Trump, Inc.

by WNYC Studios

30m

average length

78

episodes

17

followers

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

Best Trump, Inc. episodes upvoted by the community

Last updated on September 22, 2020, 4:00 pm

#1

Trump Org Ordered Golf Markers With the Presidential Seal. That May Be Illegal.

March 05, 2018

Donald Trump loves putting his name on everything from ties to steaks to water — and, of course, his buildings. But now the Trump Organization appears to be borrowing a brand even more powerful than the gilded Trump moniker: the presidential seal. In recent weeks, the Trump Organization has ordered the manufacture of new tee markers for golf courses that are emblazoned with the seal of the President of the United States. Under federal law, the seal’s use is permitted only for official government business. Misuse can be a crime. Past administrations have policed usage vigilantly. In 2005 the Bush administration ordered the satirical news website The Onion to remove a replica of the seal. Grant M. Dixton, associate White House council, wrote in a letter to The Onion that the seal "is not to be used in connection with commercial ventures or products in any way that suggests presidential support or endorsement.” After listening to the new ProPublica/WNYC podcast Trump, Inc., a listener brought the signs to our attention. Eagle Sign and Design, a metalworking and sign company with offices in New Albany, Indiana, and Louisville, Kentucky, said it had received an order to manufacture dozens of round, 12-inch replicas of the Presidential Seal to be placed next to the tee boxes at Trump golf course holes. Two tee markers are placed on the ground at the start of a hole on golf courses to indicate where golfers should stand to take their first swing. “We made the design, and the client confirmed the design,” said Joseph E. Bates, who owns Eagle Sign, declining to say who the client was. An order form for the tee markers reviewed by ProPublica and WNYC says the customer was “Trump International.” The Facebook page for Eagle Sign and Design shows a photo of the markers in an album with the caption “Trump International Golf Course.” It is unclear how many Trump International golf courses could feature the markers. The Trump Organization owns four courses with the “International” name in the U.S. and abroad, with a fifth course in Bali, Indonesia, in the works. Eagle Sign makes a wide array of tee markers out of bronze and aluminum, and has made other signs for Trump’s courses, according to its website. At some of Trump’s golf courses, tee markers have sported the Trump family crest, which he took from the family that originally owned Mar-a-Lago without permission and then altered by adding his own name. Ethics experts have long been on the lookout for signs that the Trump Organization would exploit the office of the presidency for commercial gain. Several said that using the Presidential Seal on the company’s golf courses would fall into this category. A law governs the manufacture or use of the seal, its likeness, “or any facsimile thereof” for anything other than official U.S. government business. It can be a criminal offense punishable by up to six months in prison. The “law is an expression of the idea that the government and government authority should not be used for private purpose,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University specializing in government and legal ethics said. “It would be a misuse of government authority.” The Department of Justice declined to comment on whether it was aware the seal had been used by entities outside the government. The White House and the Trump Organization did not respond to request for comment. The presidential seal was first sketched out by President Millard Fillmore in 1850 and the current design — which shows a bald eagle with an olive branch in its right talon, a bundle of 13 arrows in the left, and a scroll bearing the words “E pluribus unum” in its beak — was chosen by President Truman and made official in a 1945 executive order.  The seal that adorns the president’s speaking lecterns is hand-made by the Institute of Heraldry, a department of the Army located at Fort Belvoir in Virginia that designs and provides guidance related to military and governmental symbols. Versions of the seal have occasionally been put to personal use by past presidents. George W. Bush and Barack Obama had custom sets of golf balls made with the seal. Ronald and Nancy Reagan had a set of presidential china bearing the seal, and there have even been M&M’s and jelly-beans that featured the seal. In this case, the difference is that a private company is using the seal, said Richard Painter, vice chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government accountability group. Painter also served as an associate White House counsel during the George W. Bush administration. “If we had heard of a private company using it for commercial purposes, we would have sent them a nasty letter,” he said. Update: After this story was published, the Facebook page with the image of the Presidential Seal golf tee marker was removed. Screen shot of Facebook page of Eagle Sign & Design. (katherine Sullivan, ProPublica/WNYC/Facebook)      

