deal between any American companies and Naftogaz”; whether the Naftogaz deals “were in Ukraine’s financial or economic interest”; whether Perry “undermined anti-corruption reform efforts in Ukraine” and whether Perry received ethics advice “about his efforts related to [Michael Bleyzer], Mr. Bensh, and Naftogaz.”Thu, 10 Sep 2020
- 81 - Mary Trump
Mary Trump, a clinical psychologist and President Trump's niece, talks to co-host Andrea Bernstein about the Trump family, the Republican National Convention, and her book "Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man."
Additional reading:• In secretly recorded audio, President Trump’s sister says he has ‘no principles’ and ‘you can’t trust him’ (The Washington Post)• Mary Trump, The President's Niece (Fresh Air)Fri, 28 Aug 2020
- 80 - The Russia Report
In this bonus episode of Trump, Inc., co-hosts Ilya Marritz and Andrea Bernstein talk to Politico’s Natasha Bertrand and The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer about the new report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence detailing Russia's role in the 2016 election.
Additional reading:• “Russiagate Was Not A Hoax” by Franklin Foer• “The Trump-Putin Relationship, as Dictated by the Kremlin” and “How a Russian disinfo op got Trump impeached” by Natasha Bertrand• Read the full Senate report.This conversation originally aired part of WNYC’s Special Convention Coverage 2020.Wed, 26 Aug 2020
- 79 - The Diplomat, The Machers, And The Oligarch (rerun)
This episode was originally released Nov. 13, 2019.
The impeachment inquiry focuses on whether or not there was a quid pro quo: Military aid in exchange for an investigation. But what if you look at the same events from a different vantage point? The business interests at play.
This episode: How Rudy Giuliani's associates worked their connections to oust the U.S. Ambassador in Ukraine. How President Trump's personal interests came into alignment with the interests of an indicted foreign businessman. And how all of them have been working to discredit Joe Biden.Wed, 19 Aug 2020
- 78 - 'Repeat Offender'
President Donald Trump’s recent musings about staging his Republican National Convention speech at the White House drew criticism from government ethics watchdogs and even one Republican senator, John Thune of South Dakota.
The suggestion wasn’t an isolated blending of official presidential duties and the campaign. It was part of a yearslong pattern of disregarding such boundaries in the Trump White House. There is a law, called the Hatch Act, that prohibits most government officials from engaging in politicking in the course of their official work.
The law does not apply to the president or vice president. While other presidents took campaign advantage of the trappings of the office, something that came to be known as the “Rose Garden strategy,” they typically refrained from explicit electoral appeals or attacks on their opponents at official presidential events. Federal election law and measures governing appropriations prohibit using taxpayer dollars for electioneering.
Since resuming official travel at the beginning of May after a coronavirus-imposed pause, Trump has held 25 presidential out-of-town events. Of these events, transcribed on the official White House website, the president spoke about the election or attacked his opponent, Joe Biden, at 12 of them, nearly half. His presidential stage provided a venue for supporters to urge others to vote for Trump in November at three additional events.
Administration officials have been cited for breaking the Hatch Act 13 times by federal investigators at the Office of Special Counsel (not to be confused with special counsel Robert Mueller). Twelve more investigations are underway. The law dates from the New Deal era, enacted after a scandal where employees of the Works Progress Administration were pressured to work on the campaigns of candidates friendly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Neither the White House, the campaign or Trump’s campaign treasurer, Bradley Crate, responded to requests for comment.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, violated the Hatch Act so many times that the OSC took the drastic measure of recommending she be fired, calling her actions “egregious, notorious and ongoing.” (Trump refused to do so.)
The special counsel, Henry Kerner, is a Trump appointee and member of the conservative Federalist Society. He previously worked for Republicans Darrell Issa and Jason Chaffetz on Capitol Hill.
When asked about the OSC’s recommendation, Conway said, “blah blah blah,” adding, “Let me know when the jail sentence starts.” Hatch Act violations are not criminal. The most significant result of a violation is dismissal.
Hatch Act violations were relatively rare in the previous two presidential administrations. Two cabinet officials were cited for Hatch Act violations during the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Some half-dozen senior officials in the Obama and Bush administrations said that they were frequently advised to avoid even the appearance of electioneering at official events.
“There was a very bright line between what was a campaign event and what was an official event,” said Greg Jenkins, the director of advance for President George W. Bush during the period that included the 2004 reelection campaign. “If you could stretch things and say, yes, it’s perfectly legal to do this, but it has the appearance of impropriety — you don't do it.”
Kathleen Sebelius, the former secretary of health and human services under Obama, was cited for making a statement urging his reelection during a gala for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ rights group. Sebelius apologized, and the Treasury was reimbursed for the cost of the trip.
“I’d prefer that it not be on my record,” Sebelius said in an interview from her home in Lawrence, Kansas. Given that she was on the Kansas ethics commission and was a national board member of Common Cause, “it’s kind of a black mark.” She added: “But I did what they say I did,” and said that “it puts into perspective what goes on every day in this current administration that just makes the top of my head come off.”
Previous campaigns have reimbursed taxpayers for costs associated with politicking while on official travel. And while disclosures do show that campaign committees associated with Trump have paid $896,000 to the Treasury and the White House Military Office in May and June, federal law doesn’t require an accounting of what those expenses were for.
Trump would not violate the Hatch Act if he chose the White House for his nomination acceptance speech, but executive branch employees in the White House and agencies might be in jeopardy if they support or attend the event, experts said.
“There are several laws that prohibit the use of federal funds and resources for partisan political events like the president’s RNC speech,” said Donald Sherman, deputy director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW. “Trump’s predecessors scrupulously avoided mixing official conduct with politics in this way, but President Trump has routinely used the apparatus of the government to try to boost his electoral prospects.”Wed, 12 Aug 2020
- 77 - Why is Trump’s Campaign Suing a Small Wisconsin TV Station?Thu, 23 Jul 2020
- 76 - Temporary Presidential Immunity Is Not A Thing
On the last day of its term the Supreme Court released a climactic set of decisions on presidential power and the rule of law. The court said that yes, the president is subject to congressional oversight — to a point — and could be subject to a criminal investigation. Melissa Murray, professor at NYU Law and co-host of the Strict Scrutiny podcast, joins us to discuss the decisions.Fri, 10 Jul 2020
- 75 - Trump Team Online
Donald Trump is famous — and infamous — for his use of Twitter and Facebook. But particularly since the pandemic forced him to largely swear off his favorite mass, in-person rallies, his campaign has been amping up the use of another form of alternative media: YouTube and podcasts.
The president’s most recent sit-down interview? As it happens, it occurred last week on “Triggered,” a YouTube program hosted by his namesake son. In a conversation in the White House’s map room, Trump Jr. quizzed his dad about everything from who his favorite child is to whether aliens exist — to a Fox News report that Osama bin Laden wanted to assassinate President Barack Obama so that Joe Biden would ascend to the presidency.
This was no ordinary campaign video, nor was it a random question, this week’s episode of “Trump, Inc.” makes clear. “Triggered” followed the exchange about bin Laden with a campaign ad that repeated the same point, showing how closely the program’s conversations are tied in with campaign talking points. “Trump, Inc.” explores the Trump campaign’s universe of podcasts and YouTube shows, which has expanded since the coronavirus began locking down huge swaths of the country. (The campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)
Sure, every major candidate has a podcast. Hillary Clinton had one. Biden has one, though it hasn’t been updated since mid-May. But unlike those dutiful and largely ignored offerings, “Triggered” is part of a growing constellation of shows. There’s the campaign’s official podcast, hosted by Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara. (Kayleigh McEnany used to fill in occasionally as host before being promoted to White House press secretary.) And there’s “The Right View.” Just imagine “The View,” conducted entirely on Zoom, if Meghan McCain was considered too liberal to be on the panel and if no one ever disagreed. The programs have combined to create something of a Trump media network, one that takes the president’s bellicose messaging and transports it to an environment of family, friendship and banter.
People are starting to pay attention. Nightly programming of the unofficial Trump Network reaches upward of a million viewers each week. It’s a realm dedicated to reinforcing even the president’s most incendiary ideas — with no pushback, skepticism or difference of opinion.
To learn more about how the programs lay out their views of everything from bin Laden assassination plots to the controversy over vote by mail, listen to this week’s episode of “Trump, Inc.”Wed, 24 Jun 2020
- 74 - The Watchdogs
When Congress was considering passing the more than $2 trillion coronavirus bailout two months ago, President Donald Trump made his vision for oversight clear. “I’ll be the oversight,” he said.
The CARES Act empowers a number of different offices to make sure the money is spent wisely and without favoritism. Shortly after he signed it into law, Trump ousted the inspector general who was slated to lead the oversight — one of five watchdogs the president has purged in less than two months.
Trump also issued a signing statement asserting that he can ignore oversight provisions of the bailout law and that Congress does not have to be consulted. “My Administration will treat this provision as hortatory but not mandatory,” he wrote.
We spoke to an official just hired to do one of the jobs Trump cited in his signing statement. She told us that Trump’s moves have made her particularly careful to avoid any “adverse” comments about the administration.
Linda Miller began work this week as the deputy executive director of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, or PRAC. Miller spent a decade at the nonpartisan, independent Government Accountability Office, where she dug into the case of a crooked Navy contractor nicknamed Fat Leonard. She said she’s learned that corruption often starts at the top.
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation with Miller. She spoke with “Trump, Inc.” co-host Ilya Marritz a few days before formally joining the PRAC. (Our episode also includes an interview with Bharat Ramamurti, a member of the bailout’s congressional watchdog.)
Trump, Inc.: You warned my producer when we booked this interview that there are a lot of things that you can’t talk about or won’t talk about. Just so I know, what are those things?
Linda Miller: Uh, anything that would be in any way adverse to the administration is something that I won’t be commenting on in any way.
Trump, Inc.: What do you mean by “adverse to the administration”?
Miller: I can’t speak negatively about the president or any of the decisions he’s made, particularly when it comes to the IG community. That’s the biggest, probably political football around my new role. The IG community is obviously under a lot of stress and scrutiny.
There’s a lot of politics, and people have been asking me what it’s going to be like to go work in the inspector general community. I can speak real broadly. I just won’t say anything that’s in any way derogatory about the president because, obviously in my role, I need to stay as neutral as possible in order to basically stay in my role, frankly.
Trump, Inc.: And that’s your judgment, coming into this job.
Miller: Right. That’s my judgment.
Trump, Inc.: I know that your career specialty is detecting risk of fraud. You did this at the Government Accountability Office. You also did it in the private sector. What are some of the frauds that you have uncovered?
Miller: My specialty is less in investigating fraud and more in helping organizations prevent fraud from occurring. So, often when a big fraud event occurs, I come in afterwards and help the agency or sometimes the private-sector company think about how they were vulnerable.
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the very large Navy scandal, it’s affectionately known as the “Fat Leonard” scandal. A contractor who bribed a variety of senior government officials all the way up to admirals, in order to get information that would give him a competitive advantage.
That particular scandal was shocking for the scale and the scope. There were bribes involving prostitutes, and meals, and jewelry and all kinds of stuff.
And I often use that fraud example when I talk about how fraud manifests itself, and especially when leadership is in any way participatory in it. And I’ve always found that interesting, that people who otherwise wouldn’t accept a bribe or participate in a collusion scheme, when they see other people doing it, and the people that they see doing it are people they respect, they tend to think it may not be so bad.
Trump, Inc.: Right. You’re saying, if people at the top or near the top do it, everyone else thinks it’s OK.
Miller: Yup. Exactly. And it’s shocking how many fraud schemes are perpetrated by senior leadership of an organization. Often people below them won’t question decisions they make because they’re in charge. So they’ve got all this power and using that power, abusing that power, is a really common way that fraud shows up both in government, and in [the] private sector.
Trump, Inc.: So we are talking just a few days before you start work as the deputy executive director of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the PRAC. By the time people hear this, you will be at the PRAC already. How are you thinking about how you’re going to do that job?
Miller: I'm really excited about the opportunities for this new role. I mean, the PRAC was created by the CARES Act, which is the coronavirus stimulus act. As most people know, there’s over $2.4 trillion of federal money that went out in that stimulus bill. And so there’s obviously an enormous opportunity for fraud to occur across a variety of ways, programs and benefit programs, different agencies.
Trump, Inc.: So what are the main categories of fraud that you’re going to look for? Help us think about where things can go wrong.
Miller: I would say No. 1 on my list of concerns is identity theft. The biggest difference between the Recovery Act back in 2009 and now is the vast number of breaches that have occurred in the last 12 years.
Obviously the [Paycheck] Protection Program has gotten a lot of scrutiny, and we will be looking at a deeper dive into [it].
And then I think another big area that I envision the PRAC playing a role is building out some advanced data analytics capabilities that can look across the different government agencies and really identify patterns, trends, with the aspirational goal of essentially being able to provide indicators and red flags to agencies. Because you know, most of the IG’s world is what we call “pay and chase.” The money’s gone out, and we’re trying to go back and get it back.
Trump, Inc.: Will you be looking at contracting as well?
Miller: Yes, definitely. Obviously when you put this much money out, and opportunities for contractors to gain an advantage over their competitors, they start to engage in a variety of fraudulent activities, including kickbacks and bribery and collusion, and all these sorts of corruption schemes. And friendships between leadership and contracting companies way too often plays a role in who gets a contract.
Trump, Inc.: At the beginning of this interview, I was actually kind of surprised you basically said, like, I cannot anger the president. So given that you have this concern about angering the president and knowing that investigations you do, or conclusions you draw, could anger the president, how do you do your job? I mean, see a lot of potential conundrums for you that you might face very, very quickly.
Miller: You know, actually, I don’t think we’re going to get on the wrong side of the president here at the PRAC. I think that what we’re really trying to do is go after unscrupulous actors who may have tried to get funding they weren’t entitled to.
We’re going to be looking at the bad guys outside of government. We’re going to be looking at the identity theft rings, and we’re going to be looking at the everyday bad actor who wants to cash in on a huge government program. And so we’re all on the same side here.
Trump, Inc.: I understand there are things that you don’t want to say, but the president has made it pretty clear that he sees government as a tool to reward allies and punish critics and enemies.
Here’s this huge pile of money that’s going out. It’s going out through executive branch agencies. One could imagine any number of scenarios where the president would be unhappy with a bright light being shined on bad things being done in those agencies or laws being broken in those agencies or rules being bent in those agencies. So if and when it comes to that moment, what are you going to do?
Miller: You know, the thing I’m being hired to do, and the thing I did for 10 years at GAO: to maintain generally accepted government auditing standards.
I'm a big believer in, my mom used to say, “Always keep your side of the street clean.”
