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Major New Investigation into Trump Real Estate Deals in India Reveals Corruption, Lawsuits, Fraud

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A major new investigation has just been published into Trump’s business partnerships in India and the conflicts of interest these deals pose for the White House. The new cover story for The New Republic is titled “Political Corruption and the Art of the Deal.” In it, journalist Anjali Kamat notes the Trump Organization has entered into more deals in India than in any other foreign country. These deals, she writes, are worth an estimated $1.5 billion and produced royalties of up to $11 million between 2014 and 2017. During her year-long investigation, Kamat traced Trump’s India partners’ long history of facing lawsuits, police inquiries and government investigations that contain evidence of potential bribery, fraud, intimidation, illegal land acquisition, tax evasion and money laundering.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a major new investigation into Trump’s business partnerships in India and the conflicts of interest these deals pose for the White House. The new cover story article for The New Republic is headlined “Political Corruption and the Art of the Deal.” In it, journalist Anjali Kamat notes the Trump Organization has entered into more deals in India than in any other foreign country. These deals, she writes, are worth an estimated $1.5 billion and produced royalties of up to $11 million between 2014 and 2017.

During her year-long investigation, Anjali Kamat traced Trump’s India partners’ long history of facing lawsuits, police inquiries and government investigations that contain evidence of potential bribery, fraud, intimidation, illegal land acquisition, tax evasion and money laundering. Donald Trump Jr. has made repeated trips to India, as recently as last month. Last year, Ivanka Trump headed the U.S. delegation to a Global Entrepreneurship Summit. And President Trump himself has welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a far-right Hindu nationalist, to the White House, as well as entertained politically connected Indian real estate developers at Trump Tower in Manhattan shortly after his November 2016 election. The New Republic investigation comes as The Washington Post reveals one of the Trump Organization’s real estate partners in India has been accused of large-scale fraud and swindling investors out of $147 million.

Well, for more, we’re joined now by Anjali Kamat, an award-winning investigative journalist, reporter with the Investigative Fund, and Belle Zeller visiting professor at Brooklyn College. Her cover story for The New Republic, again, “Political Corruption and the Art of the Deal,” which is accompanied by a podcast, Trump, Inc., from WNYC and ProPublica. The project was reported in partnership with the Wayne Barrett Project at the Investigative Fund. Previously, Anjali Kamat was a producer and correspondent for Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines and Democracy Now!

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

ANJALI KAMAT: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us, Anjali. So, talk about this amazing, this epic, 1-year investigation. And it comes out right on the heels of Donald J. Trump under enormous fire here in the United States for going to push Trump business interests in India.

ANJALI KAMAT: You know, Donald Jr. made this visit to India last month. He visited four cities in four days. He got massive press coverage, most of it very, very positive, in India. And he was there to sell apartments in—Trump-branded apartments in his projects across the country. And the thing to remember here is that the Trump Organization’s largest overseas portfolio is in India. They’ve got five active projects there right now. And only one of those projects is actually completed, so four of them are still in various stages of construction, and they’re selling pre-construction apartments.

And the way they were advertising sales for these apartments is by offering access to Don Jr. So, right before Don Jr.'s visit, about a month before, there was an advertisement that was taken out that said the first hundred buyers of this one project, that's right near the capital, New Delhi, would get flown to New York to visit Don Jr. When Don Jr. was actually coming to India, the weekend before, newspapers in New Delhi, all the major English newspapers, had full front-page cover ads that said, you know, “Trump has arrived. Are you invited?” “Trump is here. Are you coming?” You know, and anyone who could put down a deposit, of about $39,000 to $40,000, on an apartment would get a chance to have dinner with Don Jr. So, it raises a lot of questions about potential conflicts of interest.

And the other thing about Don Jr.’s visit to India is, initially, when he first planned his trip, he was supposed to speak at a conference, at a Global Business Summit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also speaking at. And he was supposed to give a foreign policy speech on Indo-Pacific relations. This raised a lot of questions among ethics experts in the U.S. And then, so, at the last minute, that speech was changed to a fireside chat and was just a conversation with a journalist.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to an interview Donald Trump Jr. did last month in India with CNBC’s Indian affiliate.

