As House Democrats continue their impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump’s efforts to leverage foreign aid for political favors, among his most ardent defenders, as usual, are Trump’s adult sons Donald Jr. and Eric.
“Why didn’t @JoeBiden recuse himself from dealing with Ukraine?” Don Jr. tweeted recently. “His son was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company that had been investigated by the prosecutor who Joe pushed to be fired.” This, Don Jr. argued, created the “appearance of impropriety,” and constituted a “clear conflict of interest.”
Eric was similarly critical of this arrangement in an appearance on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show on October 2. Hunter, Biden’s son, “didn’t know anything about the industry he was in,” Eric protested. “He didn’t have any discernible duties, and he’s getting paid $50,000 a month? And then he gets $1.5 billion from China? Laura, it’s insane.”
It is perhaps true that when the vice president is in charge of American foreign policy in Ukraine, his son’s service on the board of a Ukrainian energy company is not a great look. But the Trumps have omitted or misstated key facts en route to their anti-nepotism outrage. Biden joined the international community in calling for the ouster of Ukraine’s then-prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, because Shokin was slow-walking investigations and ignoring the corruption he’d been charged with rooting out. If anything, Biden’s efforts to get rid of Shokin increased the likelihood that the energy company, Burisma Holdings, would face meaningful scrutiny.
The $1.5-billion-from-China talking point, meanwhile, is a wildly-distorted reference to the financial maneuverings of an investment fund called BHR Partners. Hunter Biden served on the fund’s advisory board beginning in 2013, and acquired a ten-percent stake in 2017. A lawyer for Hunter Biden told the Washington Post that his client received no compensation as a BHR board member, and has not seen a return on his investment since becoming an investor.
In 2014, BHR Partners apparently launched an effort to raise $1.5 billion in capital. One of its major shareholders is the state-owned Bank of China. In late 2013, Hunter Biden accompanied his father on a diplomatic trip to China, and they briefly met in a hotel lobby with a BHR investor. Twelve days later, Hunter accepted his unpaid board position, the Post says.
Again, this sequence of events is not especially flattering for Hunter Biden, and at the time, according to The New Yorker, White House aides expressed concern that he could be seen as “leveraging access for his benefit.” But in Trumpworld, this string of loosely-associated buzzwords is now enough to sustain a conspiracy theory that the younger Biden has earned “millions.”
Setting aside the alternative facts underlying the Trump kids’ criticisms, however, their decision to wade into this controversy is notable for a different reason: During their father’s tenure as president, Don Jr. and Eric have repeatedly managed to cash in on their newfound positions of political privilege in their business dealings. So, too, have their sister Ivanka and brother-in-law Jared Kushner, both of whom hold senior positions in the administration and whose companies and investment portfolios netted them anywhere between $29 million and $135 million last year, per their financial disclosure forms. Here are some of the highlights of when the family's business intertwining with government affairs constituted the “appearance of impropriety” and “conflict of interest.”
The real estate sales
Days before his inauguration in 2016, Donald Trump announced that he had given “complete and total” control of the Trump Organization to Don Jr. and Eric. In doing so, he dismissed critics who called on him to place his assets in a blind trust, arguing that transferring control to immediate family was sufficient to address any conflict-of-interest concerns. “No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office,” he promised.
Since then, Forbes says, the brothers have sold off more than $100 million worth of Trump Organization real estate. That figure includes a $33 million sale of the company’s stake in a federally subsidized housing complex—a transaction Secretary of House & Urban Development Ben Carson had to approve—and a $3.2 million sale of land in the Dominican Republic last year, which Forbes called “the clearest violation of their father’s pledge to do no new foreign deals while in office.” Taxpayers cover the security costs of each business trip the pair makes—in the first two months of 2017 alone that included $97,830 for a trip to Uruguay, $53,155.25 for a trip to Vancouver, and $16,738.36 for a trip to Dubai, according to NBC News.
In February 2017, the Trump Organization unloaded a $15.8 million Trump Park Avenue penthouse—a home formerly occupied by Jared and Ivanka—to Angela Chen, who runs a consulting firm with ties to Chinese government officials and (allegedly) Chinese military intelligence, says Mother Jones. A Forbes analysis found that this price was 13 percent more than that paid for a comparable unit a year earlier, and that it sold at a time when the building’s other units, on average, were selling for 25 percent less.