Which really meant, focus on the things you can control. And for me, I’ve got a mission and I’ve got a job to do in this role. And I’m really excited and I feel a sense of responsibility. Really, truly, a sense of awesome responsibility to American citizens and American taxpayers to carry that role out. And nothing’s going to change about how I will assist and direct our organization in adhering to those standards.
And I think that’s what the country was founded on. And there’s a reason that the inspectors general were created in 1978. And I think the mission is as important now, if not more than it ever has been.
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“Trump, Inc.” is a production of WNYC Studios and ProPublica. Support our work by visiting donate.propublica.org or by becoming a supporting member of WNYC. Subscribe here or wherever you get your podcasts.Wed, 10 Jun 2020
- 73 - New Questions for Trump’s Biggest Lenders
A decade ago, loan filings showed Trump Tower in New York City had a reported profit of about $13.3 million. But when the tower refinanced its debt soon after, the profits for the same year — 2010 — somehow appeared higher. A new lender listed the profits as $16.1 million, or 21% more than they had been recorded previously.
The next year’s earnings for the building also “improved” between the two filings. Profits for 2011 were listed as 12% higher under the new loan than the old, according to reports by loan servicers and data provider Trepp.
ProPublica uncovered the Trump Tower discrepancies by examining publicly available data for mortgages that are packaged into securities known as commercial mortgage-backed securities, comparing the same years in reports for different CMBS. If a bank had held onto the loan, instead of selling it to investors, such information would have been kept private. No evidence has emerged that the Trump Organization was involved in changing the profit figures.
Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s chief legal officer, said: “Not only were the numbers provided to the servicer accurate, but Trump Tower is considered one of the most underleveraged commercial buildings around.”
The discrepancies in the tower profits match a pattern described in a whistleblower complaint filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which ProPublica revealed this month. The complaint accuses commercial lenders of fraudulently inflating the income numbers underlying loans in many CMBS.
The complaint named seven servicers and 14 lenders, including two of the country’s biggest issuers of CMBS — Ladder Capital and Wells Fargo. Both were involved in the more recent Trump Tower loan, one as the lender, the second as the financial institution that packaged the loan into a CMBS. The complaint does not say which entities altered specific numbers and does not address whether borrowers were involved in, or knew about, the alleged fraud.
Wells Fargo declined to comment. Ladder Capital did not respond to questions about Trump’s signature Fifth Avenue tower. Ladder did respond to questions for ProPublica’s earlier article; it acknowledged it had altered historical numbers for two other loans ProPublica asked about, to remove expenses that were not recurring in the future. The lender said its actions were appropriate. (Ladder is a publicly traded commercial real estate investment trust with more than $6 billion in assets. It employs Jack Weisselberg, the son of the Trump Organization’s longtime CFO, Allen Weisselberg, as an executive director whose job is to make loans. Jack Weisselberg declined to comment.)
When the Trump Organization refinanced its loan for Trump Tower in 2012, it increased the size of its loan from $27.5 million to $100 million, extracting $67.9 million in cash. The interest-only loan originally represented about 8% of the more than $1 billion in mortgages assembled into the CMBS. (Only the commercial part of the tower — with retail tenants such as Gucci and offices, including for the Trump Organization — served as collateral for the loan.)
For both 2010 and 2011, data shows the discrepancies in net operating income between the old and new loans for Trump Tower were largely due to the new loan reporting lower expenses. The prospectus for the more recent loan stated that “the historical expenses exclude security associated with Donald J. Trump’s personal services” — though it did not specify dollar amounts for the change. Greater revenues were cited for both years under the new loan, too, but the prospectus did not explain why.
The whistleblower complaint, filed by a CMBS-industry insider named John Flynn, concerns the nearly $600 billion CMBS market. It accuses lenders and servicers of manipulating historical cash flows, failing to report misrepresentations, changing names and addresses of properties, and “deceptively and inaccurately” describing loan representations. The complaint asserts that Flynn has found overstatements in $150 billion worth of CMBS since 2013.
The misrepresentations allowed properties to qualify for loans they wouldn’t have otherwise, Flynn asserts, while leaving investors in the dark.
The SEC has not taken any public action in response to Flynn’s complaint; the agency declined to comment.
Altering past profits without providing an explanation is “highly questionable,” John Coffee, a professor at Columbia Law School and an expert in securities regulation, told ProPublica for its earlier article on CMBS.
As hotels, retail and office properties face unprecedented difficulties due to the virus that has shuttered much of the country, Flynn says the manipulations have increased the likelihood and potential severity of a crash.
Last year, ProPublica revealed another set of income discrepancies at Trump Tower and other company-owned buildings, ones that seemed to hark to the testimony of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who testified that Trump would inflate income figures when seeking a loan and deflate the figures when filing taxes. Other Trump Organization properties investigated by ProPublica reported higher profits in the CMBS filings than they did in tax filings. A Trump Organization spokesperson said at the time that “comparing the various reports is comparing apples to oranges” because reporting requirements differ.
Sign up for email updates from Trump, Inc. to get the latest on our investigations.Wed, 27 May 2020
- 72 - Temporary Presidential Immunity
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday, via teleconference, about the power to investigate the president.
President Donald Trump has objected to subpoenas for his tax returns and other financial records. New York City prosecutors have demanded the documents as part of a criminal investigation into the president’s hush money payments to porn actress Stormy Daniels, while the House of Representatives has been seeking to investigate the conflicts of interests of a president who still owns a sprawling business.
Trump’s lawyers have argued that a president shouldn’t be subject to investigation while in office. “We're asking for temporary presidential immunity,” attorney Jay Sekulow said.
Andrea Bernstein of Trump, Inc. and NYU law professor Melissa Murray listened to the oral arguments and chatted with co-host Ilya Marritz about what struck them. A few takeaways:
• Fights between the legislative and executive branch are not normally heard in front of the Supreme Court. Congress and the White House have typically negotiated solutions to such disputes. “And the fact that we're in court is because this president hasn’t acceded to those norms,” Murray said.
• A phrase that came up repeatedly: “presidential harassment.” It’s language that Trump frequently uses on Twitter and his lawyers raised in court. The assertion, Murray said, “has transformed what would be considered, I think in other times, ordinary and essential legislative oversight into what accounts to bullying, harassment and mere partisan politics.”
• A number of the justices — including the liberal Stephen Breyer — expressed sympathy for the White House’s arguments against the House’s demands for documents, but they were far more skeptical about the claim that the president is immune from even criminal investigation. “The court seemed not to be amenable to that kind of argument at all,” Murray said.
The justices are expected to deliver a decision in the cases — Trump v. Mazars, Trump v. Deutsche Bank and Trump v. Vance — this summer.Wed, 13 May 2020
- 71 - The Accountants
On May 12, after a six-week delay caused by the pandemic, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the epic battle by congressional committees and New York prosecutors to pry loose eight years of President Donald Trump’s tax returns.
Much about the case is without precedent. Oral arguments will be publicly broadcast on live audio. The nine justices and opposing lawyers will debate the issues remotely, from their offices and homes. And the central question is extraordinary: Is the president of the United States immune from congressional — and even criminal — investigation?
The arguments concern whether Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, must hand over his tax returns and other records to a House committee and the Manhattan district attorney, which have separately subpoenaed them. (There will also be arguments on congressional subpoenas to two of Trump’s banks.)
Trump’s accountants have been crucial enablers in his remarkable rise. And like their marquee client, they have a surprisingly colorful and tangled story of their own. It’s dramatically at odds with the image Trump has presented of his accountants as “one of the most highly respected” big firms, solemnly confirming his numbers after months of careful scrutiny. For starters, it’s only technically true to say Trump’s accounting work is handled by a large firm.
In fact, Trump entrusts his taxes and planning to a tiny, secretive team of CPAs who have operated at various times from humble quarters in Queens and two Long Island office parks. That team, which has had two leaders with back-to-back multidecade terms, has been working for the Trumps since Fred Trump began using the firm back in the 1950s. It was eventually subsumed into Mazars USA, the American arm of a large international firm, through a series of mergers over decades.
One theme has been consistent: partners and sometimes the firm itself have faced accusations of fraud, misconduct, and malpractice on multiple occasions, an investigation by ProPublica and WNYC has found.
This story was co-published with ProPublica; visit their website to read Peter Elkind's full text story on President Trump's relationship with his accounting firm. Stay up to date with email updates about our investigations into the president’s business practices.Wed, 06 May 2020
- 70 - He Went To Jared
On April 2, Jared Kushner uncharacteristically took to the podium to speak at the White House’s daily coronavirus briefing. He’d been given the task, he said, of assisting Vice President Mike Pence’s Coronavirus Task Force with supply chain issues. “The president,” Kushner said, “wanted us to make sure we think outside the box, make sure we’re finding all the best thinkers in the country, making sure we’re getting all the best ideas, and that we’re doing everything possible to make sure that we can keep Americans safe.”
That very day, he said, President Donald Trump told him that “he was hearing from friends of his in New York that the New York public hospital system was running low on critical supply.” So Kushner called Dr. Mitchell Katz, who runs the 12-hospital system, which serves, in a normal year, over a million patients. Kushner said he’d asked Katz which supply he was most nervous about: “He told me it was the N95 masks. I asked what his daily burn was. And I basically got that number.”
In a chaotic environment, the New Jersey boy turned Manhattan businessman turned senior White House adviser is using his clout to help the cities and states at the epicenter of a global pandemic get the aid they need.
Yet there’s another side to the equation. Kushner’s role is also a symptom of the dysfunction of the Trump administration, according to critics, some of whom worked in emergency management under Republican and Democratic administrations. The ad hoc nature of Kushner’s mission and its lack of transparency make it hard for people — and government agencies — to know exactly what he’s doing. So far, those officials say, there's little sign Kushner or anyone at the White House is helping New York or New Jersey with their urgent longer-term needs, particularly more testing and billions from Congress to ease the gaping holes that have emerged in local budgets.
”If you can reach Jared, if you can applaud Jared, if you can convince him that you're the most needy, he will deliver for you,” said Juliette Kayyem, faculty chair of the homeland security project at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a former assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration. But his role bypasses long-held tenets of how the federal government should work in a national emergency, she said, without addressing systemic problems, much less reinventing the bureaucracy. “What's outside the box? What process is outside the box? It can't possibly be Kushner's [giving out his] cellphone number,” Kayyem said. “But that's what it appears to be.”
Read the text version of this story at ProPublica.Wed, 22 Apr 2020
- 69 - How Trump Is Eligible for a Coronavirus Rescue
In a late March press briefing on the coronavirus, President Trump turned the microphone over to Mike Lindell, the founder and CEO of a company called MyPillow. Lindell — a regular on Fox News and at Trump properties, and a high-dollar donor to Republican causes — talked about how his company was pivoting from pillows to protective masks — and effusively praised the president's leadership.
We've been thinking about who stands to benefit from the coronavirus bailout, and that unusual moment highlights the close links between Trump and allies who stands to benefit (often in more ways than just publicity) from the government response to the pandemic. On this episode of the show we're examining:
• How the Trump family business qualifies for the two trillion dollar bailout• How businesses close to Trump are getting regulatory rollbacks and other long-sought goals• And what kind of oversight we should be expect in this new and uncertain era
Check out reporter Meg Cramer's story about how businesses within the Trump Organization stand to benefit from the coronavirus bailout and Peter Elkind's reporting on how Trump Org properties are responding to the crisis. And visit our tips page to learn how to securely share what you know.
Sign up for email updates from Trump, Inc. to get the latest on WNYC and ProPublica's investigations.Wed, 08 Apr 2020
- 68 - What To Look Out For
The “Trump, Inc.” podcast has long explored how people have tried to benefit through their proximity to the Oval Office. And we're going to continue digging into that as the Trump administration is tasked with rolling out more than $2 trillion in bailout money.
We spoke to two people this week to help us understand the stakes. “Some policymakers sitting in the Treasury Department or some other government agency have this awesome power to say, ‘You get the money, you go out of business,.’” said Neil Barofsky, who served as the government’s watchdog for the 2008 bank bailout. “One of the most important things we can do is make sure that power is exercised fairly, consistently, and, most importantly, consistent with the policy goals that underlie this extraordinary outpouring of taxpayer money.”
We also spoke with journalist Sarah Chayes, a former NPR correspondent who has reported on corruption and cronyism in countries experiencing economic shock. She said powerful players often “take advantage of adversity and uncertainty to enrich themselves.”
But Chayes also described something else. She coined it “disaster solidarity.” That’s when there’s so much suffering, so much adversity, “that people's tolerance for selfish, hogging, me-first behavior is really low.”
And that’s where youcome in. We want your help to dig into the coming bailout. If you know something, please tell us.
Sign up for email updates from Trump, Inc. for the latest on WNYC and ProPublica's investigations.Fri, 27 Mar 2020
- 67 - Trump’s Company Paid Bribes to Reduce Property Taxes, Assessors Say
The Trump Organization paid bribes, through middlemen, to New York City tax assessors to lower its property tax bills for several Manhattan buildings in the 1980s and 1990s, according to five former tax assessors and city employees as well as a former Trump Organization employee.
Two of the five city employees said they personally took bribes to lower the assessment on a Trump property; the other three said they had indirect knowledge of the payments. The city employees were among 18 indicted in 2002 for taking bribes in exchange for lowering the valuations of properties, which in turn reduced the taxes owed for the buildings. All of the 18 eventually pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Manhattan except for one, who died before his case was resolved.
No building owners were charged, though the addresses of some of the properties involved became public. Trump’s buildings were not on that list. No evidence has emerged that Donald Trump personally knew of or participated in the alleged bribery.
Trump denied any wrongdoing at the time, and the Trump Organization reiterated that position in response to questions for this article. “To be clear, at no time did the Trump Organization or any of its employees or principals ever pay anyone for the purpose of unlawfully obtaining a lower tax valuation,” Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s chief legal officer, wrote in a statement. “This was corroborated by multiple investigations which found no evidence of any wrongdoing by the company or any of its principals. ... If anything, the Trump Organization was a victim of the scandal.” (Here is the company’s full statement.)
Read the full print version of this story at ProPublica. Special thanks to former New York Times reporter Charles Bagli, who first reported on the bribery scheme in 2002. Sign up for email updates from Trump, Inc. for the latest on WNYC and ProPublica's investigationsWed, 11 Mar 2020
- 66 - The Family Business (rerun)
This episode of Trump, Inc.was originally releasedon September 18, 2019. We’ll be back next week with a new episode of Trump, Inc.
We've done dozens of episodes over since Donald Trump took office, detailing how predatory lenders are paying the president, how Trump has profited from his own inauguration and how Trump's friends have sought to use their access in pursuit of profit.
We've noticed something along the way. It's not just that the president has mixed his business and governing. It's that the way Trump does business is spreading across the government.