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#2

Pay Day at the Trump Doral

June 05, 2019 • 35m

In mid-March, the payday lending industry held its annual convention at the Trump National Doral hotel outside Miami. Payday lenders offer loans on the order of a few hundred dollars, typically to low-income borrowers, who have to pay them back in a matter of weeks. The industry has been long been reviled by critics for charging stratospheric interest rates — typically 400% on an annual basis — that leave customers trapped in cycles of debt. The industry had felt under siege during the Obama administration, as the federal government moved to clamp down. A government study found that a majority of payday loans are made to people who pay more in interest and fees than they initially borrow. Google and Facebook refuse to take the industry’s ads. On the edge of the Doral’s grounds, as the payday convention began, a group of ministers held a protest “pray-in,” denouncing the lenders for having a “feast” while their borrowers “suffer and starve.” But inside the hotel, in a wood-paneled bar under golden chandeliers, the mood was celebratory. Payday lenders, many dressed in golf shirts and khakis, enjoyed an open bar and mingled over bites of steak and coconut shrimp. They had plenty to be elated about. A month earlier, Kathleen Kraninger, who had just finished her second month as director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, had delivered what the lenders consider an epochal victory: Kraninger announced a proposal to gut a crucial rule that had been passed under her Obama-era predecessor. Payday lenders viewed that rule as a potential death sentence for many in their industry. It would require payday lenders and others to make sure borrowers could afford to pay back their loans while also covering basic living expenses. Banks and mortgage lenders view such a step as a basic prerequisite. But the notion struck terror in the payday lenders. Their business model relies on customers — 12 million Americans take out payday loans every year, according to Pew Charitable Trusts —  getting stuck in a long-term cycle of debt, experts say. A CFPB study found that three out of four payday loans go to borrowers who take out 10 or more loans a year. Now, the industry was taking credit for the CFPB’s retreat. As salespeople, executives and vendors picked up lanyards and programs at the registration desk by the Doral’s lobby, they saw a message on the first page of the program from Dennis Shaul, CEO of the industry’s trade group, the Community Financial Services Association of America, which was hosting the convention. “We should not forget that we have had some good fortune through recent regulatory and legal developments,” Shaul wrote. “These events did not occur by accident, but rather are due in large part to the unity and participation of CFSA members and a commitment to fight back against regulatory overreach by the CFPB.” This year was the second in a row that the CFSA held its convention at the Doral. In the eight years before 2018 (the extent for which records could be found), the organization never held an event at a Trump property. Asked whether the choice of venue had anything to do with the fact that its owner is president of the United States and the man who appointed Kraninger as his organization’s chief regulator, Shaul assured ProPublica and WNYC that the answer was no. “We returned because the venue is popular with our members and meets our needs,” he said in a written statement. The statement noted that the CFSA held its first annual convention at the Doral hotel more than 16 years ago. Trump didn’t own the property at the time. The CFSA and its members have poured a total of about $1 million into the Trump Organization’s coffers through the two annual conferences, according to detailed estimates prepared by a corporate event planner in Miami and an executive at a competing hotel that books similar events. Those estimates are consistent with the CFSA’s most recent available tax filing, which reveals that it spent $644,656 on its annual conference the year before the first gathering at the Trump property. (The Doral and the CFSA declined to comment.) “It’s a way of keeping themselves on the list, reminding the president and the people close to him that they are among those who are generous to him with the profits that they earn from a business that’s in severe danger of regulation unless the Trump administration acts,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of consumer group Americans for Financial Reform. The money the CFSA spent at the Doral is only part of the ante to lobby during the Trump administration. The payday lenders also did a bevy of things that interest groups have always done: They contributed to the president’s inauguration and earned face time with the president after donating to a Trump ally. But it’s the payment to the president’s business that is a stark reminder that the Trump administration is like none before it. If the industry had written a $1 million check directly to the president's campaign, both the CFSA and campaign could have faced fines or even criminal charges — and Trump couldn’t have used the money to enrich himself. But paying $1 million directly to the president’s business? That’s perfectly legal. *** The inauguration of Donald Trump was a watershed for the payday lending industry. It had been feeling beleaguered since the launch of the CFPB in 2011. For the first time, the industry had come under federal supervision. Payday lending companies were suddenly subject to exams conducted by the bureau’s supervision division, which could, and sometimes did, lead to enforcement cases. Before the bureau was created, payday lenders had been overseen mostly by state authorities. That left a patchwork: 15 states in which payday loans were banned outright, a handful of states with strong enforcement — and large swaths of the country in which payday lending was mostly unregulated. Then, almost as suddenly as an aggressive CFPB emerged, the Trump administration arrived with an agenda of undoing regulations. “There was a resurgence of hope in the industry, which seems to be justified, at this point,” said Jeremy Rosenblum, a partner at law firm Ballard Spahr, who represents payday lenders. Rosenblum spoke to ProPublica and WNYC in a conference room at the Doral — filled with notepads, pens and little bowls of candy marked with the Trump name and family crest — where he had just led a session on compliance with federal and state laws. “There was a profound sense of relief, or hope, for the first time.” (Ballard Spahr occasionally represents ProPublica in legal matters.)   In Mick Mulvaney, who Trump appointed as interim chief of the CFPB in 2017, the industry got exactly the kind of person it had hoped for. As a congressman, Mulvaney had famously derided the agency as a “sad, sick” joke. If anything, that phrase undersold Mulvaney’s attempts to hamstring the agency as its chief. He froze new investigations, dropped enforcement actions en masse, requested a budget of $0 and seemed to mock the agency by attempting to officially re-order the words in the organization’s name. But Mulvaney’s rhetoric sometimes exceeded his impact. His budget request was ignored, for example; the CFPB’s name change was only fleeting. And besides, Mulvaney was always a part-timer, fitting in a few days a week at the CFPB while also heading the Office of Management and Budget, and then moving to the White House as acting chief of staff. It’s Mulvaney’s successor, Kraninger, whom the financial industry is now counting on — and the early signs suggest she’ll deliver. In addition to easing rules on payday lenders, she has continued Mulvaney’s policy of ending supervisory exams on outfits that specialize in lending to the members of the military, claiming that the CFPB can do so only if Congress passes a new law granting those powers (which isn’t likely to happen anytime soon). She has also proposed a new regulation that will allow debt collectors to text and email debtors an unlimited number of times as long as there’s an option to unsubscribe. Enforcement activity at the bureau has plunged under Trump. The amount of monetary relief going to consumers has fallen from $43 million per week under Richard Cordray, the director appointed by Barack Obama, to $6.4 million per week under Mulvaney and is now $464,039, according to an updated analysis conducted by the Consumer Federation of America’s Christopher Peterson, a former special adviser to the bureau. Kraninger’s disposition seems almost the inverse of Mulvaney’s. If he’s the self-styled “right wing nutjob”  willing to blow up the institution and everything near it, Kraninger offers positive rhetoric — she says she wants to “empower” consumers — and comes across as an amiable technocrat. At 44, she’s a former political science major — with degrees from Marquette University and Georgetown Law School — and has spent her career in the federal bureaucracy, with a series of jobs in the Transportation and Homeland Security departments and finally in OMB, where she worked under Mulvaney. (In an interview with her college alumni association, she hailed her Jesuit education and cited Pope Francis as her “dream dinner guest.”) In her previous jobs, Kraninger had extensive budgeting experience, but none in consumer finance. The CFPB declined multiple requests to make Kraninger available for an interview and directed ProPublica and WNYC to her public comments and speeches. Kraninger is new to public testimony, but she already seems to have developed the politician’s skill of refusing to answer difficult questions. At a hearing in March just weeks before the Doral conference, Democratic Rep. Katie Porter repeatedly asked Kraninger to calculate the annual percentage rate on a hypothetical $200 two-week payday loan that costs $10 per $100 borrowed plus a $20 fee. The exchange went viral on Twitter. In a bit of congressional theater, Porter even had an aide deliver a calculator to Kraninger’s side to help her. But Kraninger would not engage. She emphasized that she wanted to conduct a policy discussion rather than a “math exercise.” The answer, by the way: That’s a 521% APR. A while later, the session recessed and Kraninger and a handful of her aides repaired to the women’s room. A ProPublica reporter was there, too. The group lingered, seeming to relish what they considered a triumph in the hearing room. “I stole that calculator, Kathy,” one of the aides said. “It’s ours! It’s ours now!” Kraninger and her team laughed.   *** Triple-digit interest rates are no laughing matter for those who take out payday loans. A sum as little as $100, combined with such rates, can lead a borrower into long-term financial dependency. That’s what happened to Maria Dichter. Now 73, retired from the insurance industry and living in Palm Beach County, Florida, Dichter first took out a payday loan in 2011. Both she and her husband had gotten knee replacements, and he was about to get a pacemaker. She needed $100 to cover the co-pay on their medication. As is required, Dichter brought identification and her Social Security number and gave the lender a postdated check to pay what she owed. (All of this is standard for payday loans; borrowers either postdate a check or grant the lender access to their bank account.) What nobody asked her to do was show that she had the means to repay the loan. Dichter got the $100 the same day. The relief was only temporary. Dichter soon needed to pay for more doctors’ appointments and prescriptions. She went back and got a new loan for $300 to cover the first one and provide some more cash. A few months later, she paid that off with a new $500 loan. Dichter collects a Social Security check each month, but she has never been able to catch up. For almost eight years now, she has renewed her $500 loan every month. Each time she is charged $54 in fees and interest. That means Dichter has paid about $5,000 in interest and fees since 2011 on what is effectively one loan for $500. Today, Dichter said, she is “trapped.” She and her husband subsist on eggs and Special K cereal. “Now I’m worried,” Dichter said, “because if that pacemaker goes and he can’t replace the battery, he’s dead.” Payday loans are marketed as a quick fix for people who are facing a financial emergency like a broken-down car or an unexpected medical bill. But studies show that most borrowers use the loans to cover everyday expenses. “We have a lot of clients who come regularly,” said Marco (he asked us to use only his first name), a clerk at one of Advance America’s 1,900 stores, this one in a suburban strip mall not far from the Doral hotel. “We have customers that come two times every month. We’ve had them consecutively for three years.” These types of lenders rely on repeat borrowers. “The average store only has 500 unique customers a year, but they have the overhead of a conventional retail store,” said Alex Horowitz, a senior research officer at Pew Charitable Trusts, who has spent years studying payday lending. “If people just used one or two loans, then lenders wouldn’t be profitable.” It was years of stories like Dichter’s that led the CFPB to draft a rule that would require that lenders ascertain the borrower’s ability to repay their loans. “We determined that these loans were very problematic for a large number of consumers who got stuck in what was supposed to be a short-term loan,” said Cordray, the first director of the CFPB, in an interview with ProPublica and WNYC. Finishing the ability-to-pay rule was one of the reasons he stayed on even after the Trump administration began. (Cordray left in November 2017 for what became an unsuccessful run for governor of Ohio.) The ability-to-pay rule was announced in October 2017. The industry erupted in outrage. Here’s how CFSA’s chief, Shaul, described it in his statement to us: “The CFPB’s original rule, as written by unelected Washington bureaucrats, was motivated by a deeply paternalistic view that small-dollar loan customers cannot be trusted with the freedom to make their own financial decisions. The original rule stood to remove access to legal, licensed small-dollar loans for millions of Americans.” The statement cited an analysis that “found that the rule would push a staggering 82 percent of small storefront lenders to close.” The CFPB estimated that payday and auto title lenders — the latter allow people to borrow for short periods at ultra-high annual rates using their cars as collateral —  would lose around $7.5 billion as a result of the rule. *** The industry fought back. The charge was led by Advance America, the biggest brick-and-mortar payday lender in the United States. Its CEO until December, Patrick O’Shaughnessy, was the chairman of the CFSA’s board of directors and head of its federal affairs committee. The company had already been wooing the administration, starting with a $250,000 donation to the Trump inaugural committee. (Advance America contributes to both Democratic and Republican candidates, according to spokesperson Jamie Fulmer. He points out that, at the time of the $250,000 donation, the CFPB was still headed by Cordray, the Obama appointee.) Payday and auto title lenders collectively donated $1.3 million to the inauguration. Rod and Leslie Aycox from Select Management Resources, a Georgia-based title lending company, attended the Chairman’s Global Dinner, an exclusive inauguration week event organized by Tom Barrack, the inaugural chairman, according to documents obtained by “Trump, Inc.” President-elect Trump spoke at the dinner. In October 2017, Rod Aycox and O’Shaughnessy met with Trump when he traveled to Greenville, South Carolina, to speak at a fundraiser for the state’s governor, Henry McMaster. They were among 30 people who were invited to discuss economic development after donating to the campaign, according to the The Post and Courier. (“This event was only about 20 minutes long,” said the spokesperson for O’Shaughnessy’s company, and the group was large. “Any interaction with the President would have been brief.” The Aycoxes did not respond to requests for comment.) In 2017, the CFSA spent $4.3 million advocating for its agenda at the federal and state level, according to its IRS filing. That included developing “strategies and policies,” providing a “link between the industry and regulatory decision makers” and efforts to “educate various state policy makers” and “support legislative efforts which are beneficial to the industry and the public.” The ability-to-pay rule technically went into effect in January 2018, but the more meaningful date was August 2019. That’s when payday lenders could be penalized if they hadn’t implemented key parts of the rule Payday lenders looked to Mulvaney for help. He had historically been sympathetic to the industry and open to lobbyists who contribute money. (Jaws dropped in Washington, not about Mulvaney’s practices in this regard, but about his candor. “We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress,” he told bankers in 2018. “If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”) But Mulvaney couldn’t overturn the ability-to-pay rule. Since it had been finalized, he didn’t have the legal authority to reverse it on his own. Mulvaney announced that the bureau would begin reconsidering the rule, a complicated and potentially lengthy process. The CFPB, under Cordray, had spent five years researching and preparing it. Meanwhile, the payday lenders turned to Congress. Under the Congressional Review Act, lawmakers can nix federal rules during their first 60 days in effect. In the House, a bipartisan group of representatives filed a joint resolution to abolish the ability-to-pay rule. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., led the charge in the Senate. But supporters couldn’t muster a decisive vote in time, in part because opposition to payday lenders crosses party lines. By April 2018, the CFSA members were growing  impatient. But the Trump administration was willing to listen. The CFSA’s Shaul was granted access to a top Mulvaney lieutenant, according to “Mick Mulvaney’s Master Class in Destroying a Bureaucracy From Within” in The New York Times Magazine, which offers a detailed description of the behind-the scenes maneuvering. Shaul told the lieutenant that the CFSA had been preparing to sue the CFPB to stop the ability-to-pay rule “but now believed that it would be better to work with the bureau to write a new one.” Cautious about appearing to coordinate with industry, according to the article, the CFPB was non-committal. Days later, the CFSA sued the bureau. The organization’s lawyers argued in court filings that the bureau’s rules “defied common sense and basic economic analysis.” The suit claimed the bureau was unconstitutional and lacked the authority to impose rules. A month later, Mulvaney took a rare step, at least, for most administrations: He sided with the plaintiffs suing his agency. Mulvaney filed a joint motion asking the judge to delay the ability-to-pay rule until the lawsuit is resolved. By February of this year, Kraninger had taken charge of the CFPB and proposed to rescind the ability-to-pay rule. Her official announcement asserted that there was “insufficient evidence and legal support” for the rule and expressed concern that it “would reduce access to credit and competition.”   Kraninger’s announcement sparked euphoria in the industry. One industry blog proclaimed, “It’s party time, baby!” with a GIF of President Trump bobbing his head. Kraninger’s decision made the lawsuit largely moot. But the suit, which has been stayed, has still served a purpose: This spring, a federal judge agreed to freeze another provision of the regulation, one that limits the number of times a lender can debit a borrower’s bank account, until the fate of the overall rule is determined. As the wrangling over the federal regulation plays out, payday lenders have continued to lobby statehouses across the country. For example, a company called Amscot pushed for a new state law in Florida last year. Amscot courted African American pastors and leaders located in the districts of dozens of Democratic lawmakers and chartered private jets to fly them to Florida’s capital to testify, according to the Tampa Bay Times. The lawmakers subsequently passed legislation creating a new type of payday loan, one that can be paid in installments, that lets consumers borrow a maximum $1,000 loan versus the $500 maximum for regular payday loans. Amscot CEO Ian MacKechnie asserts that the new loans reduce fees (consumer advocates disagree). He added, in an email to ProPublica and WNYC: “We have always worked with leaders in the communities that we serve: both to understand the experiences of their constituents with regard to financial products; and to be a resource to make sure everyone understands the law and consumer protections. Educated consumers are in everyone’s interest.” For their part, the leaders denied that Amscot’s contributions affected their opinions. As one of them told the Tampa Bay Times, the company is a “great community partner.” *** Kraninger spent her first three months in office embarking on a “listening tour.” She traveled the country and met with more than 400 consumer groups, government officials and financial institutions. Finally, in mid-April, she gave her first public speech at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. The CFPB billed it as the moment she would lay out her vision for the agency. Kraninger said she hoped to use the CFPB’s enforcement powers “less often.” She alluded to a report by the Federal Reserve that 40% of Americans would not be able to cover an emergency expense of $400. Her suggestion for addressing that: educational videos and a booklet. “To promote effective approaches to savings and particularly emergency savings,” Kraninger explained, “the Bureau recently launched our Start Small, Save Up initiative. It offers tips, tools and information to help consumers build a basic savings cushion and develop a savings habit. Later this year, we will be launching a savings ‘boot camp,’ a series of videos, and a very readable, informative booklet that serves as a roadmap to a savings plan.” Having laid out what sounded like a plan to hand out self-help brochures at an agency invented to pursue predatory financial institutions, she then said, “Let me be clear, however, the ultimate goal for the bureau is not to produce booklets and great content on our website. The ultimate goal is to move the needle on the number of Americans in this country who can cover a financial shock, like a $400 emergency.” Back at the Doral the month before her speech, $400 might not have seemed like much of an emergency to the payday lenders. Some attendees seemed most upset by a torrential downpour on the second day that caused the cancellation of the conference’s golf tournament. Inside the Donald J. Trump Ballroom, the conference buzzed with activity. The Bush-era political adviser Karl Rove was the celebrity speaker after the breakfast buffet. And the practical sessions continued apace. One was called “The Power of the Pen.” It was aimed at helping attendees submit comments on the ability-to-pay rule to the government. It was clearly a matter of importance to the CFSA. In his statement to ProPublica and WNYC, Shaul noted that “more than one million customers submitted comments opposing the CFPB’s original small-dollar loan rule — hundreds of thousands of whom sent handwritten letters telling personal stories of how small-dollar loans helped them and their families.” A couple of months after the Doral conference, Allied Progress, a consumer advocacy group, analyzed the new round of comments that were submitted to the CFPB in response to Kraninger’s plans. In one sample of 26,000 comments, the group discovered that 27% of the statements submitted by purportedly independent individuals contained duplicative passages, all of which supported the industry’s position. For example, Allied Progress reported that 221 of the comments stated that “I have a long commute to work and it’s better for me financially to borrow from Cash Connection so that I can still make it to work than to not take care of my car and lose my job because of absences.” There were 201 asserting that “I now take care of my parents and my children” and I “want to be able to enjoy life and not feel burdened by the additional expenses that are piling up.” Allied Progress said it doesn’t know “if these are fake people, fake stories, or form letters intentionally designed to read as personal anecdotes.” (Cash Connection couldn’t be reached for comment.) Taking account of public comments is the final task before Kraninger officially determines whether to put the ability-to-pay rule to death. Whatever she decides, it’s a likely bet that decision will be challenged in court, the CFSA will weigh in and the payday lenders will still be talking about it at next year’s annual conference. A spokesperson for the CFSA declined to say whether the event will be held at a Trump hotel.    

