Thursday, September 17, 2020

It's the Bribery, Stupid

In 2018, according to Dan Alexander at Vanity Fair, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), 70% owned by the Chinese government, or, as the Republicans have taken to (inaccurately) calling it, THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CHINA, which had been renting some 20,000 square feet on and around the 20th floor of Trump Tower for its US headquarters for some years, certainly well before Trump got into politics, took out a lease on 99,000 square feet a few blocks away in Paramount Plaza, on Broadway at 51st Street, leaving the market to assume they'd be moving out of Trump Tower, but they didn't:

“They are keeping a couple of floors,” Eric Trump conceded onstage at a business conference weeks before the original lease was scheduled to expire [in 2019]. According to the Trump Organization’s own marking materials, the floors inside Trump Tower contain roughly 15,000 square feet. So by keeping “a couple of floors,” the Chinese bank was apparently staying in most—if not all—of its previously occupied 20,000 square feet. These days, it’s unclear exactly how much the China-owned bank is paying the president. If the rent is the same as it was before, then Trump will collect $7.8 million from the bank by the end of his first term in office. 

Alexander calculates that this represents about $1.2 million in profits for the Trump Organization for the first two years (2017-18), when Trump donated $343,000 to the Treasury as his "total profits from foreign governments" for those two years, with no specifications as to where the number came from. Since his profits from one single foreign-government tenant were nearly three times that, you can get a feeling for how dishonest this plan always was.

In fact at least four foreign governments (from Qatar, China, India, and United Arab Emirates) have rented premises from Trump during the presidential term, and that's saying nothing about all the hotel space booked by foreign governments, especially notoriously Saudi Arabia ($270,000 in December 2016 alone). The Qatar one is especially flagrant: a space they leased on the 43rd floor of 555 California Street in San Francisco, Trump's most high-rent property, in 2018, at the height of the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in which Trump sided in a remarkably explicit way with the Saudis, in spite of the fact that Qatar hosts the US's largest Middle Eastern military base:

The Qataris finished outfitting their new office space on the 43rd floor sometime after February 2018, when the Saudi dispute was still raging, according to someone who worked inside the skyscraper. In August 2018, Trump’s partner Vornado filed a document with San Francisco officials about work being done on the premises, describing the Qatar Investment Authority Advisory (USA) Inc. as a “lessee.” Construction crews built out an office, complete with intricate white latticework in the entryway. After the hammers stopped banging, however, the space went unusually quiet.

“I never saw a single person enter the office other than construction,” the person who worked in the building explained in a text message. “I travel a lot so could have missed it but definitely saw people in other offices. Always thought it was strange,” the source added. 

And then the US-Qatar relationship changed, though the Saudi blockade remained as intransigent as ever (and Iranian backing for Qatar intensified):

Close to the time that workers were renovating the 43rd floor, the president’s attitude toward the Gulf nation changed. In April 2018, Trump welcomed Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the ruler of Qatar, to the Oval Office. On this visit, the U.S. president commended Qatar for fighting against terrorism funding. 

A year later, Al-Thani returned to Washington. This time, Trump was ready with a welcome party inside, of all places, the Treasury Department’s Cash Room, which once stored America’s gold, silver, and dollar bills. Steven Mnuchin, secretary of the Treasury, kicked off the dinner with a toast. “This room,” he said, “is a fitting tribute to the economic and security partnership between our two nations.”

Encircling the tables, adorned with royal-blue cloths, sat 40-odd business leaders, about a third of whom held personal fortunes of over $1 billion. Some of the names on the guest list were the sort of people you might expect—corporate titans with cash-fueled relationships in Qatar. Dennis Muilenburg, then the CEO of Boeing, was selling five 777 Freighters to Qatar’s national airline. Raytheon CEO Thomas Kennedy was ready to ship off a couple of missile systems. Chevron Phillips Chemical CEO Mark Lashier was teaming up with the Qataris on a new petrochemicals complex. 

But there were other businessmen there with more unorthodox connections to Qatar. Their businesses helped link the Qatari government to the president’s own family. Billionaire Bruce Flatt of Brookfield Asset Management was there. Brookfield’s real estate arm, Brookfield Property Partners, invested in a fund that paid $1.3 billion to lease 666 Fifth Avenue, a troubled Manhattan skyscraper owned by the family of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The largest outside shareholder in Brookfield Property Partners is the Qatar Investment Authority. Also on the guest list: Vornado CEO Steven Roth, Trump’s partner in the San Francisco tower where the Qatar Investment Authority had leased office space.

Isn't that interesting?

Dan Alexander is the reporter who has turned Forbes Magazine, of all places, into a hotbed of really good reporting on the Trump administration and his book, White House, Inc. How Donald Trump Turned the Presidency Into a Business is coming out on Monday. I have a feeling it could be the most significant, medium term, of the whole enormous current crop. Mary Trump, Wolkoff, Cohen, and Woodward fill in details on things we've known for years about what a horrible person Trump is, Schmidt and Strzok fill in details about an investigation that hasn't really finished or been allowed to finish, but Alexander is pushing the investigation that hasn't properly been started, following the money, to coin a phrase.

(Perhaps there will be a book one day to go with the podcast series "Trump, Inc.", by Pro Publica and WNYC Radio. but it doesn't exist yet.)

He's led a reporting team tracking down Trump's tenants, and uncovered a real rats' nest of conflicts of interest, not just with foreign emoluments:

More than a dozen Trump tenants faced known federal investigations while their landlord was in office. Inside 40 Wall Street alone, at least six tenants faced federal scrutiny. Among them: an engineering firm listed on a debt prospectus filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission as the third-highest-paying tenant inside the office building, responsible for $2.2 million in annual rent. In 2018, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office indicted the firm and its CEO as part of a corruption scheme related to New York City contracts. The CEO ended up pleading guilty to first-degree bribery. Today, a rebranded version of the firm, dubbed Atane, is still afloat with a slightly smaller lease, paying $1.3 million a year to rent in the president’s building. Even Trump’s blue-chip tenants have had issues. Walgreens Boots Alliance, JPMorgan Chase, Santander Bank, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs all paid the president rent while the federal government investigated their businesses. Capital One, which leased the corner space in Trump Park Avenue, faced an anti-money laundering investigation. So did UBS, which leases space in 555 California Street. 

Barclays, which once paid an estimated $2.4 million annually to rent space in 555 California Street, handed over $6 million in 2019 to settle charges that it had violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by giving jobs to relatives of government officials in Asia in order to curry favor. In July 2019, at the same time that Microsoft was vying for a giant cloud computing contract with the Defense Department, the software firm paid $25 million to settle allegations that its subsidiaries in Hungary, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand had violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, funneling money and gifts to government officials.

The thing is, you see, Trump has been an incredibly unpleasant and tasteless person, and has certainly committed a bunch of serious crimes on his way, including bank fraud, tax fraud, and money laundering, as well as who knows what kinds of sexual assault, obstruction of justice, and miscellaneous impostures and racketeering operations, but in the end it's going to be the bribery that defines his presidency, his effort to monetize the office in a way that's hardly been envisaged since the Federalist authors were fretting about it in 1787-88, that ghastly presidents like James Buchanan or Andrew Johnson or George W. Bush never came close to imagining—that and his party's willingness to close its eyes (their campaign organizations funneling cash into the Trump Organization instead of spending it on their own partisan interests as the members sigh, "I wish he'd stop with the tweets"). It's that, I think, that our republic may not be able to survive.

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