Trump's company isn't like most big businesses. It is accountable to only one man, it has broken the rules, and those promoting it have long engaged in what Trump has dubbed, ahem, "truthful hyperbole."
Those traits are now popping up in the government. It may seem like the news from Washington is a cacophony of scandals. But they fit clear patterns — patterns that Trump has brought with him from his business.Wed, 04 Mar 2020
- 65 - Paying to Protect the President
Last year, Eric Trump defended his father’s frequent visits to properties owned by the family business, saying that Trump hotels charge far less than others would. “If they were to go to a hotel across the street, they’d be charging them $500 a night, whereas, you know we charge them, like 50 bucks,” Eric Trump told Yahoo Finance.
But recent reporting by The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold revealed that’s not the case: records show that the Secret Service was charged rates as high as $650 a night to stay at Trump properties — then tried to keep that information secret.
“It’s not only that Trump has control over this - he’s paying money to himself - but also that we weren’t told,” Fahrenthold said. “You could make the case that if they publicly advertise this and listed these things in public spending databases and you and I knew about this from the beginning, they might be able to make the argument that like, ‘Oh well, the public knows and they're okay with it.’ But we didn't know. They didn't tell us. So there's a real moral distinction.”
Related episodes:• The Government's Bar Tab at Mar-a-Lago• How a Nigerian Presidential Candidate Hired a Trump Lobbyist and Ended Up in Trump’s Lobby• Government Employees Spend Your Money at Trump Hotels
Learn more about Fahrenthold and The Post's unanswered questions about government spending at Trump properties. Stay up to date with email updates about WNYC and ProPublica's investigations into the president's business practices.Wed, 19 Feb 2020
- 64 - An Intimate Dinner with President Trump
Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman have attained notoriety for their parts in the Ukraine mess. They’re both Soviet-born U.S. citizens who worked closely with the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, serving as emissaries in the campaign to oust then-U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and press Ukraine’s government to investigate Joe Biden’s son.
But Parnas and Fruman also exemplify the shattering of norms when it comes to the influence of big money in politics during the administration of President Donald Trump.
“Parnas and Fruman are not the first people that we've seen fit this mold of someone with deep foreign connections, who's never given campaign contributions before, suddenly starts giving large amounts of political contributions and then shows up at exclusive events,” said Robert Maguire, the research director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW. But he says they can be a model for what to look for: political newcomers suddenly making big donations, often using an LLC to obscure their identity.
Parnas and Fruman now face federal criminal charges for, among other things, allegedly funneling foreign money into U.S. elections and trying to hide its source. (They’ve pleaded not guilty.)
The law is clear on this: “At the most basic level, one is not allowed to solicit, accept, or receive any foreign money in connection with a US election at the state, federal, or local level,” said Ellen Weintraub, a member of the Federal Election Commission. In practice, though, it’s perhaps easier than ever for foreign money to enter the American political system undetected.
Learn more about how you can dig into campaign finance documents yourself with our new Reporting Recipe. Read about how watchdogs identified Parnas and Fruman’s suspicious campaign contributions at ProPublica. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified FEC vice-chair Steven Walther as a Republican; he is an independent.Wed, 05 Feb 2020
- 63 - Read Everything, Talk to Everyone: Reporting on Trump, Inc.
Andrea Bernstein discusses the reporting process behind Trump, Inc. and her new book, American Oligarchs: The Kushners, The Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power, with Death, Sex & Money host Anna Sale.
This bonus episode was recorded at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.Mon, 03 Feb 2020
- 62 - The Trump Inauguration’s ‘Unconscionable Contract’
Reporters Ilya Marritz and Justin Elliott have been reporting on Trump's inauguration since 2018. They looked at how the inaugural committee raised a record $107 million (and the big questions behind where that money went) and examined the role Ivanka Trump played in negotiations over space at the Trump International Hotel, located just blocks from the White House.
Those negotiations, first reported by Trump, Inc. in 2019,are now the subject of a civil suit filed by the District of Columbia’s attorney general. “Members of the Trump family were aware of and involved in the negotiation of this unconscionable contract,” D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine wrote in the complaint charging the Trump inaugural committee and the Trump Organization with using around $1 million of charitable funds to improperly enrich the Trump family, filed Wednesday, January 22.
A spokesperson for the Trump Organization dismissed the D.C. suit in an emailed statement: “The AG’s claims are false, intentionally misleading and riddled with inaccuracies. The rates charged by the hotel were completely in line with what anyone else would have been charged for an unprecedented event of this enormous magnitude and were reflective of the fact that [sic] hotel had just recently opened, possessed superior facilities and was centrally located on Pennsylvania Avenue. The AG’s after the fact attempt to regulate what discounts it believes the hotel should have provided as well as the timing of this complaint reeks of politics and is a clear PR stunt.”
This episode of Trump, Inc. was originally released on February 20, 2019.Thu, 23 Jan 2020
- 61 - Turning Politics Into Money
For generations, the Trump family has used government and politicians as a path to profit. As president, Donald Trump has taken things even further.
“This guy is a state capitalist,” said Trump’s first biographer, reporter Wayne Barrett, in a 1992 WNYC interview, cited extensively in this episode. “[In] every single one of his major deals, he was designated to be a millionaire and subsequently a billionaire by the government officials that he co-opted and compromised.”
“The Trump family is not shy on transforming their wealth into power in a very crude and brutal way,” says economist Gabriel Zucman, co-author of the book “The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay.” “But that's the nature of extreme wealth. When you're extremely wealthy what do you do? You spend your wealth and your time trying to defend your established position.”
This episode is based on reporting from host Andrea Bernstein’s new book“American Oligarchs: the Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power.”Read about the history of a 40-year tax break Trump negotiated for his Grand Hyatt hotel at ProPublica.Wed, 22 Jan 2020
- 60 - Dirt
In 1996, an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor and refugee to America sat down with an interviewer from the USC Shoah Foundation to recount what she had experienced.
“If we’re not going to tell now, in 20 years I don’t know who’s going to be to tell,” Rae Kushner said in her Yiddish-accented English. “And now we have still the strength and we have the power to do this and to warn the rest of the world to be careful who is coming up on top of your government.”
Rae’s grandson Jared is now one of the most powerful people in the U.S. government. President Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, he is an influential voice on some of the nation’s most pressing issues, including immigration across the southern border. And to understand him, you need to understand his family story.
This episode is based on reporting from host Andrea Bernstein’s new book“American Oligarchs: the Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power.”Read more about the Kushner family at ProPublica and findan excerpt of Bernstein’s bookat The New Yorker.Wed, 08 Jan 2020
- 59 - Mongolia
In the summer of 2019, Donald Trump Jr. traveled to Mongolia. On Instagram, he wrote "Guys I'm back after living the Yurt Life...We covered many miles on horseback and 4WD...Truly one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen."
He didn't mention the fact that he shot and killed an endangered argali sheep. Or that the Mongolian government issued him a hunting permit after the shoot.
We learned that in many respects, Trump Jr.'s visit blurred the lines between private citizen and diplomacy. Trump Jr. even had a meeting with the Mongolian President.Wed, 11 Dec 2019
- 58 - Gordon Sondland
Three women recall Sondland made unwanted sexual contact in business settings. One says he exposed himself. All recall professional retaliation after they rejected him. Sondland denies the allegations.
Sondland is the US Ambassador to the European Union. He also served as a point-man for President Trump in Ukraine, as Trump put a hold on military aid. Then, Sondland became a key witness in the impeachment inquiry.
Long before Sondland moved his residence to a Brussels mansion, he was a high-profile hotelier and philanthropist in the Pacific Northwest. In Portland, he has long been a powerful investor, political donor, and patron of the arts.Wed, 27 Nov 2019
- 57 - "Corruption Is Our Achilles Heel"
Glenn Simpson has a lot to say about business corruption and Russian influence in the U.S. In this episode, we speak to him. Simpson first came to these issues as an investigative journalist at The Wall Street Journal. In 2010, he co-founded Fusion GPS, a research firm. During the 2016 campaign, he began to research Donald Trump for two clients: first for a Republican opposed to Trump and then for a lawyer for Democrats.
Fusion is most famous — or infamous — for hiring Christopher Steele, the former British spy who wrote the so-called Steele dossier. We asked Simpson about the dossier, about becoming a part of the story, and about the deposition of former national security aide Fiona Hill, who said that when it comes to Russia, "corruption is our Achilles heel."
Simpson is now the author, with Peter Fritsch, of the new book, "Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump."Tue, 26 Nov 2019
- 56 - The Diplomat, The Machers, And The Oligarch
The impeachment inquiry focuses on whether or not there was a quid pro quo: Military aid in exchange for an investigation. But what if you look at the same events from a different vantage point? The business interests at play.
This episode: How Rudy Giuliani's associates worked their connections to oust the U.S. Ambassador in Ukraine. How President Trump's personal interests came into alignment with the interests of an indicted foreign businessman. And how all of them have been working to discredit Joe Biden.Wed, 13 Nov 2019
- 55 - All The President’s Memes
President Trump's Doral resort has been in the news a lot lately. His chief of staff announced from the White House that America would host the next G-7 summit there. Then, Trump backed off. We're looking at a conference that did happen at Doral. A conference that attracted conspiracy theorists, where a violent video featuring a fake Trump massacring members of the media was shown. (The conference organizers say they "condemn political violence.")
Trump, Inc. was there.
So was the President’s son, Donald Trump, Jr.
This week: The business of conspiracies.Wed, 30 Oct 2019
- 54 - The Numbers Don't Match
Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is serving prison time for understating his income to the IRS, and for overstating his income to banks. Trump's former executive vice president and special counsel, Michael Cohen, is also serving prison time, for, among other things, making false statements to a bank. And Donald Trump? A lot of people want to see his taxes: At least two congressional committees. The Manhattan District Attorney. Trump doesn’t want ANYONE to see them. He’s gone to court three times to make sure they stay secret. The court fight is ongoing. Trump's tax documents remain walled off. Heather Vogell of ProPublica found some anyway. She compared them to financial documents Trump filed with his lender — and discovered that certain key numbers don't match. Heather spoke with over a dozen experts in accounting, law, and real estate. Not a single one of them could explain the discrepancies away.Wed, 16 Oct 2019
- 53 - Ukraine
Why Ukraine? It’s the question we at Trump, Inc. have been asking ourselves for over a year. Donald Trump has taken money from Ukrainian oligarchs. Paul Manafort went to prison because of work he did in Ukraine. Michael Cohen has ties to the country. And then there’s Rudy Giuliani, who has been making appearances there for over a decade. Ilya Marritz went to Kiev to meet with the anti-corruption fighters who are being directly targeted by Rudy Giuliani and his associates. And we untangle the new ways that corruption in Ukraine is commingling with corruption in the United States.Wed, 02 Oct 2019
- 52 - Donald J. Trump For President, Inc.
In August, at a campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, a tall man with a Viking beard and an elegant gray suit walked out on a stage, carrying a stack of red Make America Great Again hats, tossing them to an adoring crowd, shouting "Four more years!" The man is Trump's campaign manager, Brad Parscale, who vaulted from a mid-level web designer to digital strategist for the 2016 Trump campaign and now manages the 2020 incarnation, Donald J. Trump for President Inc., which he claims will be America's first billion-dollar campaign. And as he's been doing this, Parscale has figured out ways to enrich himself and his firms, at various times collecting a salary from the Trump campaign, payments from the Republican National Committee and money from a super PAC, America First Action.Thu, 19 Sep 2019
- 51 - The Family Business
Trump, Inc. takes a step back tomake sense of the seemingly endless scandals swirling around the White House. They're not random. They fit a pattern and that has a precedent. It turns out, Trump is running the government a lot like he's run his business: through bluster, boss-ism, and by ignoring the rules.Wed, 18 Sep 2019
- 50 - The Questions Mueller Didn't Ask
Perhaps you’ve heard: Special counsel Robert Mueller testified on Wednesday. There’s plenty of analysis about who won and who didn’t. We’re skipping that part.Thu, 25 Jul 2019
- 49 - A New Kind of Influencer: Friend of the President’s KidMon, 22 Jul 2019
- 48 - An Opportunity for the Rich
Under a six-lane span of freeway leading into downtown Baltimore sits what may be the most valuable parking spaces in America.
Lying near a development project controlled by Under Armour’s billionaire CEO Kevin Plank, one of Maryland’s richest men, and Goldman Sachs, the little sliver of land will allow Plank and the other investors to claim what could amount to millions in tax breaks for the project, known as Port Covington.
They have President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax overhaul law to thank. The new law has a provision meant to spur investment into underdeveloped areas, called “opportunity zones.” The idea is to grant lucrative tax breaks to encourage new investment in poor areas around the country, carefully selected by each state’s governor.
But Port Covington, an ambitious development geared to millennials to feature offices, a hotel, apartments, and shopping, is not in a census tract that is poor. It’s not a new investment. And the census tract only became eligible to be an opportunity zone thanks to a mapping error.
As the selection process was underway, a deputy chief of staff to Maryland's governor wrote in an email that “Port Covington does not qualify” as an opportunity zone.
Maryland's governor chose the area for the program anyway — after his aides met with the lobbyists for Plank, who owns about 40% of the zone.
“This is a classic example of a windfall benefit,” said Robert Stoker, a George Washington University professor who has studied economic development in Baltimore for decades. “A major investment was already planned and now is in a zone where they are going to qualify for all kinds of beneficial tax treatment.”
In selecting Port Covington, the governor had to exclude another Maryland community from the opportunity zone program. In Baltimore, for example, the governor dropped part of a neighborhood that city officials recommended for the program — Brooklyn — with a median family income one-fifth that of Port Covington. Brooklyn sits just across the Patapsco river from Port Covington, in an area that suffers from one of the highest drug and alcohol death rates in Baltimore, which in turn has one of the highest drug fatality rates nationwide.
In a statement, Marc Weller, a developer who is Plank’s partner in the project, defended the opportunity zone designation. “Port Covington being part of an Opportunity Zone will attract more investors, foster more economic growth in a neglected area of the City, and directly benefit all of the surrounding communities for decades to come,” Weller said. Supporters say the Port Covington development could help several nearby struggling south Baltimore neighborhoods.
An official in the administration of Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, said, “The success of that project is really going to go a long way to providing benefits for the whole city of Baltimore.” The official added: “The governor is a huge supporter of the development.”
A spokesperson for the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which was involved in the selection process, said that “due to the time limits of the federal tax incentive, the state of Maryland did purposefully select census tracts where projects were beginning to increase the odds of attracting additional private sector investment to Maryland's opportunity zones in the near term.”
The Birth of a New Tax Break
In December 2017, Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, his signature legislative achievement. Much criticized as a giveaway to the rich, the law includes one headline provision that backers promised would help the poor: opportunity zones.