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#3

Government Employees Spend Your Money at Trump Hotels

June 28, 2018 • 24m

Shortly before President Trump took office, his lawyer promised Trump would forgo any profits his hotels made from foreign governments. There was no similar pledge for money earned from federal government employees, state officials, or anybody else who might be seeking to curry favor. And a lot of that money is coming from you, U.S. taxpayers. In this episode of Trump, Inc. we’re going deep on Trump’s hotel rooms and the people who are paying to stay in them. We will talk to three people tracking the flow of taxpayer money from government employees and elected officials to the Trump Organization, many through hotel stays, many booked by individual government workers. ProPublica has just released an interactive detailing at least $16.1 million spent at Trump Organization-managed and branded hotels, golf courses and restaurants from his campaign, Republican organizations, and government agencies since Trump announced his candidacy. The vast majority of the money — at least $13.5 million — was spent by Trump’s presidential campaign. We also found at least $400,000 has been spent by federal and state agencies — a figure that includes only a few agencies as many have resisted disclosing that information. Among the examples we know of: In March 2017, for example, the Secret Service paid $27,724.32 at the Trump golf course and resort in Doonbeg, Ireland. The stay was to “support E. Trump Visit.” The Trump Organization and the White House did not respond to our requests for comment. Reporting by Derek Kravitz and Derek Willis, ProPublica and Paul Cronan, Mark Schifferli and Charlie Smart, Fathom Information Design.  

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#4

An Opportunity for the Rich

June 19, 2019 • 31m

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.   Plank’s Dream 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."

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#5

Where’d Trump’s Record Inauguration Spending Go? 'It’s Inexplicable'

March 14, 2018 • 25m

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 guilty this 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. Click here to explore OpenSecrets’ analysis of inaugural contributions. And click here to check out journalist Christina Wilkie’s easy-to-search spreadsheet of inaugural donors.