DONALD TRUMP JR.: I think there is something about the spirit of the Indian people that’s unique here to other parts of the emerging world. I can—you know, you go through a town, and you—you know, and I don’t mean to be glib about it, but you can see the poorest of the poor, and there’s a—there’s still a smile on a face. You say hello. You—it’s a different spirit, that you don’t see in other parts of the world, where people walk around so solemn. And I think there’s something unique about that, that doesn’t exist elsewhere. And it always struck me, as, you know, I know some of the most successful people in the world, and some of them are the most miserable people in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: In a separate interview during his visit to India, Trump Jr. said Indian buyers were “starved for luxury” in their own country and that Trump properties would delivery that luxury to Indian consumers.

DONALD TRUMP JR.: Our buyers are traveling around the world. OK, before it was as global, before they traveled as much, you could say, “Hey, this is the best of the best.” Well, now that they have flats in New York, Paris, London, they know that. And it was difficult for them. We all said it’s sort of starved for luxury. They experienced it, they know what it is, but they couldn’t get it in their home market. And so, you know, being able to actually deliver that kind of product here has made a big difference.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Donald Trump Jr. in India. Talk about how he defended his trip, and how exactly these businesses work.

ANJALI KAMAT: Right. So, he says, you know, the poor in India are very happy, they’re smiling, they’re happier than anywhere else. And then, later, he got very upset when he was criticized for saying that, and actually made a comment saying, you know—that got a lot of attention in India, because he was like, you know, “The Indian media is so nice and mild,” he said, because people just, you know, were very, very nice to him, for the most part.

And then he’s at that fireside chat, in that last clip we saw, and at that chat, during that conversation at the business summit, he made a point of saying, “I’m here as a businessman. I’m here as a developer. I’m not here to do anything else.” But the question is—he is being advertised, on every Indian media station that he went on, without anybody opposing it, saying—as the president’s son. He’s being advertised as the sitting—as the son of a sitting U.S. president, and buyers are getting access to him. And the real question here is—he held events in every city he went to, with buyers, with investors. In some events, politicians were there, as well, though they claim they weren’t there in an official capacity. He’s meeting with all of these different people.

And all these people are coming to meet with him, and their names are not being disclosed. Indian regulations don’t necessarily allow you to know who has exactly put down deposits or bought apartments in these condos. They’re supposed to. There’s a new real estate regulatory authority that’s supposed to make things more transparent. But it might be years before we actually know who was in that room with Don Jr. and why they’re in that room. They might be in that room because they’re “starved for luxury.” Maybe people in India really want to buy Trump Tower apartments. There is a class of people who certainly do want to do that. India is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and there is an aspirational class of millionaires and billionaires that would want to buy Trump Tower apartments. But the point is, if there were people in that room who were trying to access Don Jr. because he’s the president’s son, we don’t know who they are.

AMY GOODMAN: And also talk about why it matters in terms of Indian politics, and the relationship he has with Indian developers, and the central role developers play in Indian politics, as you can say the same things about the United States, of course, because one became the president of the United States.

ANJALI KAMAT: I mean, this is the thing that was probably most interesting to me as I was researching and reporting this story, is just trying to get a sense of how politics and real estate is so closely tied in India. And, you know, India—corruption in real estate is very entrenched in India. This is something that’s widely recognized as a problem. The World Bank Group actually ranks countries on the ease of doing business, and they have a ease of getting a construction permit. And India ranks 181 out of 190 countries. Last year it was 185. And part of the reason for that is that land and construction is very heavily regulated and requires, you know, several dozen, in some cases, permits in order to complete an actual building. And in order to get a permit, at every stage, it’s very common, and often necessary, to pay a bribe, in order to move the process along. So that’s one of the main reasons for it.

The other main reason is that real estate developers have emerged as a major funder for political campaigns. And the ties between builders and politicians is so deep that a phrase that’s used, very common in India, is the “builder-politician nexus.” And, you know, this isn’t that unfamiliar to people here in New York City, and it certainly wasn’t unfamiliar to a figure like Donald Trump. And it’s the way he came up in real estate, as well. And this is something—you know, and I read Wayne Barrett’s book about Donald Trump, and reading about his investigations into, you know, how Trump got approvals for different projects, the parallels are really striking, you know. And Donald Trump, when he announced his presidency, I mean, he did say, “I’ve never met a politician that I couldn’t make a deal with. If you can’t make a deal with a politician, you’re not very good, there’s something wrong with you.” And it’s that mentality that also exists in the real estate industry in India.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Donald Trump Jr. at the Global Business Summit in New Delhi, when he was in India, asking—when he was asked about corruption there.

SUPRIYA SHRINATE: Are some some sections of Indian industry willing to bend rules where it suits them?