Supporters of the program argued it would unleash economic development in otherwise overlooked communities. “Our goal is to rebuild homes, schools, businesses and communities that need it the most,“ Trump declared at a recent event, adding, “To revitalize these areas, we’ve lowered the capital gains tax for long-term investment in opportunity zones all the way down to a very big, fat, beautiful number of zero.”
The provision has bipartisan support. “These cities are gold mines,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a 2020 presidential hopeful and main Democratic architect of the program, told real estate investors in October. “They’re domestic emerging markets that are more exciting than anything you’ll see overseas.”
Here’s how the program works. Say you’re a hedge fund manager, you purchased Google stock years ago, and are sitting on $1 billion in gains. If you sell, you’d send the IRS about $240 million, a lot less than ordinary income tax but still annoying. To avoid paying that much, you can sell the shares and put the $1 billion into an opportunity zone. That comes with three generous breaks. The first is that you defer that $240 million in capital gains tax, allowing you to invest more money up front. But if that’s not enough for you, you can hold the investment for several years and you’ll get a significant reduction in those taxes. What’s more, any additional gains from the new investment are tax-free after 10 years.
It’s impossible to predict how much the tax break will be worth to individual investors because it depends on several variables, not least whether the underlying project gains in value. But one investment pitch projected 10-year returns would jump to 91% from 29% on a hypothetical $1 million investment. That includes $284,000 in tax breaks — money the federal government would have collected from taxpayers with capital gains but for the program.
The tax code already favored real estate developers like Trump, and his overhaul made it even friendlier. Investors can put money into a range of projects in opportunity zones, but so far most of the publicly announced deals are in real estate. The tax break has led to a marketing boom, with Wall Street pitching investors to raise funds to invest in the zones. Critics argue that the program is flawed, pointing out that there’s no guarantee that the capital investment will help community residents, that the selection process was vulnerable to outside influence, and that it could be a giveaway for projects that were going to happen anyway. In a case in Chicago uncovered by the Real Deal, two tracts already slated for a major development project were selected by the governor as opportunity zones even though city officials hadn’t initially recommended them.
Under the new law, areas of the country deemed to be “low-income communities” would be eligible to be named opportunity zones. The Treasury Department determined which census tracts qualified. Then governors of each state could select one quarter of those tracts to get the tax benefit.
That governor prerogative turned out to be very useful to Kevin Plank.
In 2012, Plank-connected entities quietly began buying up waterfront property on a largely vacant and isolated peninsula south of downtown Baltimore. Often using shell companies to shield the identity of the true buyer, they ultimately spent more than $100 million acquiring much of the peninsula. Plank’s privately held Sagamore Development now controls roughly 40% of the area that would later be named an opportunity zone.
In early 2015, more than two and a half years before Trump’s tax law passed, Plank revealed himself as the money behind the purchases. He planned a new development and headquarters for Under Armour, the sports apparel company he started after coming up with the idea as a University of Maryland football player. Today, Under Armour employs 15,000 people. Plank has a net worth of around $2 billion.
Though the Port Covington area was cut off from downtown by I-95, Plank said he likes the location because of the visibility. “When people drive through Baltimore [on I-95] I literally want them to drive through and go, 'There's Baltimore on the right. There's Under Armour on the left,’” he told The Baltimore Sun.
A year later, Plank’s firm took his vision to the general public, running TV and print ads touting the new project. One of the ads, reminiscent of the Democratic presidential primary spots airing at that time, was filled with a diverse cast sharing their dreams for a new city within a city.
“We will build it. Together,” the ad begins, before running through a glittering digital rendering of contemporary urban design features. Office towers, shops, transit, parks, jobs — all of it to be anchored by a new world headquarters of the city’s most visible brand name, Under Armour. Sagamore would spearhead the project and sell land to others who would build businesses and housing.
Even before qualifying for the opportunity zone break, taxpayers were going to subsidize the development. Days after the ads touting togetherness, Plank proposed that the city float $660 million in bonds to help build what the company has said would be a $5.5 billion development. Opponents contended Plank’s proposal amounted to corporate welfare that would exacerbate the city’s stark economic and racial divides. But the company agreed to provide millions of dollars to the city and a group of nearby low-income neighborhoods to gain support for the project, and the City Council passed the measure that fall.
As Under Armour’s stock plummeted in 2017 amid slowing sales growth and progress on the Port Covington project lagged. That September, Goldman Sachs stepped in to commit $233 million from its Urban Investment Group. Hogan, himself a real estate developer, personally spoke with the then-CEO of Goldman, Lloyd Blankfein, about the deal.
Meeting With the Governor’s Office
In the weeks after the 2017 federal tax overhaul passed, Plank’s team spotted an opportunity.
Nick Manis, a veteran Annapolis lobbyist who has also represented the Baltimore Ravens, reached out to Hogan’s chief of staff about Port Covington, according to emails obtained by ProPublica through a public records request. The developers and their lobbyists had given at least $15,000 to Hogan’s campaigns in recent years. A meeting was set for early February.
But the developers had a problem.
The Friday before the meeting, a deputy chief of staff to the governor wrote in an email that “Port Covington does not qualify” for the coveted tax breaks.
The Port Covington tract, which includes a gentrified corner of South Baltimore north of the largely empty peninsula, was too wealthy to be an opportunity zone. There is a second provision of the law for wealthier tracts: A tract can qualify if it is adjacent to a low-income area. But Port Covington failed that test, too. Its median family income — nearly 160% of Maryland’s — exceeded the income cap even for that provision.
Port Covington was out — unless the tract could somehow be considered low-income in its own right.
On Feb. 5, the Port Covington development team arrived at the second floor of the statehouse in the opulent governor’s reception room to meet with top Hogan aides. The agenda for the meeting included opportunity zones, as well as transit and infrastructure issues. The developer’s team requested that the Port Covington tract be made an opportunity zone. The state officials “acknowledged their interest in receiving that designation,” a Hogan administration official said.
Bank Error in Your Favor
Three days after that meeting, Plank and the Port Covington developers got bad news. The Treasury Department released a list of census tracts across the country that were sufficiently poor to be included in the program. Port Covington was not included in that list.
Three weeks later, however, things turned around. The Treasury Department issued a revised list. The agency said it had left out some tracts in error. The revised list included 168 new areas across the country defined by the agency as “low-income communities.”
This time, Port Covington made the cut.
It couldn’t have qualified because its residents were poor. It couldn’t qualify because it was next to some place that was poor. But the tract could qualify under yet another provision of the law. Some tracts could make the cut if they had fewer than 2,000 people and if they were “within” what’s known as an empowerment zone. That was a Clinton-era redevelopment initiative also aimed at low-income areas.
Port Covington wasn’t actually within an empowerment zone, but it is next to one. So how did it qualify? The area met the definition of “within” because the digital map files the Treasury Department used showed that Port Covington overlapped with a neighboring tract that was designated an empowerment zone, Treasury officials told ProPublica.
That overlap: the sliver of parking lot beneath I-395. That piece of the lot is about one one-thousandth of a square mile.(ProPublica) (ProPublica)
There are no regulations or guidance on how to interpret the tax law’s use of “within,” said a spokesman for the Treasury Department’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, which compiled the maps. The agency made what it called a “technical decision” that any partial overlap with an Empowerment Zone would count as being “within” that zone — no matter how small the area, or if anyone lived there.
Or, if the overlap was even real.
Turns out, no part of Port Covington actually overlapped with the empowerment zone.
Treasury’s decision ignored a well-known problem in geographic analysis known as misalignment, mapping experts said.
Misalignment happens when the lines on digital maps made by two sources differ slightly about where things like roads and buildings lie, according to Henry Luan, a professor of geography at the University of Oregon.
For example, if a tract ends at a highway, one file might show the border on the near side of the highway while another — when zoomed all the way in — might show it a few feet away on the far side. When laid on top of each other, the two files end up with minuscule differences that don’t mean anything in the real world.
Except in this case, it had big real world consequences for Port Covington. The mapping error allowed the entire tract to qualify as an opportunity zone.
“That area of overlap is a complete artifact of” the map files Treasury used, said David Van Riper, director of spatial analysis at the Minnesota Population Center. “It’s not an actual overlap.”
Sometime in the mid-2000s, the Census Bureau used GPS devices to make its map files more accurately represent the country’s roads. One of the maps used by Treasury appeared to be based on the older, less accurate Census maps, Van Riper said.
Even accepting Treasury’s misaligned maps, the entire Port Covington tract receives tax benefits, even though less than 0.3% of it overlaps with the neighboring tract.
“Only a minimal overlap, but you make the whole Census tract benefit from the policy?” Luan said. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”
Port Covington is one of just a handful of tracts in the country that ProPublica identified that qualified through similar flaws in Treasury’s process.
Taking the Break
There is no evidence that Plank or the Port Covington developers influenced the Treasury Department’s revision.
But the lobbying of the governor before the Treasury change appears to have paid off.
As they were lobbying, Baltimore officials were working out which parts of the city would benefit most from being opportunity zones. They petitioned the governor to pick 41 low-income city neighborhoods to get the tax break, all of them well below the program’s maximum income requirements.
The city’s list remained largely intact when the governor made his selections in April. Hogan made just four changes, three of which qualified under the main criteria without the benefit of the mapping error. But the fourth didn’t: Port Covington.
Plank’s team cheered the revision. The very thing that made Port Covington a poor candidate to be an opportunity zone — that it wasn’t a low-income area — could make it exceptionally attractive to investors. In January, they convened an opportunity zone conference at their Port Covington incubator called City Garage featuring state officials and executives from Goldman, Deloitte and other firms.
“Port Covington kind of fits all the needs,” said Marc Weller, Plank’s partner, at the conference. “It has all the entitlements, and it has a financial partner in place as well. It’s probably the most premier piece of land in the United States that’s in an opportunity zone.”
The opportunity zone program has restrictions intended to prevent already-planned developments from benefitting. But the Port Covington developers told Bloomberg that the firm will be able to reap the benefits of the tax break because it has found new investors. Among the potential new investors who might take advantage of the tax break are Plank’s own family, one of the developers told the Baltimore Business Journal. A Port Covington spokesman denied that Plank’s family members are potential investors.
To get the maximum benefit, investments need to be made in 2019, though investments made through 2026 can take advantage of growth tax-free. Only a portion of the Port Covington project is expected to be underway by then.
A Goldman spokesman said it is “likely” that the firm will take advantage of the opportunity zone benefits in Port Covington, adding that it has “made no firm decisions about how each component will be financed.”
Margaret Anadu, the head of Goldman’s Urban Investment Group and the lead on the Port Covington investment, recently said of the opportunity zone program: “These are the same neighborhoods that have been suffering since redline started decades and decades ago, pretty much eliminating private investment. … And so we simply have to reverse that. And the only way to reverse that is to start to bring that private capital back into these neighborhoods.”
The Port Covington tract is just 4% black. For it to be included in the program, another community somewhere in Maryland had to be excluded. The ones that the city suggested that were excluded by the governor, for example, are 68% black and have a poverty rate three times higher than Port Covington’s.
There is some evidence suggesting being named an opportunity zone has already been a boon for property owners. An analysis by Zillow found that sale price gains in opportunity zones significantly outpaced gains in eligible tracts that weren’t selected. Real Capital Analytics found that sales of developable sites in the zones rose 24% in the year after the law passed.
Under Armour has said it’s still committed to building its new headquarters on the peninsula, but it’s not clear when that will happen.
Still, other aspects of the once-stalled project finally started moving forward in recent months. After presenting plans for the first section inside the opportunity zone this winter, the project finally got underway on a rainy day in early May of this year.
"The project is real,” Weller said at the kickoff event, which included Anadu, the Goldman Sachs executive, and city and state officials. “The project is starting. We're open for business."Wed, 19 Jun 2019
- 47 - Pay Day at the Trump DoralWed, 05 Jun 2019
- 46 - Former FBI Deputy Chief Andrew McCabe and Trump, Inc. Compare NotesWed, 29 May 2019
- 45 - Trump and Deutsche Bank: It’s Complicated
Whispers of money laundering have swirled around Donald Trump’s businesses for years. One of his casinos, for example, was fined $10 million for not trying hard enough to prevent such machinations. Investors with shady financial histories sometimes popped up in his foreign ventures. And on Sunday, The New York Timesreported that anti-money-laundering specialists at Deutsche Bank internally flagged multiple transactions by Trump companies as suspicious. (A spokesperson for the Trump Organization called the article “absolute nonsense.”)
The remarkably troubled recent history of Deutsche Bank, its past money-laundering woes — and the bank’s striking relationship with Trump — are the subjects of this week’s episode. The German bank loaned a cumulative total of around $2.5 billion to Trump projects over the past two decades, and the bank continued writing him nine-figure checks even after he defaulted on a $640 million obligation and sued the bank, blaming it for his failure to pay back the debt.
Trump, Inc. isn’t the only one examining the president’s relationship with the bank. Congressional investigators have gone to court seeking the kind of detailed — and usually secret — banking records that could reveal potential misdeeds related to the president’s businesses, according to recent filings by two congressional committees. The filings were made in response to a highly unusual move by lawyers for Trump, his family and his company seeking to quash congressional subpoenas issued to Deutsche Bank and Capital One, a second institution he banked with. Trump’s lawyers have contended that the congressional subpoenas “were issued to harass” Trump and damage him politically.
Earlier today, a federal judge in New York declined to issue a preliminary injunction to block the subpoenas. During the hearing in which he delivered that ruling, U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos said Congress is within its rights to require the banks to turn over Trump’s financial information, even if the disclosure is harmful to him.
For their part, the filings for the House Financial Services and Intelligence committees say they are “investigating serious and urgent questions concerning the safety of banking practices, money laundering in the financial sector, foreign influence in the U.S. political process, and the threat of foreign financial leverage, including over the President.” The inquiry includes investigating whether Trump’s accounts were involved in two large schemes involving Deutsche Bank and Russian clients.
The committees want to determine “the volume of illicit funds that may have flowed through the bank, and whether any touched the accounts held there by Mr. Trump, his family, or business.” Links to Russia will get a particularly close look. “The Committee is examining whether Mr. Trump’s foreign business deals and financial ties were part of the Russian government’s efforts to entangle business and political leaders in corrupt activity or otherwise obtain leverage over them,” the filing stated.
The episode explores some of the Trump-related moves by the bank:
➧ Deutsche Bank’s private wealth unit loaned Trump $48 million — after he had defaulted on his $640 million loan and the bank’s commercial unit didn’t want to lend him any further funds — so that Trump could pay back another unit of Deutsche Bank. “No one has ever seen anything like it,” said David Enrich, finance editor of The New York Times, who is writing a book about the bank and spoke to Trump, Inc.