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#6

Trump’s Moscow Tower Problem

March 21, 2019 • 39m

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 why Trump 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. You can 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 tips@trumpincpodcast.org. And finally, you can use the Postal Service: Trump, Inc. at ProPublica 155 Ave of the Americas, 13th Floor New York, NY 10013 “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.

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#7

Trump and Taxes: The Art of the Dodge

October 24, 2018

From the moment during the presidential campaign that Donald Trump broke decades of precedent and declined to release his personal tax returns, the issue of Trump and the taxes he has paid (or not paid) has been the subject of widespread fascination, scrutiny and not a little controversy. That scrutiny ratcheted up significantly in recent weeks with two substantial media investigations of the tax-paying practices of Trump’s family and those of Trump in-law and White House official Jared Kushner. This week’s episode of Trump, Inc. brings clarity to a complex subject. It identifies three patterns in the president’s approach to taxes. First, it describes a history of ignoring norms (which, for presidential candidates, include releasing tax returns). Second, it delves into a recent New York Times investigation — which concluded that the president’s family committed “outright fraud” — to show a history of breaking tax rules. Finally, it examines Trump’s ability to change tax rules to benefit himself and his wealthy peers. The episode includes an interview with The New York Times’ Susanne Craig, the co-author of the expose that reported that Fred Trump passed $413 million in today’s dollars to his son Donald, who describes how she reported her article and the mysteries she and her colleagues unraveled. It also examines a second New York Times article that explored how Kushner exploited a seemingly prosaic tax technique — depreciation — to wipe out his taxable income. (Representatives of the Trumps and Kushners have denied any tax improprieties.) Finally, the episode looks at many of the ways in which Trump’s signature tax cut will redound to the benefit of the real estate industry. The bigger picture? As tax expert Jenny Johnson Ware puts it in the podcast, for taxpayers who want to be aggressive, “It’s a great time.”   Correction:  This story originally misattributed and misquoted a statement. Jenny Johnson Ware did not say, “It’s a good time to be wealthy in the United States if you are aggressive about your tax money.” ProPublica's Jesse Eisinger asked, “Is it a good time to be wealthy in the United States if you are aggressive about your tax planning?” Ware responded that for taxpayers who want to be aggressive, “It’s a great time.”

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#13

Trump Team Online

June 24, 2020 • 23m

This story was co-published with ProPublica. Sign up for email updates from Trump, Inc. to get the latest on our investigations. 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.”  

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#14

Why is Trump’s Campaign Suing a Small Wisconsin TV Station?

July 23, 2020 • 31m

Stay up to date with email updates about WNYC and ProPublica’s investigations into the president’s business practices. This year, President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign filed defamation lawsuits against three of the country’s most prominent news outlets: The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN. Then it filed another suit against a somewhat lower-profile news organization: northern Wisconsin’s WJFW-TV, which serves the 134th-largest market in the country. The Trump campaign sued the station over what it claims is a false and defamatory ad WJFW  aired that showed Trump downplaying the threat of the coronavirus as a line tracking new COVID-19 infections ticks up and up on the screen. Dozens of stations ran the ad. But the Trump campaign chose to sue just NBC-affiliate WJFW, which is owned by a relatively small company that only has two other local TV stations, both in Bangor, Maine. The campaign did not initially sue the political organization that produced the ad. That group later joined the case as a defendant. The curious lawsuit is part of a larger, aggressive and exceedingly expensive legal operation by the Trump campaign that’s the focus of our latest “Trump, Inc.” podcast. The campaign has spent over $16 million on litigation and other legal costs — more than any past presidential campaign and more than 10 times what presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has spent on legal services, according to disclosures. Trump has long boasted about his penchant for filing lawsuits. The president and his businesses have reportedly filed over 2,000 lawsuits. After losing a 2006 defamation lawsuit against the journalist Tim O’Brien, Trump told the Post that he knew he couldn’t win, but he sued anyway. “I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees, and they spent a whole lot more,” Trump said. “I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.” As with other areas, Trump has taken his approach to running his personal life and business to the presidency. Multiple media law experts told us that the suit against tiny WJFW has little chance of succeeding. Susan Seager, a media defense lawyer and adjunct professor at The University of California, Irvine, School of Law, said, “The courts are very deferential and very protective of opinions about public figures and political issues.” So if Trump isn’t likely to win, what might he be trying to do? Matthew Sanderson, who served as counsel for Sens. John McCain and Mitt Romney, said he thinks the Trump campaign is “engaging in scare tactics.” “The reason in my opinion that the Trump campaign is filing these types of lawsuits is not necessarily to punish the Wisconsin station — they’re not going to be successful,” Sanderson said. “The reason they’re doing this is to send a message to the rest of the stations to be careful” about running anti-Trump ads. Unlike many other states, Wisconsin doesn’t have a law that makes complainants pay for defendants’ legal costs if a defamation suit ends up being dismissed as frivolous. Seager estimates that fighting a defamation lawsuit brought by a high-profile group like the Trump campaign could cost anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000, just to go through the process of getting it dismissed. We asked the Trump campaign and its lawyers about the suit and why they chose WJFW. They did not respond. The TV station commented, through a lawyer, that “WJFW has no choice but to fight the Trump campaign’s attempt to bully a small-market broadcaster into surrendering its First Amendment rights. The public counts on local broadcasters, especially in an election year, to remain free to air criticisms of public officials.” Of course, one critical difference between lawsuits Trump used to file in his business dealings and the ones his campaign is filing is that Trump no longer has to use his own money. His donors are picking up the tab. Trump’s disclosures show his campaign has paid about $200,000 to the firm handling the Wisconsin case. The campaign has also paid $3.3 million to the firm of attorney Charles Harder, who specializes in high-profile reputation defense lawsuits. Harder is representing the Trump campaign in the three other defamation suits against media organizations. Harder is perhaps best known as the lawyer who successfully sued Gawker into bankruptcy on Hulk Hogan’s behalf while being surreptitiously funded by venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Another set of expenses in the disclosures is also interesting. It shows the Trump campaign spent $95,161 on “legal & IT consulting” paid to … “The Trump Corporation.” Neither the campaign nor Trump’s company responded to questions about those charges. Contact Us You can 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 tips@trumpincpodcast.org. And finally, you can use the postal service: Trump Inc at ProPublica 155 Ave. of the Americas, 13th Floor New York, NY 10013 “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.