The disappearing anti-nepotism laws
When news of Jared and Ivanka’s White House employment broke, observers noted the hirings appeared to be clear violations of federal anti-nepotism laws. Kushner, the heir to a mid-Atlantic real estate empire, had no experience that would qualify him for the many tasks to which his father-in-law would assign him: solving the opioid crisis, handling Middle East peace negotiations, modernizing the federal government, and reforming America’s criminal justice system.
On Inauguration Day, however, the Department of Justice released an opinion concluding that the statute does not apply to White House staff, allowing Kushner’s employment to go forward. When intelligence officials held up his application for a top-secret security clearance—a delay due in part, the New York Times reported, to concerns about Kushner’s foreign business interests—his place in the administration, theoretically, was in jeopardy. His father-in-law stepped in, though, overruling the officials and ordering then-chief of staff John Kelly to issue Kushner a clearance anyway.
Ivanka's résumé was similarly thin for someone taking on a senior West Wing position—a fashion designer, Trump Organization executive, and sometimes-judge on The Apprentice. She also experienced delays in her attempts to obtain a security clearance, and she was also the beneficiary of some timely presidential intervention: According to CNN, Trump pressured both Kelly and then-White House counsel Don McGahn to make decisions on Ivanka's clearance "so it did not appear as if he was tainting the process to favor his family." When Kelly and McGahn refused, Trump went ahead and approved his daughter's clearance himself.
Weeks before the CNN story broke, Ivanka told ABC News that she and her husband had "absolutely not" received special treatment from her father during the approval process. "The president had no involvement pertaining to my clearance or my husband's clearance. Zero," she said.
The intellectual property in China
Both Jared and Ivanka, who took a “formal leave of absence” from her eponymous fashion label to serve in her father’s White House, have taken full advantage of the benefits of their new jobs. In April, on the same day she and Kushner sat next to Chinese President Xi Jinping at a White House state dinner, the Chinese government gave its conditional approval for three trademarks granting Ivanka what the AP called “monopoly rights” to sell Ivanka-branded jewelry, bags, and spa services. China approved two more rounds of trademarks in May and June, according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan government watchdog.
In mid-2018, Ivanka shuttered her clothing brand altogether, citing a desire to focus on her work in Washington. However, she has since continued to seek potentially lucrative trademarks in China, leaving open the possibility that she could return to the brand after her time in public service concludes. (“As the daughter of the U.S. President, Ivanka Trump has an initial advantage of publicity,” Chinese designer Yang Mei explained to TIME in 2017.) Last fall, in the midst of her father’s trade war with China and his efforts to strike a new trade agreement between the two global superpowers, she won initial approval for 16 trademarks, and added five more to her portfolio earlier this year.
The free advertising
While the company was still active, Ivanka wasn’t shy about using the spotlight that comes with being the president’s daughter to goose sales of Ivanka-branded apparel and accessories. Journalists received a press release promoting a gold bracelet—starting at $8,800 and up to $10,800—that she wore during a 60 Minutes interview in November 2016. A few months later, Ivanka Trump’s entire line received an enthusiastic on-air endorsement from Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, who called the clothing “wonderful” and urged Fox & Friends viewers to “go buy it today.” The White House said it “counseled” Conway in response.
After Ivanka wrapped a speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention where her father officially became the party’s presidential nominee, she tweeted a link inviting followers to “shop Ivanka’s look”: a pink Ivanka-branded dress that retailed for $138. It sold out within hours.
The miraculous Kushner bailout
For years, 666 Fifth Avenue was the most vexing line-item on the Kushner real estate ledger—a Midtown skyscraper purchased for $1.8 billion, most of which the family borrowed, right before the 2008 recession. A mammoth mortgage of about $1.4 billion was due in February of this year, leading to speculation throughout Jared’s time in the West Wing about how, exactly, the Kushner family would come up with the cash. Multiple foreign governments seized on this uncertainty, privately discussing ways to take advantage of his business entanglements and financial difficulties when dealing with the United States, the Washington Post reported.
In April 2017, a real estate firm tied to the Kushner family made a direct appeal to the government of Qatar to invest in the troubled building, The Intercept reported. A month later, when a coalition of Persian Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates organized a blockade of Qatar, Kushner was among its most vocal U.S. supporters. According to NBC News, some Qatari officials believed the White House’s position was retaliation for their government’s decision not to make a deal with Kushner’s family. In the months that followed, Kushner developed a close working relationship with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman—close enough that bin Salman allegedly told confidants that the president’s son-in-law was “in his pocket.”