➧ Deutsche Bank loaned Trump’s company $125 million as part of the overall $150 million purchase of the ailing Doral golf resort in Miami in 2012. The loans’ primary collateral was land and buildings that he paid only $105 million for, county land records show. The apparent favorable terms raise questions about whether the bank’s loan was unusually risky.
➧ To widespread alarm, and at least one protest that Trump would not be able to pay his lease obligations, Deutsche Bank’s private wealth group loaned the Trump Organization an additional $175 million to renovate the Old Post Office Building in Washington and turn it into a luxury hotel.
Like Trump, Deutsche Bank has been scrutinized for its dealings in Russia. The bank paid more than $600 million to regulators in 2017 and agreed to a consent order that cited “serious compliance deficiencies” that “spanned Deutsche Bank’s global empire.” The case focused on “mirror trades,” which Deutsche Bank facilitated between 2011 and 2015. The trades were sham transactions whose sole purpose appeared to be to illicitly convert rubles into pounds and dollars — some $10 billion worth.
A spokesperson said Deutsche Bank has increased its anti-financial-crime staff in recent years and is “committed to cooperating with authorized investigations.” The bank said it has policies in place to address the potential for conflicts of interest, including “special measures with respect to clients that hold public office or perform public functions in the U.S.”
The bank was “laundering money for wealthy Russians and people connected to Putin and the Kremlin in a variety of ways for almost the exact time period that they were doing business with Donald Trump,” Enrich said. “And all of that money through Deutsche Bank was being channeled through the same exact legal entity in the U.S. that was handling the Donald Trump relationship in the U.S. And so there are a lot of coincidences here.”
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- 44 - What We’ve Learned From Trump’s Tax TranscriptsFri, 10 May 2019
- 43 - The Government's Bar Tab at Mar-a-Lago
Spending taxpayer money at Mar-a-Lago is a such a "headache," the State Department got a special credit card for visits to the president's private club. This week, the intersection of money, presidential access and security, and the push and pull between government spending and private profits at Mar-a-Lago.Wed, 01 May 2019
- 42 - 'Harm to Ongoing Matter'
On Thursday, the “Trump, Inc.” team gathered with laptops, pizza and Post-its to disconnect — and to read special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
What we found was page after page of jaw-dropping details about the inner workings of the administration of President Donald Trump, meetings with foreign officials and plots to affect our elections. But we also found rich details on how Trump ran his business dealings in Russia, itself the subject of our recent episode on his Moscow business partners.
It backed up a lot of our earlier reporting: The deal with Andrey Rozov, a relatively unknown developer whose claim to international prominence was the purchase of a building in Manhattan’s garment district, did go further than agreements with other developers. The type of development they were hoping for would need signoff from Russia’s powers that be — namely, President Vladimir Putin — potentially putting Trump in the position of owing favors to a hostile foreign power. And the deal went on longer than the Trump campaign wanted the public to know, with the then-candidate rebuffing Michael Cohen’s concerns about the accuracy of his portrayal of his relationships with Russia.
Here are a few of our takeaways:
The deal was bigger…
The Mueller report puts the terms of Trump’s most infamous Trump Tower deal side by side with a failed prior deal with the family of Russian pop star Emin Agalarov. In doing so, it proposes an answer to why Trump chose to move forward with Rozov: he offered Trump a much better deal.
In fact, Cohen said the tower overall "was potentially a $1 billion deal.” Under the terms of the agreement, the Trump Organization would get an upfront fee, a share of sales and rental revenue, and an additional 20% of the operating profit. The deal offered by the well-known Agalarov developers, in contrast, would have brought in a flat 3.5%. We’d tried to reach Rozov to talk about the deal for our earlier reporting. He never responded.
For Trump, this agreement promised to be the deal of a lifetime.
There were more Russian contacts…
The report says Cohen and Felix Sater, a fixer who brought the Trump Organization together with the potential developer for the Moscow deal, both believed securing Putin’s endorsement was key. There was also plenty of outreach from Russians, many of them offering to make that very connection.
But even as the two were figuring out how to pitch the tower plan to Putin, at least three intermediaries who claimed to have connections to the Russian president were reaching out to Trump and his associates. They promised help with Trump’s business interests and his campaign, the report says.
One was Dmitry Klokov, whom Cohen looked up online and mistakenly identified as a former Olympic weightlifter. Klokov, in fact, worked for a government-owned electric company and was a former aide to Russia’s energy minister. He told Cohen he could facilitate a meeting with a “person of interest” — that is, Putin — and also offered help creating “synergy on a government level.” But Klokov’s overtures for talks on matters beyond mere business interests were rebuffed by Cohen.
The report also clarified that it was Sater who approached the Russian developer with the idea of a Trump Tower Moscow — and later brought his pitch to the Trump Organization. This sequence of events raises new questions about whether the tower deal, which Trump had wanted for decades, was part of the Russian government’s multiple intelligence approaches to Trump and his advisers at the time.
One other figure in our previous Trump Moscow episode surfaced again in the Mueller report: Yevgeny Dvoskin, a Russian national with a U.S. criminal record and alleged ties to organized crime. Dvoskin is now a part-owner of Genbank, a small Russian bank sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury. He grew up in Brighton Beach at the same time as Sater, who, in 2016, called on Dvoskin to invite Trump and Cohen to Russia for an exploratory visit. To arrange the invitation, Dvoskin asked for copies of Cohen’s and Trump’s passports, which Cohen was happy to provide. The Mueller report says that Trump’s personal assistant even brought Trump’s passport to Cohen’s office, but that it is not clear whether it was ever passed on to Sater.
Sater declined to comment for the podcast. Genbank and Dvoskin did not respond to earlier requests for comment.
And there was more cover-up…
Mueller describes continued efforts to mislead investigators and the public about the Trump Moscow deal and associates’ contacts with Russian officials. Many of the details are gleaned from Cohen’s cooperation.
Cohen confronted Trump after he denied having business ties to Russia in July 2016 and pointed out that Trump Tower Moscow was still in play. “Trump told Cohen that Trump Tower Moscow was not a deal yet and said, ‘Why mention it if it is not a deal?’” according to the Mueller report.
To maintain Cohen’s loyalty during the investigation, multiple Trump staff members and friends told him the “boss” “loves you,” according to the Mueller report. “You are loved,” another associate told him in an email. Cohen also said the president’s lawyer told him he’d be protected as long as he didn’t go “rogue.”
The report concludes that active negotiations in Moscow continued into the summer of 2016. Cohen told Mueller’s team that the project wasn’t officially dead until January 2017, when it was listed with other deals that needed to be “closed out” ahead of the inauguration.
After admitting to lying to Congress about when the Moscow deal fizzled, Cohen told Mueller about the “script,” or talking points he’d developed with Trump to downplay his ties to Russia. He also said he believed lawyers associated with his joint defense agreement — including attorneys for the president — edited out a key line about communications with Russia from his congressional testimony. The offending line: “The building project led me to make limited contacts with Russian government officials.”
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- 41 - Trump, Inc. Goes Beyond Collusion
In this Trump, Inc. podcast extra, we talk about what we know, what we don’t know and what we still want to know after Attorney General William Barr gave his summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. Trump, Inc co-hosts Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz joined Maya Wiley, professor at the New School and MSNBC Legal Analyst on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show to review the on-going investigations.
Collusion was never the only thing. For the last year and a half, we have been looking at the conflicts of interest that pervade President Donald Trump’s administration. That trail has led us from Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, to Panama, India and, yes, Russia, where we reported on how Trump’s associates appealed to the Kremlin for help at the same time the Kremlin was preparing an attack on the 2016 elections.
And Andrea Bernstein also talks with Eric Umansky, Trump, Inc. Editor and Deputy Managing Editor at ProPublica, about how to interpret what we know (and don't know) about the special counsel's report.Mon, 25 Mar 2019
- 40 - Trump’s Moscow Tower Problem
This week, we’re exploring President Donald Trump’s efforts to do business in Moscow. Our team — Heather Vogell, Andrea Bernstein, Meg Cramer and Katie Zavadski — dug into just who Trump was working with and just what Trump needed from Russia to get a deal done. (Listen to the podcast episode here.)
First, the big picture. We already knew that Trump had business interests involving Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign — which he denied — that could have been influencing his policy positions. As the world has discovered, Trump was negotiating to develop a tower in Moscow while running for president. Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen has admitted to lying to Congress about being in contact with the Kremlin about the project during the campaign.
All of that explains why congressional investigators are scrutinizing Trump’s Moscow efforts. And we’ve found more:
• Trump’s partner on the project didn't appear to be in a position to get the project approved and built. On Oct. 28, 2015 — the same day as a Republican primary debate — Trump signed a letter of intent with the partner, a developer named Andrey Rozov, to build a 400-unit condominium and hotel tower in Moscow.
In a letter Rozov wrote to Cohen pitching his role, he cited his work on a suburban development outside of Moscow, a 12-story office building in Manhattan’s Garment District (which he bought rather than constructed) and two projects in Williston, North Dakota, a town of around 30,000.We looked into each of them.
Rozov’s Moscow project has faced lawsuits from homeowners, some of which have settled and some of which are ongoing, and the company developing it filed for bankruptcy. It remains unfinished.
Property records show that Rozov owned his New York building for just over a year. He bought it for about $35 million in cash, took out an almost $13 million loan several months later, made no significant improvements and then sold it for a 23 percent profit. Trump’s former business associate, Felix Sater, who once pleaded guilty to financial fraud and reportedly later became an asset for U.S. intelligence agencies, is listed on the sale as an “authorized signatory.”
We did find a developer with a workforce housing project in Williston, as well as approved plans for a mall/hotel/water-park. (The town attracted interest from developers as the center of North Dakota’s oil boom earlier in the decade.) Rozov’s name doesn’t appear on materials relating to the company, but a person familiar with the project confirmed that this is what Rozov was bragging about in his letter. Oil prices cratered and the mega-mall was never built.
Rozov did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Here is a rendering of the plan:Plans for "Williston Crossing," a 218 acre site in Williams County, North Dakota. (Williston Crossing Major Comprehensive Plan Amendment Presentation/Gensler)
• An owner of a sanctioned Russian bank that vouched for the Trump Organization in Moscow had a criminal history that included involvement in a Russian mafia gas-bootlegging scheme in the U.S.
Making a business trip to Russia requires an official invitation. According to correspondence published by BuzzFeed, Sater arranged for an invitation from Genbank, a small Russian bank that expanded significantly in Crimea after Russia invaded in 2014.
One of Genbank’s co-owners is Yevgeny Dvoskin, a Russian-born financier who grew up in Brighton Beach at the same time as Sater. Dvoskin pleaded guilty to tax evasion in federal court in Ohio for the bootlegging scheme and spent time in prison. He was later deported to Russia, according to press accounts. In Russia, he remained tied to criminal networks, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. (We were unable to reach Dvoskin for comment.)
• We also get a hint about whyTrump may have needed the Kremlin to get his deal done. Some of the sites under consideration for a potential Trump Tower Moscow were in historic areas with strict height restrictions. Just a few years before the 2015 letter of intent that Trump signed, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin pledged to do all he could to prevent the city from being overrun by skyscrapers.
If Trump’s deal was to move forward in some place like the Red October Chocolate Factory, one of the spots that was considered, getting around zoning restrictions would need help from the very top.
Sater and Cohen were also kicking around a plan to offer Putin the building’s $50 million penthouse, according to BuzzFeed. That need for special help, combined with the potential offer of a valuable asset, raises questions about whether the plan ran afoul of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, according to Alexandra Wrage, the president and founder of Trace International, an organization that helps companies comply with anti-bribery laws. “What you describe is certainly worrying,” she said.
The Trump Organization, the White House, and Michael Cohen did not respond to requests for comment.
For his part, Sater is scheduled to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on March 27. The committee members will undoubtedly have plenty of questions.
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- 39 - Six Tips for Preparing for the Mueller Report, Which May or May Not Be Coming
Being investigative journalists means we’re constantly asking questions. But these days, it also means people are asking usquestions. One we hear a lot nowadays: “When is the Mueller report coming — and what will it say?”
Our answer: We don’t know. But we’ve realized that perhaps we can be more helpful than that. We don’t have insider information on special counsel Robert Mueller’s office. (Sorry!) But we have spent lots of time investigating the president and his businesses. And we thought we’d share some of the perspectives we’ve gained.
Here are six things to keep in mind.
We don’t know what Mueller will report, when he will report it or even whether we’ll be able to read it. That’s because Congress changed the law after special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s salacious tell-all on President Bill Clinton. When Mueller is done, he has to give a report to Attorney General William Barr. But Barr can choose to keep the report confidential. Barr only has to give a summary to Congress. If Barr doesn’t make Mueller’s actual report public, Democrats will almost surely subpoena it. Then get ready for a fight.
Stop focusing on “collusion.”
“Collusion” has come to be a kind of shorthand for ... basically doing something bad with Russia. But the term is both too vague and too narrow. For one thing, “collusion” is not itself a clearly defined crime. It is a crime to commit a conspiracy against the United States — for which there is a high bar: proving an intentto undermine the government.
Remember: We already know a lot.
We already know Trump had a hidden conflict of interest involving Russia during the campaign. Despite publicly denying it, Trump was negotiating to develop a tower in Moscow while he was running for president. That means Trump had interests involving Russia — which voters didn’t know about — that could have been influencing his policy positions. That’s all problematic on its own.
We also know that Russian government interests hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee, handed them to Wikileaks, and that at least one Trump ally, Roger Stone, was in touch with Wikileaks.
Don’t expect answers to everything, or even most things.
That’s not Mueller’s job. He is a prosecutor. His job is first and foremost to look for crimes. And while he can, and has, looked beyond Russian interference in the election, he’s unlikely to dig into everything. And, of course, there are lots of areas worthy of scrutiny beyond Russia: Trump’s businesses, his inauguration, his hush money payments and more.
Mueller is not alone.
There are lotsof active investigations looking into all these issues. A partial rundown of just the ones we know about: Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating the inauguration and other matters, the New York attorney general is investigating the Trump Foundation, and the District of Columbia’s attorney general and the state of Virginia are suing Trump over emoluments. There are also a whole host of coming congressional investigations.
The final judgments on Trump’s actions will be political, not legal. (Caveats apply.)
Whatever Mueller ultimately files, he is very unlikely to charge the president with a crime. Since Watergate, the Department of Justice has had a policy that a sitting president should not be indicted. And Mueller is a stickler for the rules.
So: Stay tuned. Stay patient. And while you wait for the report, check out our conversation with On The Media – they’ve created a handy “Breaking News Consumers’ Handbook Mueller Edition.”Tue, 05 Mar 2019
- 38 - What We’ve Learned From Michael Cohen
For a year now, Trump, Inc. has been digging into the president’s business. We’ve reached out repeatedly to the Trump Organization with questions. Mostly, we haven’t gotten answers.
Yesterday was different.