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#16

Temporary Presidential Immunity

May 13, 2020 • 31m

This story was co-published with ProPublica. Sign up for email updates from Trump, Inc. to get the latest on our investigations. 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. Related reporting:• The Accountants• Trump and Deutsche Bank: It's Complicated• How Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump, Jr., Avoided A Criminal Indictment

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#17

Trump’s Patron-in-Chief: Sheldon Adelson

October 10, 2018 • 28m

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.’

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#18

The Many Red Flags of Trump’s Partners in India

March 28, 2018 • 30m

President Donald Trump does not like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. “It’s a horrible law,” Trump has said. The FCPA makes it a crime for U.S. companies to bribe foreign officials, or to partner with others who are clearly doing so. Trump has argued that the law puts U.S. firms at a disadvantage. “It’s things like this that cause us to not be able to lead the world,” Trump said on CNBC in 2012. “For this country to prosecute because something took place in India is outrageous.” Corruption in India is quite common, particularly in the real estate industry. India’s also where the Trump Organization has four projects currently under construction and another just completed, more than it has in any other foreign country. As we detailed last week on Trump, Inc., Donald Trump Jr. has been closely involved in much of the work. This week, we’re looking at the Trump Organization’s partners in India — and red flags their work has raised. We worked with Investigative Fund reporter Anjali Kamat, whose story on the Trumps’ business in India appears in the latest issue of The New Republic. Kamat traveled to the location of each of the projects that are still under construction. Here’s what she found:   The project: Trump Tower Kolkata What Trump Jr. has billed it as: Kolkata’s “first residential building with floor to ceiling glass.” What’s there now: The foundation and a billboard A partner: RDB Group The red flags: Back in 2011, the RDB Group’s directors were charged with insider trading and were barred from the Indian stock market for four years. Also, the day after Trump Jr.’s visit, tax officials raided RDB’s offices over alleged “financial irregularities.” The group did not comment on the raid at the time.   Their response to us: None   The project: A residential tower in Gurgaon, a suburb of New Delhi What Trump Jr. has billed it as: “The most prestigious address in the city” What’s there now: A small patch of empty land A partner: M3M, which stands for “Magnificence in the Trinity of Men, Materials & Money” The red flags: Tax investigators seized about $70 million of undeclared money from M3M offices in 2011. The company later paid back taxes on the money, according to the Washington Post. Last year, a forest official filed a complaint alleging the company bribed forest guards to illegally cut trees. We couldn’t find any response from M3M about the alleged bribes.   Their response to us: None.   The project: An office tower in Gurgaon What Trump Jr. has billed it as: “One of the most exciting and sought after commercial towers in India and beyond” What’s there now: An empty lot with goats grazing A partner: IREO The red flags: Last month, two investment companies filed a criminal complaint against IREO for defrauding investors of nearly $150 million. It cites the former CEO, who said he witnessed “various acts of cheating, fraud, and misappropriation of money.” Their response to us: None. In a letter to investors earlier this month, IREO’s managing director called the charges “false, baseless and devoid of any merit.”   The project: Trump Tower Mumbai What the Trumps have billed it as: “The most spectacular addition to the Mumbai skyline.” What’s there now: The tower is almost complete A partner: The Lodha Group The red flags:  Officials at multiple Indian agencies told Kamat they had been looking into allegations of money laundering, tax fraud, and violations of foreign exchange regulations involving Lodha Group subsidiaries. No charges have been brought. Their response to us: None. The Lodha Group has previously responded to one reported investigation, saying they were not aware of it.   Neither the White House nor the Trump Organization spoke to us for this story. Remember, we want to hear from you. Our latest request: Do you know of lawsuits the president or his businesses have filed since he took office? You can 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 tips@trumpincpodcast.org. 