Fortunately, help for the Kushner family’s financial woes subsequently arrived in the form of Brookfield Asset Management, which acquired a 99-year lease on 666 Fifth Avenue for about $1 billion in April 2018. This miraculous timing allowed the Kushners to pay off its existing mortgage and buy out its partner in the venture, Vornado Realty Trust. The buyer was a semi-familiar face in this drama: One of Brookfield Asset Management’s largest investors is the government of Qatar. Both Brookfield and Qatar claimed that Qatar had no advance warning that its money would be bailing out the president’s son-in-law.
The real estate investments
In June, The Guardian reported that Cadre, a real estate investment company owned in part by Kushner, has taken in some $90 million in offshore funding via an ominously-described “opaque offshore vehicle” in the Cayman Islands since he joined the White House. Some of the money, the Guardian says, came from other tax shelters; some of it came from unidentified sources in—you guessed it—Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, as my colleague Luke Darby noted at the time, although Kushner has purportedly recused himself from decisions affecting real estate policy, Ivanka has done no such thing. The president’s daughter was instrumental in the effort to include in the 2017 tax reform bill an “Opportunity Zones” program, which extends lucrative tax breaks to rich people who invest capital in designated less-developed areas. According to the AP, Cadre is raising funds from investors to build Opportunity Zone projects, and the Kushner family already owns at least 13 properties in opportunity zones that could qualify for special tax treatment.
The golf course deals
Last month, in the midst of Trump’s Ukraine scandal and mere hours after Fox News host Jesse Watters asserted that the president’s sons “stopped doing international business deals” when he became president, one of the president's sons hopped on Twitter to celebrate a new international business deal at a Trump golf course in Scotland.
The agreement will allow the Trumps to build 550 new homes in the area, along with a second 18-hole course in the same development. It is a fortunate break for the Trump-owned resort, which finished its seventh straight year in the red in 2018, according to The Independent.
The stakes in Trump hotels
Just down the road from the White House is the Trump International Hotel, located in D.C.’s Old Post Office building leased in 2013 to one of Donald Trump’s holding companies for development as a luxury hotel. It is a federally-owned building on the National Register of Historic Places, which means the president is, in a manner of speaking, now acting as his own landlord on the lease. The property has become notorious for attracting members of Congress, lobbyists, Cabinet officials, interest groups, foreign heads of state, and anyone else looking to curry the president’s favor. In July, the Washington Post reported that an Iraqi sheikh, a few months after writing to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-national security advisor John Bolton to suggest a tougher position on Iran, spent 26 nights on an eighth-floor suite.
Each of the three eldest Trump kids, Don Jr., Eric, and Ivanka, owns a 7.425-percent interest in the holding company that leases the building. Because Ivanka Trump fills out an annual financial disclosure as a White House employee, we know a bit more about how that stake is paying off these days: Her most recent filing listed almost $4 million in annual revenue from the hotel.
The hotels that almost were
In summer 2017, the Trump boys were working on developing two new hotel chains: Scion, a line of four-star properties, and American Idea, a line of patriotically-decorated, moderately-priced properties in heartland markets. The New York Times reported that they came up with the idea on the campaign trail with their father, where they relished the opportunity to attend each rally but “were less enamored of the budget-friendly hotels along the way.”
Along with a pair of former campaign donors-turned-business-partners, the Trump Organization struck a deal after the election to open the first Scion hotel in Cleveland, Mississippi. Earlier this year, though, it pulled out of the agreement and shelved its expansion plan indefinitely. “We live in a climate where everything will be used against us, whether by the fake news or by Democrats who are only interested in presidential harassment,” Eric explained at the time. “We already have the greatest properties in the world and if we have to slow down our growth for the time being, we are happy to do it.”
The billion-dollar sales pitch
In February 2018, Don Jr. traveled to India in an effort to sell more than $1 billion worth of luxury residential units built there by the Trump Organization and its partners. According to the New York Times, advertisements heralding Don Jr.’s visit read: “Trump has arrived. Have you?” Rajiv Bansa, a salesman at one of the properties, predicted that the younger Trump would have little trouble moving the inventory on his whirlwind tour of the region. “Everyone in India knows who the U.S. president is,” he told the Times. “It’s a status symbol. This is a big brand, the president of the United States’ name will be on it.”
When the Times asked the White House if Don Jr.’s sales visit presented “even an appearance of a conflict of interest,” the White House declined to comment.
Date Posted: Monday, October 14th, 2019 , Total Page Views: 8381
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