Michael Cohen worked for a decade as the president’s in-house attorney and fixer. In his testimony before the House Oversight Committee, he offered a detailed, insider account of alleged fraud, secrecy and cover-ups.
In many cases, what he described connected to the very stories we’ve been digging into:
-- How Cohen came to work for Trump.
-- How Trump often changed the value of his assets, sometimes to seem richer, sometimes to lower his taxes, like at his golf courses.
Trump, Inc. hosts Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz sat down to review what we’ve learned and what it means for ongoing investigations into the president and his business. Dan Alexander from Forbes joined them.Thu, 28 Feb 2019
- 37 - How a Nigerian Presidential Candidate Hired a Trump Lobbyist and Ended Up in Trump’s LobbyWed, 27 Feb 2019
- 36 - Who Was Behind the Plan to Give Saudi Arabia Nuclear Power, and What Was Their Agenda?Fri, 22 Feb 2019
- 35 - Trump Inauguration Chief Tom Barrack’s ‘Rules for Success’
Last year, our Trump, Inc. podcast with WNYC explored the mystery of how Donald Trump’s inaugural managed to raise and spend $107 million. A lot has happened since then.
We now know the inaugural committee is the subject of a wide-ranging criminal investigation. And we at Trump, Inc. broke the news that some of the inaugural money went to Trump’s own business – and that Ivanka Trump played a role in the negotiations. That could violate tax law. (A spokesman for Ivanka said she simply wanted a “fair market rate.”)
In our latest episode, we take a deep dive into the many roles of Tom Barrack: Trump’s old friend; wealthy investor with decades-long ties to the Middle East; and the man who chaired the now-under-investigation inaugural committee.
Before the inauguration, Barrack described the role as “the worst job in the world.” So why’d he take it?
One possible clue comes from an eight-page strategic plan dated one month after the inauguration on the letterhead of the company he founded. Another reason could be a plan he supported to export U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.
Barrack has spent his career cultivating the powerful. He lives by twenty “Rules for Success,” including: “Punctuality is the courtesy of kings” and “The jungle is a safer place with professionals than a paved road with amateurs.”
Barrack did not agree to an interview. His spokesman, and the inaugural committee, did not respond to our questions. A committee spokeswoman previously said its finances “were fully audited internally and independently and are fully accounted.” WNYC
Elsewhere in the podcast, we report that the inaugural committee was so eager to book space at Trump’s hotel in Washington that it encouraged hotel management to cancel another event -- a prayer breakfast -- so space would be clear for the inaugural celebration, according to a lawsuit against the committee filed by the reverend who organized the breakfast.
The hotel did briefly cancel the breakfast, invoking “force majeure,” or an act of god. In this case, they predicted civil unrest over the inauguration week.Wed, 20 Feb 2019
- 33 - What We Now Know About Manafort, Cohen and ‘Individual-1’
Court filings by prosecutors last week shined a light on the business lives of two men who worked get Donald Trump elected president: former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Trump, Incco-hosts Ilya Marritz and Andrea Bernstein talk with Franklin Foer of The Atlantic about what the documents show -- and the further questions they raise.
Among those questions:- What exactly was Manafort’s connection to a business partner who some in the intelligence committee believe to be a Russian intelligence asset?
- Why did Russian officials approach the Trump campaign about potential “political synergy”?
- How much did Trump know about Cohen’s coordination of hush money payments to two women who alleged they had affairs with the now-president?Wed, 12 Dec 2018
- 32 - Trump Jr. Invested in a Hydroponic Lettuce Company
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, took a stake last year in a startup whose co-chairman is a major Trump campaign fundraiser who has sought financial support from the federal government for his other business interests, according to records obtained by ProPublica.
The fundraiser, Texas money manager Gentry Beach, and Trump Jr. attended college together, are godfather to one of each other’s sons and have collaborated on investments — and on the Trump presidential campaign. Since Trump’s election, Beach has attempted to obtain federal assistance for projects in Asia, the Caribbean and South America, and he has met or corresponded with top officials in the National Security Council, Interior Department and Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
Beach and others at the startup, Eden Green Technology, have touted their connections to the first family to impress partners, suppliers and others, according to five current and former business associates. Richard Venn, an early backer of Eden Green, recalls the company’s founder mentioning “interest from the Trump family.” Another associate said Beach bragged about his ties to the Trumps in a business meeting.
The investment is one of just a handful of known business ventures pursued by Trump Jr. since his father moved into the White House almost two years ago. In addition to being a top campaign surrogate and public booster, Trump Jr. serves as an executive vice president of his father’s company and one of just two trustees of the trust holding the president’s assets.
Ethics experts have consistently criticized these arrangements, arguing that they invite those seeking to influence the government to do so by attempting to enrich the president or his family members with favorable business opportunities.
Trump Jr. invested in the startup, a company that grows organic lettuce in a hydroponic greenhouse, last year, records show. Those records don’t state how much money — if any — Trump paid for his 7,500 shares. But the shares would have been worth about $650,000 at the end of last year, based on a formula used by another shareholder in a recent court filing. Neither Trump Jr. nor the company have disclosed his investment publicly. Trump Jr. obtained the stake through a limited liability company called MSMDF Agriculture LLC, which was set up by a Trump Organization employee last fall.
The key ethical question, said Virginia Canter, chief ethics lawyer at the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is whether Beach’s involvement with Eden Green, and Trump Jr.’s investment in it, are based on the business merits — or on the possibility of cashing in on connections to power. “Why is Trump Jr. being given this opportunity?” she asked. “It definitely has the appearance of trying to gain access by any means to curry favor with the administration.”
The willingness of Eden Green to invoke the Trump name in its business dealings raises further ethical concerns, experts said, particularly if potential customers understand that they are giving contracts to a startup whose success could enrich the president’s son.
Neither Trump Jr. nor his spokesman responded to messages seeking comment on his relationship with Beach and investment in Eden Green. A White House spokeswoman didn’t respond to emailed questions. Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s top lawyer, said in a statement that Trump Jr.’s investment is a personal one. The entity through which it was made “is not owned or controlled by, or affiliated in any way with, The Trump Organization,” Garten said.
Last fall, Eden Green concluded a deal with Walmart. Today, the giant retailer sells the company’s lettuce, kale and other greens at about 100 stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. (Eden Green’s sole facility is a 44,023-square-foot greenhouse outside Fort Worth, where it grows the greens in 18-foot vertical tubes.)
Walmart interacts with government regulators on an array of matters -- everything from labor practices and land use to securities filings -- but there is no indication that Walmart is aware of Trump Jr.’s connection to Eden Green. (Separately, Walmart contributed $150,000 to Trump’s inaugural committee. Beach was a finance vice chair of that committee, but a Beach spokesman says he has never met with Walmart executives.)
Molly Blakeman, a Walmart spokeswoman, declined to comment on Eden Green or its investors. “We don’t talk about our relationships with our suppliers,” said Blakeman, who added that Walmart has “supported inaugural activities” in the past.
Andrew Kolvet, a spokesman for Beach and the other Eden Green executives, said it’s “categorically false” that the Trump name was invoked by Eden Green officials. Kolvet cited a corporate policy that forbids discussing investors “with any current or potential client.” He also said Trump Jr. isn’t involved with company operations and bought into Eden Green during “U.S. friends and family fundraising efforts.”
A recent lawsuit asserts that Eden Green is in financial trouble. In October, the company’s largest shareholder, an entity controlled by a wealthy oil and gas family from Midland, Texas, filed suit in state court in Dallas, alleging “gross project mismanagement.” The suit accused Beach and six executives, all of them board members, of paying themselves extravagant salaries (allegedly $250,000 to $300,000 per year) and putting the company “on the precipice of failure.” A financial consultant hired to examine the company’s books asserted that Eden Green executives spent more than $19.4 million in the first nine months of 2018 — a daunting sum for a company that reported having raised a total of $22 million as of June — while generating $9,000 in revenues.
In late November, less than a month after the suit was filed, it was settled on confidential terms. Kolvet disputed the compensation figures asserted in the litigation, saying that the company’s pay is “in accordance with industry standards.” He maintained that Eden Green’s prospects are good. As with many startups, he said, “things don’t go in a straight line.” Kolvet asserted that the company has plenty of operating cash.
Trump Jr., now 40, and Beach, now 43, met at the University of Pennsylvania two decades ago. Both are the sons of wealthy businessmen, one in real estate, one in oil and gas. Beach’s father has since been laid low: Last month he was sentenced to four months in federal detention, plus two years of supervised release, for bankruptcy fraud.
Beach was a groomsman at Trump Jr.’s wedding (Trump Jr. and his wife recently separated). Beach and Trump Jr. like to hunt and once considered buying a hunting preserve in Mexico together. According to a 2010 deposition testimony by Trump Jr., they talked business during lunches at Rothmann’s steakhouse in New York.
Both have struggled in business at times. In 2009, Trump Jr. and others (including one person who pleaded guilty to an unrelated criminal fraud charge in 2010) formed a company that would sell concrete panels for home constructions out of a warehouse in North Charleston, South Carolina. The business quickly became mired in lawsuits seeking payment for unpaid bills. Trump Jr. made the situation more precarious by personally guaranteeing a $3.7 million loan for the project. Days before the note was due, the Trump Organization purchased the debt, eventually taking over the warehouse and selling it all back to Trump Jr.’s original business partner, according to press accounts.
For his part, Beach’s career path has also included some travails. He spent a year or so at Enron and then moved into finance. Beach worked for a hedge fund and remains locked in litigation with it more than a decade later. (He claims he wasn’t paid his full compensation; the fund claims he was “responsible for the destruction of millions of dollars of investor capital.”) Beach now runs a “family office focused on private equity investments” out of a Dallas office that Eden Green uses as its corporate address.
Trump Jr. has at least twice before invested with Beach in deals that didn’t pan out. Trump Jr. put $200,000 in a dry Texas oil well managed by Beach’s father, according to testimony by Trump Jr. He also lost an unknown sum in a failed African mining company affiliated with Beach’s uncle.
But Trump Jr. stuck with his friend. The Associated Press reported this year that the two formed a company last October to pursue technology investments.
Then there was Eden Green. By the time Trump invested last fall, the company had already run into problems. It first launched in 2013 in South Africa with an ambitious mission: to feed the world through a highly efficient indoor farming system deploying patented technology intended to yield 10 to 12 harvests a year, compared with two or three for conventional agriculture.
There’s a market for vegetables grown in controlled greenhouse environments as big retailers increasingly push for cleaner, more reliable and locally grown alternatives. But the challenges are significant. Energy costs run high, and there are myriad difficulties associated with scaling up to an industrial-size system.
That’s what happened in Eden Green’s first iteration, according to a half dozen early backers and associates. The produce may have been sustainable — but the business model wasn’t. The CEO of its European unit wrote in an October 2017 email obtained by ProPublica that the company had “been bleeding money and resources for almost 2 years now.” In the fall of 2017, Eden Green’s founders cemented a deal to hand over majority control to a group of U.S. investors led by Beach, current and former business associates said.
This was the company Trump Jr. bought into. He used an innocuous-sounding limited liability company, called MSMDF Agriculture LLC, to make the investment. ProPublica discovered MSMDF after the Trump Organization listed it in New York City filings among dozens of other entities it controlled. (Because the Trump Organization has contracts with the city to run the Wollman skating rink in Central Park and a golf course in the Bronx, the city requires the company to file disclosures.) The Trump Organization told ProPublica that MSMDF is not in fact owned by the Trump Organization but was included in the disclosure form because it’s controlled by Trump Jr., who was described in the form as MSMDF’s president, secretary and treasurer.
MSMDF was formed by a Trump Organization employee in September 2017 in Delaware, according to incorporation papers. Eden Green Holdings UK, Ltd., an affiliate of the Texas-based company, then listed MSMDF among its roughly two dozen shareholders in a 2018 report filed with British regulators.
The Trump Jr-Beach connection has been most visible in the political arena. Last year, for example, Trump Jr. publicly thanked Beach and their mutual friend Tommy Hicks Jr., another wealthy investor from Dallas, for their fundraising during the 2016 campaign. “We couldn’t have done it without you guys,” Trump Jr. said of his buddies to a crowd of Republican donors in March 2017. “It was just absolutely incredible.”
In the foreword to a recent book, Trump Jr. reiterated the message, writing that a “rag tag army” — Trump Jr., Beach, Hicks and Charlie Kirk, the firebrand chief of the pro-Trump organization, Turning Point USA — barnstormed the country in 2016, raising “over 150 million dollars in ninety days.”
Since Trump’s election, Beach has met with top administration figures on multiple occasions. For example, according to the AP, he lobbied National Security Council officials to relax sanctions against Venezuela to create opportunities for U.S. companies. He attended a private lunch with Republican donors and Interior secretary Ryan Zinke.
Beach has denied leveraging his ties to the first family. Last month, Beach told a TV interviewer in Croatia, where he said he was exploring a “truly spectacular” $100 million real estate development, “I don’t need anything from the government, thankfully, except normal police protection in my hometown.”
But newly obtained emails show that Beach wanted government backing for his private business interests at the same time he was running Eden Green. In October 2017, Beach pitched Ray Washburne, who heads the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a government agency that offers loans and guarantees to American companies looking to expand into emerging markets, according to emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. (Before joining OPIC, Washburne was a Dallas investor and a top fundraiser for Trump. He and Beach move in the same circles and have friends in common.)
“The Dominican Republic could really use some US investment and support,” Beach wrote in one email to Washburne, describing his various projects there, which included “a power plant upgrade to an existing tin mine” as well as liquid natural gas infrastructure. He invited OPIC officials to travel with him to the Dominican Republic “If permitted, we would be happy to handle all transportation from DC to DR and back,” he wrote in a follow-up note. (Such a trip never occurred, according to an OPIC spokesperson.)
A month later, the emails show, Beach also lobbied on another project, arranging a call with his business partner and one of Washburne’s top deputies regarding an “India Oppty,” which appeared to involve an energy fund. Separately, Beach also introduced Washburne to the head of oil giant Exxon Mobil’s Africa operations, with whom Beach said he had gone shooting at Blenheim Palace in England, where the Churchill family resided for three centuries. And Beach connected another Washburne aide with a South African mining executive who Beach described as “one of my partners.”
OPIC spokeswoman Amanda Burke said Beach has not submitted any formal applications for agency funding. “OPIC routinely meets with a variety of businesses and stakeholders,” she said, adding that formal applications trigger background and credit checks and “go through several levels of agency vetting and approval.”
Asked whether having a Trump connection would disqualify a person from receiving OPIC support, Burke emailed that “in general, an individual’s personal or legal business interests would not disqualify them from applying. However, certain relationships may cause board members or other decision makers of OPIC to be conflicted out of the decision-making process on potential projects.”Tue, 04 Dec 2018
- 31 - The Emolument Suit Against Trump That Is Moving Ahead
There’s lots of talk about congressional investigations of the Trump administration that may be coming. Meanwhile, there is already a push to pull back the veil on the president’s conflicts. And it’s making progress.