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#19

The Company Michael Cohen Kept

April 18, 2018 • 46m

If you’ve seen video or images of Michael Cohen, President Trump’s personal attorney, they’ve probably been set in locations that exude power and importance: Cohen berating a CNN anchor in a TV studio, for example, or striding across the sleek marbled interior of Trump Tower, or more recently, smoking cigars in front of Cohen’s temporary residence, the Loews Regency Hotel on Manhattan’s Park Avenue. But to understand how Michael Cohen arrived in those precincts, you need to venture across New York City’s East River. There, in a Queens warehouse district in the shadows of an elevated No. 7 subway line, is a taxi garage that used to house his law practice. The office area in the front is painted a garish taxi-cab-yellow, with posters of hockey players on the wall and a framed photo of the late Hasidic rabbi, Menachem Schneerson. Cohen practiced law there and invested in the once-lucrative medallions that grant New York cabs the right to operate. Or you could drive 45 minutes deep into Brooklyn, near where Gravesend turns into Brighton Beach. There, in a desolate stretch near a shuttered podiatrist’s office, you’d find a medical office. According to previously unexamined records, Cohen incorporated a business there in 2002 that was involved in large quantities of medical claims. Separately, he represented more than 100 plaintiffs who claimed they were injured in auto collisions. At the same time, in Brooklyn and Long Island, New York prosecutors were investigating what Fortune magazine called possibly “the largest organized insurance-fraud ring in U.S. history.” That fraud resulted in hundreds of criminal prosecutions for staging car accidents to collect insurance payments. Cohen was not implicated in the fraud. A distinctive pattern emerged early in Cohen’s career, according to an examination by WNYC and ProPublica for the Trump, Inc. podcast: Many of the people who crossed paths with Cohen when he worked in Queens and Brooklyn were disciplined, disbarred, accused or convicted of crimes. Cohen, 51, has always emerged unscathed — until now. Last week, his Rockefeller Center office was raided by federal agents, as were his home, hotel room, safety deposit box, and two cell phones. Cohen is under criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. According to court papers, investigators are examining whether he committed fraud and showed a “lack of truthfulness.” He and his attorneys did not respond to a lengthy set of questions emailed to them. Cohen’s lawyers have stated that he has done nothing improper. Cohen has attained national attention as the man who paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep her alleged affair with Trump secret. He also negotiated a $1.6 million settlement with a woman impregnated by Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy. (Cohen’s attorney told a judge on Monday that his only three legal clients over the past 15 months were Trump, Broidy and talk-show host Sean Hannity.) Cohen has for decades had close personal and professional relationships with many citizens of the former Soviet Union. He ended up as point men on Trump’s deals there and also turned up in the notorious Russia “dossier.” He has routinely been described as an indispensable man to Donald Trump. One indicator of that, according to the New York Times: President Trump is more agitated by what those New York prosecutors may find in Cohen’s files than he is by the wide-ranging investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller. Cohen, it seems, may hold some crucial secrets. What’s more surprising, perhaps, is the path he took to get to that point. *** Michael Cohen grew up in the Five Towns area of Long Island, N.Y., a heavily Jewish enclave. His father was a surgeon, according to media reports, and Cohen enjoyed a top-tier education, graduating from the private Lawrence Woodmere Academy, then moving on to American University. From there, it seems, Cohen’s educational trajectory turned in a different direction. He attended the Thomas M. Cooley School of Law in Michigan, which InsideHigherEd.com once wrote, “is known for admitting students other law schools would not touch.” In 1992, after law school, he returned to his home region and landed a job working for a personal injury attorney named Melvyn Estrin, who had an office on lower Broadway in Manhattan.  Estrin was the first in a series of colleagues who would run afoul of authorities. Within three years of Cohen’s arrival, Estrin was charged with bribing insurance adjusters to inflate damage estimates and expedite claims. He later pleaded guilty. Cohen was never implicated in any of the misdeeds. Estrin did not respond to a request for comment. He is still practicing law. Cohen continued to use Estrin’s address on legal filings as late as 1999, but he added several new addresses during this period, including 22-05 43rd Avenue, in Long Island City, Queens — the taxi garage. It was the headquarters of the New York branch of the empire of Simon Garber, a Soviet emigre who also has had cab companies in Chicago and Moscow. Charismatic and silver-haired, Garber released kitschy TV-style advertisements, in Russian, for his company. Over the years, Garber has been convicted of assault in New York, arrested for battery in Miami, and pleaded guilty in New Jersey to charges of criminal mischief involving him breaking into three neighbors’ homes, shattering glass doors, smearing blood all over, and taking a shower. In Chicago, his taxi fleet included wrecked vehicles with illegally laundered titles. Garber did not respond to a request for comment. (Two other attorneys had offices inside Garber’s offices in the early 2000s. One was forced to resign from the bar after he was accused of not turning money over to a client. The other was disbarred, in part for trying to steal money from the first lawyer.) In 1994 Cohen married Laura Shusterman, who was born in the Soviet Union. Her father, also a taxi entrepreneur, pleaded guilty to a felony, conspiracy to defraud the IRS, the year before. By the late 1990s, records show, Cohen had begun acquiring taxi medallions, licenses required by the City of New York to operate a yellow cab. The number of medallions has been strictly controlled for decades. Before the advent of services like Uber, they were particularly valuable, with their price peaking at over $1 million in 2014. Cohen co-owned some of the medallions with his wife, and indeed, his family and business relationships sometimes overlapped. Filings show his father-in-law once made a loan to Garber. And in 2001, Cohen borrowed money for one of his taxi companies, Golden Child Cab Corp., from one of the men convicted with Cohen’s father in law, Fima Shusterman, in the fraud against the IRS. Starting around 2000, Cohen was involved in scores of car insurance lawsuits, often on behalf of plaintiffs who claimed to have been injured in auto collisions and were seeking judgments to cover purported medical expenses. At this time, a wave of staged auto accidents, involving immigrants from the former Soviet Union who claimed to have been hurt, had led prosecutors to open a massive investigation. They dubbed it Operation Boris, an acronym for Big Organized Russian Insurance Scam. The prosecutorial push resulted in hundreds of convictions. Cohen also drew up incorporation papers for at least three medical practices, and three medical billing companies. One company Cohen registered in 2002, Avex Medical Care PRC, sued insurance companies nearly 300 times. The plaintiffs lawyer in almost all of these cases was David Katz, who was disbarred later for professional misconduct. The doctor who owned Avex was charged in 2003 with criminal insurance fraud connected with another medical business; the charge was dismissed. He’s now practicing medicine in New Jersey. Dr. Zhanna Kanevsky, the principal of Life Quality Medical, a clinic business that Cohen incorporated in 2002, surrendered her medical license after pleading guilty to writing phony prescriptions for 100,000 oxycodone and other pills. Once again, Cohen was never charged. *** In the early 2000s, Trump and Cohen became connected, fittingly, through real estate. Cohen started to transfer the wealth he’d gained from taxi medallions and insurance lawsuits to apartments in Trump buildings. Along with his parents, his in-laws, and Simon Garber, Cohen acquired eight units in Trump Palace, Trump Park Avenue, and Trump World Plaza. The man who operated out of a Queens taxi garage now owned apartments alongside the likes of Sophia Loren and Harrison Ford. Cohen also began to show political ambitions. In 2003, he ran for city council on Manhattan’s Upper East Side as a Republican. Even people close to his campaign weren’t sure why he ran. His own campaign biography provided few answers — or rather, disparate ones. He claimed at the time to own 200 taxi medallions, to be a member of the Friars Club, an avid stamp collector, and a member of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Inspector General advisory board. Cohen lost the city council race, but his donor list provides a snapshot of his network. He received contributions from his father, his father in law, and Bruce Winston, a son of the jeweler Harry Winston. A New York Republican with knowledge of Cohen’s 2003 campaign said Cohen told him then that he was Harry Winston’s in-house counsel at the time. The company says Cohen was never an employee. Court papers show Cohen was one of the lawyers who helped Bruce Winston, and his