DONALD TRUMP JR.: Well, listen, I think there’s an entrepreneurial spirit here that is, you know—again, it needs no further explanation, though the media will say that I said something totally different. But, so, there’s an entrepreneurial spirit here, you know, that is different than elsewhere in the world. … You know, I have seen changes come. You know, once I got with the right people and understood, I have seen reforms—though I’m not talking policy. I’m saying, as an outside businessman coming in, over the couple years, you know, I have seen changes. You know, some of the reforms probably hit everyone, but they also weeded out in the real estate sector, which was—you know, if you were a developer, it was a four-letter word. OK? There was no trust, because you were promised X, and you were delivered X-minus, if anything at all. And that doesn’t work in the long term. So I think there’s been, you know, a burden imposed on all developers. The ones who have done a good job, the ones who are well-intentioned, the ones that I’m now, you know, truly friends with, they’ve done a good job. And they’ll rise to the top anyway. It will weed out the bad players. And that needed to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: “The ones I’m truly friends with,” the “good” developers. That’s Donald Trump Jr. Anjali Kamat, talk about the developers he does business with in India.

ANJALI KAMAT: Well, Donald Trump and the Trump Organization have five different projects, as I mentioned. So, each project, they’ve got a few different partners. And what’s really interesting is that almost all of the partners have a long history of legal entanglements, have a long history of being investigated for tax evasion by the government. At least three of them are very closely connected to very powerful political officials. Two of them are—have close connections to powerful political officials who are in the ruling party right now, who are part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP, which is the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. One of his partners is actually a political official himself. He’s a five-term state lawmaker in Bombay, now called Mumbai. And Mangal Prabhat Lodha is one of the wealthiest men in the country. He’s also a lawmaker. And he shares the same kind of ideological and political vision, in some ways. They’re both right-wing politicians, both developers who turned into politicians. His campaign slogan, a couple of years ago, became “Making Mumbai great again.” And both the Lodha Group and the other—another group in North India, in Gurgaon, called IREO, both of whom have ties to the ruling BJP, have also been under investigation on allegations of money laundering. So, these are—you know, these might be close friends of Don Jr., but there’s a lot of questions about how exactly they were vetted and what their reputations are.

AMY GOODMAN: During his presidential campaign, in October 2016, right before the election, Donald Trump attended a fundraiser in Edison, New Jersey, organized by the conservative lobbying group the Republican Hindu Coalition. Let’s go to a part of the future president’s comments.

DONALD TRUMP: I am a big fan of Hindu, and I am a big fan of India. Big, big fan. Big, big fan. Let me start by stating right up front that if I’m elected president, the Indian and Hindu community will have a true friend in the White House. That, I can guarantee you. That, I can tell you. I’m involved in two massive developments in India, you probably know. Very successful. Wonderful, wonderful partners. Very beautiful. And I must say, I became involved because I have great confidence, and I have great confidence in India. Incredible people and an incredible country.

AMY GOODMAN: Later in his speech, Donald Trump praised Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the far-right Hindu nationalist.

DONALD TRUMP: Prime Minister Modi, who has been very energetic in reforming India’s bureaucracy—great man. I applaud him for doing so. And I look forward to doing some serious bureaucratic trimming right here in the United States. Believe me, we need it also.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, interestingly enough, the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was not allowed in this country for many years. And I’d like you to talk about the reason for that. But first, this Edison, New Jersey, event was very interesting. Talk about who introduced Donald Trump there.

ANJALI KAMAT: So, it’s all linked, actually. The guy who introduced Donald Trump is Shalabh Kumar. He’s a Chicago-based Indian-American electronics billionaire. He was one of the largest donors; his family donated over a million dollars to Donald Trump’s campaign. And he’s also one of the biggest backers of Prime Minister Modi here in the U.S.

So, you know, Prime Minister Modi, before he was prime minister, he was the chief minister, the equivalent of a governor here, of the state of a Gujarat, the western Indian state of Gujarat, where there was a massacre of Muslims in 2002. And he was chief minister of the state at the time and was widely accused of not doing much to prevent the massacre. And there were various accusations, various court cases, that later came out, with different decisions around it. But from 2005 to 2013, he was not allowed in the United States.

And one of the things that changed his diplomatic isolation was both the fact that he was doing very well in the polls, and he would later be elected prime minister in 2014, but also Narendra Modi is widely seen as a very pro-business leader. He is a right-wing leader, but also very pro-business, and is seen as someone who’s, you know, going to drain the swamp, as it were. But one of the people who were key in turning around Modi’s diplomatic isolation was Shalabh Kumar, who organized a congressional delegation to Gujarat in 2013, just before Narendra Modi became prime minister.