This month, a federal judge ruled that Maryland and Washington, D.C., can move ahead with a lawsuit claiming the president has violated the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which bars presidents from accepting payments from foreign and state governments without congressional approval. That means the president may soon have to turn over all sorts of documents related to his businesses.
We spoke about the case with one of the lawyers behind it, District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine.
Racine explains that the Emoluments Clause is the “country's first anticorruption law.” The framers created it to “ensure that a president the United States as well as other federal officers would be loyal to the interest of the United States, not to their purses or to their pocketbooks.”
The Department of Justice has fought the case, disputing that the president is violating the Emoluments Clause. “This case, which should have been dismissed, presents important questions that warrant immediate appellate review,” a department spokesman said after the judge’s order.
Racine also talked with us about what exact documents they’re hoping to get, and the time a Republican Congress investigated whether another president was receiving emoluments. (He wasn’t.)Wed, 14 Nov 2018
- 30 - So What Trump Investigations Could Be Coming?Thu, 08 Nov 2018
- 29 - Rudy, Inc.Wed, 31 Oct 2018
- 28 - Trump and Taxes: The Art of the DodgeWed, 24 Oct 2018
- 27 - Trump’s Tangled Relationship With Saudi ArabiaFri, 19 Oct 2018
- 26 - Pump and TrumpWed, 17 Oct 2018
- 25 - Trump’s Patron-in-Chief: Sheldon Adelson
Late on a Thursday evening in February 2017, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland for his first visit with President Donald Trump. A few hours earlier, the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s Boeing 737, which is so large it can seat 149 people, touched down at Reagan National Airport after a flight from Las Vegas.
Adelson dined that night at the White House with Trump, Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, were among Trump’s biggest benefactors, writing checks for $20 million in the campaign and pitching in an additional $5 million for the inaugural festivities.
Adelson was in town to see the Japanese prime minister about a much greater sum of money. Japan, after years of acrimonious public debate, has legalized casinos. For more than a decade, Adelson and his company, Las Vegas Sands, have sought to build a multibillion-dollar casino resort there. He has called expanding to the country, one of the world’s last major untapped markets, the “holy grail.” Nearly every major casino company in the world is competing to secure one of a limited number of licenses to enter a market worth up to $25 billion per year. “This opportunity won’t come along again, potentially ever,” said Kahlil Philander, an academic who studies the industry.
The morning after his White House dinner, Adelson attended a breakfast in Washington with Abe and a small group of American CEOs, including two others from the casino industry. Adelson and the other executives raised the casino issue with Abe, according to an attendee.
Adelson had a potent ally in his quest: the new president of the United States. Following the business breakfast, Abe had a meeting with Trump before boarding Air Force One for a weekend at Mar-a-Lago. The two heads of state dined with Patriots owner Bob Kraft and golfed at Trump National Jupiter Golf Club with the South African golfer Ernie Els. During a meeting at Mar-a-Lago that weekend, Trump raised Adelson’s casino bid to Abe, according to two people briefed on the meeting. The Japanese side was surprised.
“It was totally brought up out of the blue,” according to one of the people briefed on the exchange. “They were a little incredulous that he would be so brazen.” After Trump told Abe he should strongly consider Las Vegas Sands for a license, “Abe didn’t really respond, and said thank you for the information,” this person said.
Trump also mentioned at least one other casino operator. Accounts differ on whether it was MGM or Wynn Resorts, then run by Trump donor and then-Republican National Committee finance chairman Steve Wynn. The Japanese newspaper Nikkei reported the president also mentioned MGM and Abe instructed an aide who was present to jot down the names of both companies. Questioned about the meeting, Abe said in remarks before the Japanese legislature in July that Trump had not passed on requests from casino companies but did not deny that the topic had come up.
The president raising a top donor’s personal business interests directly with a foreign head of state would violate longstanding norms. “That should be nowhere near the agenda of senior officials,” said Brian Harding, a Japan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “U.S.-Japan relations is about the security of the Asia-Pacific, China and economic issues.”
Adelson has told his shareholders to expect good news. On a recent earnings call, Adelson cited unnamed insiders as saying Sands’ efforts to win a place in the Japanese market will pay off. “The estimates by people who know, say they know, whom we believe they know, say that we're in the No. 1 pole position,” he said.
After decades as a major Republican donor, Adelson is known as an ideological figure, motivated by his desire to influence U.S. policy to help Israel. “I’m a one-issue person. That issue is Israel,” he said last year. On that issue — Israel — Trump has delivered. The administration has slashed funding for aid to Palestinian refugees and scrapped the Iran nuclear deal. Attending the recent opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, Adelson seemed to almost weep with joy, according to an attendee.
But his reputation as an Israel advocate has obscured a through-line in his career: He has used his political access to push his financial self-interest. Not only has Trump touted Sands’ interests in Japan, but his administration also installed an executive from the casino industry in a top position in the U.S. embassy in Tokyo. Adelson’s influence reverberates through this administration. Cabinet-level officials jump when he calls. One who displeased him was replaced. He has helped a friend’s company get a research deal with the Environmental Protection Agency. And Adelson has already received a windfall from Trump’s new tax law, which particularly favored companies like Las Vegas Sands. The company estimated the benefit of the law at $1.2 billion.
Adelson’s influence is not absolute: His company’s casinos in Macau are vulnerable in Trump’s trade war with China, which controls the former Portuguese colony near Hong Kong. If the Chinese government chose to retaliate by targeting Macau, where Sands has several large properties, it could hurt Adelson’s bottom line. So far, there’s no evidence that has happened.
The White House declined to comment on Adelson. The Japanese Embassy in Washington declined to comment. Sands spokesman Ron Reese declined to answer detailed questions but said in a statement: “The gaming industry has long sought the opportunity to enter the Japan market. Gaming companies have spent significant resources there on that effort and Las Vegas Sands is no exception.”
Reese added: “If our company has any advantage it would be because of our significant Asian operating experience and our unique convention-based business model. Any suggestion we are favored for some other reason is not based on the reality of the process in Japan or the integrity of the officials involved in it.”
With a fortune estimated at $35 billion, Adelson is the 21st-richest person in the world, according to Forbes. In August, when he celebrated his 85th birthday in Las Vegas, the party stretched over four days. Adelson covered guests’ expenses. A 92-year-old Tony Bennett and the Israeli winner of Eurovision performed for the festivities. He is slowing down physically; stricken by neuropathy, he uses a motorized scooter to get around and often stands up with the help of a bodyguard. He fell and broke three ribs while on a ferry from Macau to Hong Kong last November.
Yet Adelson has spent the Trump era hustling to expand his gambling empire. With Trump occupying the White House, Adelson has found the greatest political ally he’s ever had.
“I would put Adelson at the very top of the list of both access and influence in the Trump administration,” said Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen. “I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I’ve been studying money in politics for 40 years.”
Adelson grew up poor in Boston, the son of a cabdriver with a sixth-grade education. According to his wife, Adelson was beaten up as a kid for being Jewish. A serial entrepreneur who has started or acquired more than 50 different businesses, he had already made and lost his first fortune by the late 1960s, when he was in his mid-30s.
It took him until the mid-1990s to become extraordinarily rich. In 1995, he sold the pioneering computer trade show Comdex to the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank for $800 million. He entered the gambling business in earnest when his Venetian casino resort opened in 1999 in Las Vegas. With its gondola rides on faux canals, it was inspired by his honeymoon to Venice with Miriam, who is 12 years younger than Adelson.
It’s been said that Trump is a poor person’s idea of a rich person. Adelson could be thought of as Trump’s idea of a rich person. A family friend recalls Sheldon and Miriam’s two sons, who are now in college, getting picked up from school in stretch Hummer limousines and his home being so large it was stocked with Segway transporters to get around. A Las Vegas TV station found a few years ago that, amid a drought, Adelson’s palatial home a short drive from the Vegas Strip had used nearly 8 million gallons of water in a year, enough for 55 average homes. Adelson will rattle off his precise wealth based on the fluctuation of Las Vegas Sands’ share price, said his friend the New York investor Michael Steinhardt. “He’s very sensitive to his net worth,” Steinhardt said.
Trump entered the casino business several years before Adelson. In the early 1990s, both eyed Eilat in southern Israel as a potential casino site. Neither built there. Adelson “didn’t have a whole lot of respect for Trump when Trump was operating casinos. He was dismissive of Trump,” recalled one former Las Vegas Sands official. In an interview in the late ’90s, Adelson lumped Trump with Wynn: “Both of these gentlemen have very big egos,” Adelson said. “Well, the world doesn't really care about their egos.”
Today, in his rare public appearances, Adelson has a grandfatherly affect. He likes to refer to himself as “Self” (“I said to myself, ‘Self …’”). He makes Borscht Belt jokes about his short stature: “A friend of mine says, ‘You’re the tallest guy in the world.’ I said, ‘How do you figure that?’ He says, ‘When you stand on your wallet.’”
By the early 2000s, Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands had surpassed Trump’s casino operations. While Trump was getting bogged down in Atlantic City, Adelson’s properties thrived. When Macau opened up a local gambling monopoly, Adelson bested a crowded field that included Trump to win a license. Today, Macau accounts for more than half of Las Vegas Sands’ roughly $13 billion in annual revenue.
Trump’s casinos went bankrupt, and now he is out of the industry entirely. By the mid-2000s, Trump was playing the role of business tycoon on his reality show, “The Apprentice.” Meanwhile, Adelson aggressively expanded his empire in Macau and later in Singapore. His company’s Moshe Safdie-designed Marina Bay Sands property there, with its rooftop infinity pool, featured prominently in the recent hit movie “Crazy Rich Asians.”
While their business trajectories diverged, Adelson and Trump have long shared a willingness to sue critics, enemies and business associates. Multiple people said they were too afraid of lawsuits to speak on the record for this story. In 1989, after the Nevada Gaming Control Board conducted a background investigation of Adelson, it found he had already been personally involved in around 100 civil lawsuits, according to the book “License to Steal,” a history of the agency. That included matters as small as a $600 contractual dispute with a Boston hospital.
The lawsuits have continued even as Adelson became so rich the amounts of money at stake hardly mattered. In one case, Adelson was unhappy with the quality of construction on one of his beachfront Malibu, California, properties and pursued a legal dispute with the contractor for more than seven years, going through a lengthy series of appeals and cases in different courts. Adelson sued a Wall Street Journal reporter for libel over a single phrase — a description of him as “foul-mouthed” — and fought the case for four years before it was settled, with the story unchanged. In a particularly bitter case in Massachusetts Superior Court in the 1990s, his sons from his first marriage accused him of cheating them out of money. Adelson prevailed.
Adelson rarely speaks to the media any more, with occasional exceptions for friendly business journalists or on stage at conferences, usually interviewed by people to whom he has given a great deal of money. “He keeps a very tight inner circle,” said a casino industry executive who has known Adelson for decades. Adelson declined to comment for this story.
Adelson once told a reporter of entering the casino business late in life, “I loved being an outsider.” For nearly a decade he played that role in presidential politics, bankrolling the opposition to the Obama administration. As with some of his early entrepreneurial forays, he dumped money for little return, his political picks going bust. In 2008, he backed Rudy Giuliani. As America’s Mayor faded, he came on board late with the John McCain campaign. In 2012, he almost single-handedly funded Newt Gingrich’s candidacy. Gingrich spent a few weeks atop the polls before his candidacy collapsed. Adelson became a late adopter of Mitt Romney.
In 2016, the Adelsons didn’t officially endorse a candidate for months. Trump used Adelson as a foil, an example of the well-heeled donors who wielded outsized influence in Washington. “Sheldon or whoever — you could say Koch. I could name them all. They’re all friends of mine, every one of them. I know all of them. They have pretty much total control over the candidate,” Trump said on Fox News in October 2015. “Nobody controls me but the American public.” In a pointed tweet that month, Trump said: “Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to [Marco] Rubio because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet. I agree!”
Despite Trump’s barbs, Adelson had grown curious about the candidate and called his friend Steinhardt, who founded the Birthright program that sends young Jews on free trips to Israel. Adelson is now the program’s largest funder.
“I called Kushner and I said Sheldon would like to meet your father-in-law,” Steinhardt recalled. “Kushner was excited.” Trump got on a plane to Las Vegas. “Sheldon has strong views when it comes to the Jewish people; Trump recognized that, and a marriage was formed.”
Trump and his son-in-law Kushner courted Adelson privately, meeting several times in New York and Las Vegas. “Having Orthodox Jews like Jared and Ivanka next to him and so many common people in interest gave a level of comfort to Sheldon,” said Ronn Torossian, a New York public relations executive who knows both men. “Someone who lets their kid marry an Orthodox Jew and then become Orthodox is probably going to stand pretty damn close to Israel.”
Miriam Adelson, a physician born and raised in what became Israel, is said to be an equal partner in Sheldon Adelson’s political decisions. He has said the interests of the Jewish state are at the center of his worldview, and his views align with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-of-center approach to Iran and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
Adelson suggested in 2014 that Israel doesn’t need to be a democracy. “I think God didn’t say anything about democracy,” Adelson said. “He didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state.” On a trip to the country several years ago, on the eve of his young son’s bar mitzvah, Adelson said, “Hopefully he’ll come back; his hobby is shooting. He’ll come back and be a sniper for the IDF,” referring to the Israel Defense Forces.
On domestic issues, Adelson is more Chamber of Commerce Republican than movement conservative or Trumpian populist. He is pro-choice and has called for work permits and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a position sharply at odds with Trump’s. While the Koch brothers, his fellow Republican megadonors, have evinced concern over trade policy and distaste for Trump, Adelson has proved flexible, putting aside any qualms about Trump’s business acumen or ideological misgivings. In May 2016, he declared in a Washington Post op-ed that he was endorsing Trump. He wrote that Trump represented “a CEO success story that exemplifies the American spirit of determination, commitment to cause and business stewardship.”
The Adelsons came through with $20 million in donations to the pro-Trump super PAC, part of at least $83 million in donations to Republicans. By the time of the October 2016 release of the Access Hollywood tape featuring Trump bragging about sexual assault, Adelson was among his staunchest supporters. “Sheldon Adelson had Donald Trump's back,” said Steve Bannon in a speech last year, speaking of the time after the scandal broke. “He was there.”
In December 2016, Adelson donated $5 million to the Trump inaugural festivities. The Adelsons had better seats at Trump’s inauguration than many Cabinet secretaries. The whole family, including their two college-age sons, came to Washington for the celebration. One of his sons posted a picture on Instagram of the event with the hashtag #HuckFillary.