daughter, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, in a legal action challenging Deutsche Bank’s conduct as trustee of Harry Winston’s estate. Their petition failed. (For her part, Wolkoff, a friend of Melania Trump’s, later became the highest-paid contractor for Donald Trump’s inauguration, taking in an eye-popping $26 million, and sparking a backlash.) It’s unclear when Cohen and Trump first met, but the two were publicly linked in February 2007. The New York Post published an article then about an attorney who was purchasing large numbers of apartments in Trump buildings. “Trump properties are solid investments,” Cohen told the Post. Trump returned the compliment, declaring Cohen to be a wise investor. “Michael Cohen has a great insight into the real-estate market,” he told the Post. “He has invested in my buildings because he likes to make money — and he does.” Three months later, Cohen became an executive vice president at the Trump Organization, with the same job title as Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric Trump. Cohen was never a traditional in-house lawyer for Trump. He has been described as both a “fixer” and a “dealmaker” — and it seems he embraced both roles. “He did jobs for Donald that no one else would do,” said one person who worked with Cohen, “especially not a lawyer. He did a lot of these jobs.” Still, even after Cohen had joined the Trump Organization, he harbored personal political dreams. In 2010, Cohen mounted a second unsuccessful campaign, this time for the New York State Senate. Among his donors in that race were shipping magnate Oleg Mitnik and tobacco tycoon and New York real estate man Howard Lorber, one of Donald Trump’s closest friends. Cohen continued to expand his role within the Trump universe. It had become simultaneously global, national and highly local. The Trump Organization’s business model had shifted, from building high-end Manhattan properties to scoping for international licensing deals, particularly in the former Soviet Union. Cohen, along with Trump’s adult children, headed up this effort. At a Trump Tower press conference in early 2011, Cohen took the public stage as an international dealmaker. “Seven months ago, at the request of a dear friend of mine from Georgia, Giorgi Rtskhiladze, I traveled to the Republic of Georgia to explore several real estate opportunities on behalf of Mr. Trump,” Cohen said in his unmistakable Long Island accent. He then introduced Trump and the then-president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili. The ostensible purpose of the press conference was to talk up a planned tower in the city of Batumi, on the Black Sea coast. But most of the questions centered on Donald Trump’s possible run for President. Months earlier, Michael Cohen had helped set up a website called shouldtrumprun.com with the Long Island law firm Schwartz, Gerstman, and Malito. (David Schwartz is a long time Cohen friend and attorney who made several television appearances on Cohen’s behalf when the Stormy Daniels news broke.) Cohen also traveled to Iowa to explore the political terrain. Shouldtrumprun.com was billed as independent of Trump; otherwise Trump would have had to file papers with the Federal Election Commission on his own behalf. At the press conference, Trump was peppered with political questions. “Could you comment on the kind of feedback or what you took from the feedback from Mr. Cohen’s Iowa trip,” one reporter asked. “You could ask Mr. Cohen. You can speak to him,” Trump replied. But she pressed. “Are you encouraged by anything that you saw or read out of that? Trump couldn’t resist. “Well,” he said, “I mean the response has been amazing, actually.” Another response: A complaint was filed with the Federal Election Commission, alleging Trump had accepted “excessive or impermissible contributions from the Trump Organization, LLC” because shouldtrumprun.com was set up by an employee: Michael Cohen. Trump and Cohen were cleared of wrongdoing. One of the two commissioners who signed off on the ruling was Donald McGahn. McGahn later became Trump’s White House Counsel. There’s another piece of public work that Cohen was involved in that further shows the close links among Trump, Cohen, and the attorney David Schwartz. During the same time period of the Georgia deal and shouldtrumprun.com, Schwartz and Cohen were both working on a project called Trump on the Ocean, which aimed to construct a massive catering hall in the popular Jones Beach State Park on Long Island. Trump was so keen on this project that, unusually even for him, he called four governors and a state comptroller to lobby for it, according to former state officials. In at least one of the calls, he cited his generous donations as a reason to get the clearances he needed to move forward.   Trump put Cohen in charge of the negotiations. But some state officials balked at what they saw as an attempt to commercialize a state park, and Trump’s insistence that the state override its fire code so he could build a kitchen in the basement. The lobbying was contentious, said Judith Enck, the top environmental advisor for Govs. Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson (and later the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency for the New York region), who was involved in the negotiations. “That was not a typical discussion with a business that was trying to do business with the state of New York. It was aggressive,” Enck said. “There were efforts to go around me to get a better outcome in the discussion… I recall it as you know one of the most unpleasant experiences I had in the governor's office.” Misery, perhaps for a government official — but triumph for Trump, Cohen, and Schwartz. They got permission to begin construction. “GREAT JOB!” Trump wrote in a note to Schwartz. “I will hire your firm again!” Alas, it was all for naught in the end. Months later, the tail of the storm Sandy inundated Jones Beach and Trump walked away from the project. *** Three years later, when Trump made a run for the White House, Cohen continued to serve both as promoter and dealmaker. He frequently appeared on TV as a Trump surrogate, though he had no official campaign position. In one interview in the summer of 2016, Cohen refused to acknowledge that polls strongly favored Hillary Clinton. He badgered CNN anchor Brianna Keilar when she referred to Trump’s then-dismal poll numbers. “Says who?” Cohen shot back. “What polls?” The anchor, seemingly mystified, answered “all of them?” The clip went viral. Cohen’s truculent tendencies were also on display a year before that interview when he threatened Daily Beast reporter Tim Mak. Mak had resurfaced an old accusation made by Donald Trump’s first wife, Ivana, during their divorce proceedings, that Trump had raped her. (She later withdrew the allegation.) “I'm warning you,” Mak says Cohen told him, “tread very fucking lightly because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting.” Behind the scenes, Cohen was still attempting to make deals for Trump in the former Soviet Union. Cohen drafted a letter of intent with a Moscow investment company to build Trump World Tower Moscow. Cohen’s partner in the deal was Felix Sater, a Trump associate who had been convicted of assault and securities fraud and had widely reported connections to the Russian mob. “Let’s make this happen and build a Trump Moscow,” Sater wrote in an email to Cohen. “And possibly fix relations between the countries by showing everyone commerce and business are much better and more practical than politics.” In another email, Sater wrote, “Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it.” In a statement issued last summer, Cohen called this “puffery” and said Sater was prone to colorful language and salesmanship. Cohen’s activities drew the attention of Christopher Steele, a former British spy who was assembling raw intelligence on the Trump campaign for a private client (ultimately paid for by the Clinton campaign). The resulting collection of documents has become known as “the dossier.” Steele’s memo included the assertion that Cohen met with Russian contacts in Prague after damaging news emerged about Trump’s former campaign manager and an aide. “The overall objective had been ‘sweep it all under the carpet and make sure no connection could be fully established or proven,’” Steele wrote in a memo dated Oct. 19, 2016. In statements and court documents, Cohen has vociferously denied ever visiting Prague, even dispensing photos of his passport, with no Czech stamps visible, as putative proof. Cohen has filed two defamation lawsuits over the release of the dossier. But now McClatchy has reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has evidence that Cohen was in Prague in late summer 2016. (And the photographic “proof” Cohen offered may turn out to be moot, according to the McClatchy article, since he reportedly entered the Czech Republic from Germany, which would not have required him to pass through immigration or customs.) One thing that Cohen does not dispute: In October 2016, he was involved in fixing another problem, this time by paying $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels. Cohen asserts he did this on his own, with money he obtained from a home equity line of credit. When FBI agents searched Cohen’s offices on April 9, 2018, they were seeking evidence relating to the Stormy Daniels payment. They were also, according to the Washington Post, sifting through business records relating to Cohen’s taxi medallions. There may still be answers to be found in Queens.

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