The murky business dealings of Donald Trump are again under the spotlight amidst allegations that executives representing his then holding company, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, conducted a scouting expedition in Cuba in 1998 in apparent violation of the US embargo.
Documents obtained by Newsweek as well as interviews with unnamed former Trump executives allegedly show that the candidate’s company spent $68,000 on the trip.
The magazine asserts that, “with Trump’s knowledge” payment for the expedition was funneled through a consulting firm called Seven Arrows Investment and Development Corp. Only after the trip was over and the bill had been submitted for it did Seven Arrows advise Mr Trump’s people that it should be made to look like a charitable undertaking to avoid legal trouble.
Payment to Seven Arrows was purportedly made just before Mr Trump launched his first presidential bid as candidate for the Reform Party in 1999. On day one of his campaign he told an audience of mostly Cuban-Americans in Miami that the then Cuban leader, Fidel Castrol, was a “murderer” and money spent on the island went to the regime instead of ordinary Cubans.
The report, which was expansively discussed on the MSBNC news channel on Wednesday, will give fodder to Hillary Clinton who has highlighted the obscurity of some of Mr Trump’s past and present business relationships, including to whom he owes outstanding debt. A release of his tax filings could go some way to clearing up those mysteries but he continues to demur.
The report prompted Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who is running for re-election to the Senate, to suggest he may withdraw his endorsement of Mr Trump for president. “The article makes some very serious and troubling allegations. I will reserve judgment until we know all the facts and Donald has been given the opportunity to respond,” Mr Rubio said on Thursday.
There was no comment from Seven Arrows. According to its website, the company “specialises in real estate investment and development”. However, Kellyanne Conway, the Trump campaign manager, all but confirmed that the money detailed in the story had been spent in Cuba in an interview on Thursday on The View on ABC.
“A company controlled by Donald Trump … secretly conducted business in communist Cuba during Fidel Castro’s presidency despite strict American trade bans that made such undertakings illegal, according to interviews with former Trump executives, internal company records and court filings,” Newsweek explains in its latest cover story.
Written by Kurt Eichenwald and titled, ‘How Donald Trump’s Company Violated the United States Embargo Against Cuba’, it states: “On February 8, 1999, months after the consultants traveled to the island, Seven Arrows submitted a bill to Trump Hotels for the $68,551.88 it had ‘incurred prior to and including a trip to Cuba on behalf of Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts Inc.'”
“Without obtaining a license from the federal Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) before the consultants went to Cuba, the undertaking by Trump Hotels would have been in violation of federal law, trade experts say,” the magazine added.
Speaking on The View, Ms Conway said: "Read the entire story. It starts out with a screaming headline, as it usually does, that he did business in Cuba. And it turns out that he decided not to invest there. They paid money, as I understand, in 1998 — and we’re not supposed to talk about many years ago when it comes to the Clintons."
At the time former President Bill Clinton had already signaled an interest in a thaw in relations with Cuba. Nonetheless, the embargo imposed by the US on the island in 1962 set narrow guidelines for when US companies could spend money on the island and mostly only if charitable or human rights purposes were involved.
Reassuring the Cuban-American community in Miami of his commitment to the long-standing embargo was Mr Trump’s first priority after declaring his interest in the White House.
“As you know - and the people in this room know better than anyone - putting money and investing money in Cuba right now doesn’t go to the people of Cuba,’’ he told the Miami event. “It goes to Fidel Castro. He’s a murderer. He’s a killer. He’s a bad guy in every respect, and, frankly, the embargo must stand if for no other reason than, if it does stand, he will come down.”
Mr Trump returned to the topic at a rally in Miami earlier this month when he attacked President Barack Obama for failing to “stand with the Cuban people in their fight against communist oppression". Once again he was talking to an audience of mostly Cuban-Americans
“The president’s one-sided deal for Cuba benefits only the Castro regime,” he said. “But all the concessions that Obama granted were done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse them. And that is what I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands. They include religious freedom for the Cuban people and the freeing of political prisoners. Am I right?”
Analysts told Newsweek that the arrangement whereby Seven Arrows spent the money in Cuba and billed the Trump organisation post facto would not absolve it from any wrongdoing.
“Money that the Trump company paid to the consultant is money that a Cuban national has an interest in and was spent on an understanding it would be reimbursed,’’ Richard Matheny, chair of the national security and foreign trade regulation group at the Godwin law firm in Washington DC, told the magazine. “That would be illegal. If OFAC discovered this and found there was evidence of willful misconduct, they could have made a referral to the Department of Justice.”
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