The investment paid off in access and in financial returns. Adelson has met with Trump or visited the White House at least six times since Trump’s election victory. The two speak regularly. Adelson has also had access to others in the White House. He met privately with Vice President Mike Pence before Pence gave a speech at Adelson’s Venetian resort in Las Vegas last year. “He just calls the president all the time. Donald Trump takes Sheldon Adelson’s calls,” said Alan Dershowitz, who has done legal work for Adelson and advised Trump.
Adelson’s tens of millions in donations to Trump have already been paid back many times over by the new tax law. While all corporations benefited from the lower tax rate in the new law, many incurred an extra bill in the transition because profits overseas were hit with a one-time tax. But not Sands. Adelson’s company hired lobbyists to press Trump’s Treasury Department and Congress on provisions that would help companies like Sands that paid high taxes abroad, according to public filings and tax experts. The lobbying effort appears to have worked. After Trump signed the tax overhaul into law in December, Las Vegas Sands recorded a benefit from the new law the company estimated at $1.2 billion.
The Adelson family owns 55 percent of Las Vegas Sands, which is publicly traded, according to filings. The Treasury Department didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Now as Trump and the Republican Party face a reckoning in the midterm elections in November, they have once again turned to Adelson. He has given at least $55 million so far.
In 2014, Adelson told an interviewer he was not interested in building a dynasty. “I want my legacy to be that I helped out humankind,” he said, underscoring his family’s considerable donations to medical research. But he gives no indication of sticking to a quiet life of philanthropy. In the last four years, he has used the Sands’ fleet of private jets, assiduously meeting with world leaders and seeking to build new casinos in Japan, Korea and Brazil.
He is closest in Japan. Japan has been considering lifting its ban on casinos for years, in spite of majority opposition in polls from a public that is wary of the social problems that might result. A huge de facto gambling industry of the pinball-like game pachinko has long existed in the country, historically associated with organized crime and seedy parlors filled with cigarette-smoking men. Opposition to allowing casinos is so heated that a brawl broke out in the Japanese legislature this summer. But lawmakers have moved forward on legalizing casinos and crafted regulations that hew to Adelson’s wishes.
“Japan is considered the next big market. Sheldon looks at it that way,” said a former Sands official. Adelson envisions building a $10 billion “integrated resort,” which in industry parlance refers to a large complex featuring a casino with hotels, entertainment venues, restaurants and shopping malls.
The new Japanese law allows for just three licenses to build casinos in cities around the country, effectively granting valuable local monopolies. At least 13 companies, including giants like MGM and Genting, are vying for a license. Even though Sands is already a strong contender because of its size and its successful resort in Singapore, some observers in Japan believe Adelson’s relationship with Trump has helped move Las Vegas Sands closer to the multibillion-dollar prize.
Just a week after the U.S. election, Prime Minister Abe arrived at Trump Tower, becoming the first foreign leader to meet with the president-elect. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were also there. Abe presented Trump with a gilded $3,800 golf driver. Few know the details of what the Trumps and Abe discussed at the meeting. In a break with protocol, Trump’s transition team sidelined the State Department, whose Japan experts were never briefed on what was said. “There was a great deal of frustration,” said one State Department official. “There was zero communication from anyone on Trump’s team.”
In another sign of Adelson’s direct access to the incoming president and ties with Japan, he secured a coveted Trump Tower meeting a few weeks later for an old friend, the Japanese billionaire businessman Masayoshi Son. Son’s company, SoftBank, had bought Adelson’s computer trade show business in the 1990s. A few years ago, Adelson named Son as a potential partner in his casino resort plans in Japan. Son’s SoftBank, for its part, owns Sprint, which has long wanted to merge with T-Mobile but needs a green light from the Trump administration. A beaming Son emerged from the meeting in the lobby of Trump Tower with the president-elect and promised $50 billion in investments in the U.S.
When Trump won the election in November 2016, the casino bill had been stalled in the Japanese Diet. One month after the Trump-Abe meeting, in an unexpected move in mid-December, Abe’s ruling coalition pushed through landmark legislation authorizing casinos, with specific regulations to be ironed out later. There was minimal debate on the controversial bill, and it passed at the very end of an extraordinary session of the legislature. “That was a surprise to a lot of stakeholders,” said one former Sands executive who still works in the industry. Some observers suspect the timing was not a coincidence. “After Trump won the election in 2016, the Abe government’s efforts to pass the casino bill shifted into high gear,” said Yoichi Torihata, a professor at Shizuoka University and opponent of the casino law.
On a Las Vegas Sands earnings call a few days after Trump’s inauguration, Adelson touted that Abe had visited the company’s casino resort complex in Singapore. “He was very impressed with it,” Adelson said. Days later, Adelson attended the February breakfast with Abe in Washington, after which the prime minister went on to Mar-a-Lago, where the president raised Las Vegas Sands. A week after that, Adelson flew to Japan and met with the secretary general of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo.
The casino business is one of the most regulated industries in the world, and Adelson has always sought political allies. To enter the business in 1989, he hired the former governor of Nevada to represent him before the state’s gaming commission. In 2001, according to court testimony reported in the New Yorker, Adelson intervened with then-House Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay, to whom he was a major donor, at the behest of a Chinese official over a proposed House resolution that was critical of the country’s human rights record. At the time, Las Vegas Sands was seeking entry into the Macau market. The resolution died, which Adelson attributed to factors other than his intervention, according to the magazine.
In 2015, he purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the state’s largest newspaper, which then published a lengthy investigative series on one of Adelson’s longtime rivals, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which runs a convention center that competes with Adelson’s. (The paper said Adelson had no influence over its coverage.)
In Japan, Las Vegas Sands’ efforts have accelerated in the last year. Adelson returned to the country in September 2017, visiting top officials in Osaka, a possible casino site. In a show of star power in October, Sands flew in David Beckham and the Eagles’ Joe Walsh for a press conference at the Palace Hotel Tokyo. Beckham waxed enthusiastic about his love of sea urchin and declared, "Las Vegas Sands is creating fabulous resorts all around the world, and their scale and vision are impressive.”
Adelson appears emboldened. When he was in Osaka last fall, he publicly criticized a proposal under consideration to cap the total amount of floor space devoted to casinos in the resorts that have been legalized. In July, the Japanese Diet passed a bill with more details on what casinos will look like and laying out the bidding process. The absolute limit on casino floor area had been dropped from the legislation.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has made an unusual personnel move that could help advance pro-gambling interests. The new U.S. ambassador, an early Trump campaign supporter and Tennessee businessman named William Hagerty, hired as his senior adviser an American executive working on casino issues for the Japanese company SEGA Sammy. Joseph Schmelzeis left his role as senior adviser on global government and industry affairs for the company in February to join the U.S. Embassy. (He has not worked for Sands.)
A State Department spokesperson said that embassy officials had communicated with Sands as part of “routine” meetings and advice provided to members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. The spokesperson said that “Schmelzeis is not participating in any matter related to integrated resorts or Las Vegas Sands.”
Japanese opposition politicians have seized on the Adelson-Trump-Abe nexus. One, Tetsuya Shiokawa, said this year that he believes Trump has been the unseen force behind why Abe’s party has “tailor-made the [casino] bill to suit foreign investors like Adelson.” In the next stage of the process, casino companies will complete their bids with Japanese localities.
Adelson’s influence has spread across the Trump administration. In August 2017, the Zionist Organization of America, to which the Adelsons are major donors, launched a campaign against National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. ZOA chief Mort Klein charged McMaster “clearly has animus toward Israel.”
Adelson said he was convinced to support the attack on McMaster after Adelson spoke with Safra Catz, the Israeli-born CEO of Oracle, who “enlightened me quite a bit” about McMaster, according to an email Klein later released to the media. Adelson pressed Trump to appoint the hawkish John Bolton to a high position, The New York Times reported. In March, Trump fired McMaster and replaced him with Bolton. The president and other cabinet officials also clashed with McMaster on policy and style issues.
For Scott Pruitt, the former EPA administrator known as an ally of industry, courting Adelson meant developing a keen interest in an unlikely topic: technology that generates clean water from air. An obscure Israeli startup called Watergen makes machines that resemble air conditioners and, with enough electricity, can pull potable water from the air.
Adelson doesn’t have a stake in the company, but he is old friends with the Israeli-Georgian billionaire who owns the firm, Mikhael Mirilashvili, according to the head of Watergen’s U.S. operation, Yehuda Kaploun. Adelson first encountered the technology on a trip to Israel, Kaploun said. Dershowitz is also on the company’s board.
Just weeks after being confirmed, Pruitt met with Watergen executives at Adelson’s request. Pruitt promptly mobilized dozens of EPA officials to ink a research deal under which the agency would study Watergen’s technology. EPA officials immediately began voicing concerns about the request, according to hundreds of previously unreported emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. They argued that the then-EPA chief was violating regular procedures.
Pruitt, according to one email, asked that staffers explore “on an expedited time frame” whether a deal could be done “without the typical contracting requirements.” Other emails described the matter as “very time sensitive” and having “high Administrator interest.”
A veteran scientist at the agency warned that the “technology has been around for decades,” adding that the agency should not be “focusing on a single vendor, in this case Watergen.” Officials said that Watergen’s technology was not unique, noting there were as many as 70 different suppliers on the market with products using the same concept. Notes from a meeting said the agency “does not currently have the expertise or staff to evaluate these technologies.” Agency lawyers “seemed scared” about the arrangement, according to an internal text exchange. The EPA didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Watergen got its research deal. It’s not known how much money the agency has spent on the project. The technology was shipped to a lab in Cincinnati, and Watergen said the government will produce a report on its study. Pruitt planned to unveil the deal on a trip to Israel, which was also planned with the assistance of Adelson, The Washington Post reported. But amid multiple scandals, the trip never happened.
Other parts of the Trump administration have also been friendly to Watergen. Over the summer, Mirilashvili attended the U.S. Embassy in Israel’s Fourth of July party, where he was photographed grinning and sipping water next to one of the company’s machines on display. Kaploun said U.S. Ambassador David Friedman’s staff assisted the company to help highlight its technology.
A State Department spokesperson said Watergen was one of many private sponsors of the embassy party and was “subject to rigorous vetting.” The embassy is now considering leasing or buying a Watergen unit as part of a “routine procurement action,” the spokesperson said.
A Mirilashvili spokesman said in a statement that Adelson and Mirilashvili “have no business ties with each other.” The spokesman added that Adelson had been briefed on the company’s technology by Watergen engineers and “Adelson has also expressed an interest in the ability of this Israeli technology to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans who are affected by water pollution.”
Even as the casino business looks promising in Japan, China has been a potential trouble spot for Adelson. Few businesses are as vulnerable to geopolitical winds as Adelson’s. The majority of Sands’ value derives from its properties in Macau. It is the world’s gambling capital, and China’s central government controls it.
“Sheldon Adelson highly values direct engagement in Beijing,” a 2009 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks says, “especially given the impact of Beijing's visa policies on the company's growing mass market operations in Macau.”
At times, Sands’ aggressive efforts in China crossed legal lines. On Jan. 19, 2017, the day before Trump took office, the Justice Department announced Sands was paying a nearly $7 million fine to settle a longstanding investigation into whether it violated a U.S. anti-bribery statute in China. The case revealed that Sands paid roughly $60 million to a consultant who “advertised his political connections with [People’s Republic of China] government officials” and that some of the payments “had no discernible legitimate business purpose.” Part of the work involved an effort by Sands to acquire a professional basketball team in the country to promote its casinos. The DOJ said Sands fully cooperated in the investigation and fixed its compliance problems.
A year and a half into the Trump administration, Adelson has a bigger problem than the Justice Department investigation: Trump’s trade war against Beijing has put Sands’ business in Macau at risk. Sands’ right to operate expires in a few years. Beijing could throttle the flow of money and people from the mainland to Macau. Sands and the other foreign operators in Macau “now sit on a geopolitical fault line. Their Macau concessions can therefore be on the line,” said a report from the Hong Kong business consultancy Steve Vickers & Associates.
A former Sands board member, George Koo, wrote a column in the Asia Times newspaper in April warning that Beijing could undercut the Macau market by legalizing casinos in the southern island province of Hainan. “A major blow in the trade war would be for China to allow Hainan to become a gambling destination and divert visitors who would otherwise be visiting Macau,” Koo wrote. “As one of Trump’s principal supporters, it’s undoubtedly a good time for Mr. Adelson to have a private conversation with the president.”
It’s not clear if Adelson has had that conversation. According to The Associated Press, Adelson was present for a discussion of China policy at the dinner he attended with Trump at the White House in February 2017. In September, Trump escalated his trade war with China. He raised tariffs on $200 billion Chinese imports. China retaliated with tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. products.
Adelson has said privately that if he can be helpful in any way he would volunteer himself to do whatever is asked for either side of the equation — the U.S. or China, according to a person who has spoken to him.
Torossian, the public relations executive, calls Adelson “this generation’s Rothschild” for his support of Israel. In early May, the Adelsons gave $30 million to the super PAC that is seeking to keep Republican control of the House for the remainder of Trump’s term. A few days later, Trump announced he was killing the Iran nuclear deal, a target of Adelson’s and the Netanyahu government’s for years. The following day, Adelson met with the president at the White House.
Five days later, Adelson was in Israel for another landmark, the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem marked a major shift in U.S. foreign policy, long eschewed by presidents of both parties. Besides dealing a major blow to Palestinian claims on part of the city, which are recognized by most of the world, it was the culmination of a more than 20-year project of the Adelsons. Sheldon and Miriam personally lobbied for the move on Capitol Hill as far back as 1995.
In an audience dotted with yarmulkes and MAGA-red hats, the Adelsons were in the front now, next to Netanyahu and his wife, the Kushners and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. A beaming Miriam, wearing a dress featuring an illustration of the Jerusalem skyline, filmed the event with her phone. She wrote a first-person account of the ceremony that was co-published on the front page of the two newspapers the Adelsons own, Israel Hayom and the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “The embassy opening is a crowning moment for U.S. foreign policy and for our president, Donald Trump. Just over a year into his first term, he has re-enshrined the United States as the standard-bearer of moral clarity and courage in a world that too often feels adrift.”
Adelson paid for the official delegation of Guatemala, the only other country to move its embassy, to travel to Israel. “Sheldon told me that any country that wants to move its embassy to Jerusalem, he’ll fly them in — the president and everyone — for the opening,” said Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce CEO Duvi Honig, who was in attendance.
Klein, the Zionist Organization of America president, was also there. The Adelsons, he said, “were glowing with a serene happiness like I’ve never seen them. Sheldon “said to me, ‘President Trump promised he would do this and he did it.’ And he almost became emotional. ‘And look, Mort, he did it.’Wed, 10 Oct 2018
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