AMY GOODMAN: And more about the Gujarat massacre?

ANJALI KAMAT: There were several hundred Muslims who were killed in 2002. I mean, it’s a long, complicated story. But, you know, the tragic part about it is that many of the survivors and many of those—the families of those who were killed are still waiting for justice. A lot of these cases are dragging on in court. And this is something that was very politicized and has, in the current moment, become quite difficult to talk about.

AMY GOODMAN: You write not only about Donald Trump Jr., but also Ivanka Trump. She went—you know, senior adviser to President Trump, her father. She sort of paved the way for Donald Trump Jr. in India, just a few weeks before.

ANJALI KAMAT: Ivanka Trump went to India in November. So, when Prime Minister Modi came to the White House in June of last year, he made a point of inviting the president’s daughter to lead this Global Entrepreneurship Summit in India in November. And so Ivanka went in November to the southern city of Hyderabad. And she wore all these very beautiful Indian-inspired dresses, which was, you know, most of what the media coverage was about. And right before she came, you know, the streets were cleaned up. There was a lot of news reports about people who are homeless and living on the streets were removed. Everything was made to look spick and span and nice for the president’s daughter. Narendra Modi threw a fancy party for her.

But right after she left, one of my sources in—who’s a retired planning official in Gurgaon, told me that right after she left, things started going pretty well for the Trump’s business, as well. So, the towers that were the new project that was launched in January, the final permissions on that were pushed through, in no time, he said, right after she left. So, this is a case of the president’s daughter, who has an official position in the Trump administration, coming to India, and right after she leaves, there is something positive that happens on the business side for the Trump Organization. Then you have Don Jr. coming in, who has no official position in the Trump administration, who says he’s there as a businessman, but is asked to give a foreign policy speech.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits businesses from paying bribes to overseas officials. I want to go back to a 2012 interview on CNBC in which Trump comments on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

DONALD TRUMP: Every other country goes into these places, and they do what they have to do. It’s a horrible law, and it should be changed.

AMY GOODMAN: He wants the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act changed. That was private citizen, developer, a man who has a number of business interests in India, Donald Trump.

ANJALI KAMAT: You know, a lot of legal experts are currently debating whether the structure of the Trump Organization’s deals in different countries that have a reputation and have real problems of corruption, like India, might be susceptible to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. And part of the problem is that these are licensing deals. So, the Trump Organization is, as for as we know, not investing any money in these properties. They’re just selling their brand.

But what I found over the course of this reporting is that the Trump Organization, and the Trump family, is actually very, very involved in these deals. And one of the things that legal experts are looking at is how much did they know. Even if it’s a licensing deal, even if it’s just a question of putting a name on a different project that you’re not involved in building, if they are very, very involved, and if they did know or had reason to know, and in a very corrupt environment like India, they’re not, you know, completely in the clear. If there’s evidence of bribes having been paid, you know, would they have reason to know? What did they do to prevent it?

Which is where due diligence comes in: How carefully did they vet their partners? And one of the most interesting things I found is their middleman, their fixer on the ground, who’s supposed to scope out new deals, is also responsible for doing due diligence on the partners. He’s getting paid, he’s getting a cut, for finding new deals, and part of his responsibility is also making sure that these partners are good enough for the Trump Organization.

AMY GOODMAN: A clear conflict of interest. And I want to end just with a question about how this may affect U.S. policy in the region vis-à-vis India and Pakistan, its traditional, let’s just say, not ally.

ANJALI KAMAT: I mean, this is an open question. And so far, there’s been no clear indication of what this might look like. But on January 1st, President Trump tweeted a very—a tweet very critical of Pakistan, accusing the country of nothing but lies and deceit, and then later cut some aid to Pakistan. This might have happened for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with India. But within India, members of the ruling party saw this as a victory for Prime Minister Modi’s diplomacy and saw this as a pro-India move and were very pleased with it. And that’s how it kind of played out in South Asia.

The other question that, you know, people are also worried about is: What will happen if there is another terrible incident of mass violence, where there are hundreds of people who are killed, sectarian violence, like what happened in Gujarat? Will we see condemnation from the Trump administration?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave that question there. Anjali, an amazing job of reporting over this past year, award-winning investigative journalist, a reporter with the Investigative Fund and a professor at Brooklyn College. We will link to your piece in The New Republic. It’s headlined “Political Corruption and the Art of the Deal.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we analyze Cambridge Analytica. Stay with us.

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