Trump Tower in Mumbai still under construction in 2017. | Rafiq Maqbool/AP Photo
President Donald Trump arrives Monday in a country featuring the most Trump properties outside the U.S.
The White House hopes the visit will advance trade talks and bolster the president’s standing with Indian-Americans ahead of the 2020 election. But it’s also a trip that will create attention that could help Trump-branded properties amid a slumping real estate market and slowing economy in India.
Already, in the days leading up to the trip, some Indian media outlets have referenced the Trump properties in their coverage, with one evensuggestingthe president chose his speaking location because of his longstanding ties to realtors in the region.
It’s an issue that has hovered over the entire Trump presidency. From staying at his own properties, to his attempt to host world leaders at one of his Florida resorts, to his loving odes to his overseas properties while sitting next to the leaders of those countries, Trump has faced constant questions about whether he is using his presidential perch to line his own pockets.
And nowhere are the lines more blurred between Trump the statesman and Trump the salesman than in India — a nation that boasts the distinction of being both the globe’s largest democracy and the Trump Organization’s largest foreign market. For three years, Trump’s White House has worked with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on trade and a multi-billion weapons sale. And for three years, Trump’s company has worked to promote its four developments in India that have earned Trump millions of dollars in royalties.
In 2018, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr. — who runs the Trump Organization with his brother, Eric Trump — spent several days in India promoting the family’s developments, attending a champagne dinner with condo buyers who plunked down $39,000 deposits and bringing in millions of dollars in new sales. While there, he also met with Modi behind closed doors. The next year, Trump’s Indian business partners flew 100 early buyers of his luxury condos near Delhi tovisit Trump Towerand Trump Ferry Point golf course in New York City as a way to generate interest in the properties in India. One attendee gushed afterward about meeting the son of a U.S. president on the trip.
Some of the Trump Organization’s business partners in India are also connected to the government, creating potential conflicts of interest. Some also face lawsuits and investigations into financial wrongdoing. And some havetoutedtheir relationship with the U.S. president in promotional materials and granted buyers access to members of the first family.
“What you’re looking at — especially in India where he has extensive holdings — is more than problematic. It raises very serious conflicts of interest questions,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a member of the House Oversight Committee, which launched an investigation in March 2019 into Trump’s businesses. “The fact that his two sons run the day-to-day operations of the business that hardly separates it from him politically or financially.”
When Trump became president, hepledgedthat his company would forgo any new foreign deals while he was in office. But the Trump Organization still promotes its existing foreign properties and has signaled where it may want to expand after Trump leaves office. India appears to be top of that list.
“After politics, we would certainly look at India and other markets.” Trump Jrtold the Indian newspaper Mintin 2019. But India, he conceded, “would be a big focus of mine. Frankly, it would be easier for me to get going in India because of the relationships we have built up in the last decade.”
After winning the election in 2016, Trump ignored calls to fully separate from his company, which comprises more than 500 businesses, a step past presidents have taken. He still owns his business but placed his holdings in a trust designed to maintain assets for his benefit. Trump, who donates his presidential salary to support federal agencies, can withdraw money from the trust at any point without the public’s knowledge.
His decision to link his private business interests with America’s highest public office in anunprecedented wayhas led to a vast web of potential conflicts of interest, allegations he is using the office to enrich himself and accusations he makes foreign policy decisions based on his businesses.
In the weeks after his election in 2016, Trumpmetwith three of his Indian business partners — Atul Chordia, Sagar Chordia and Kalpesh Mehta — during the presidential transition at Trump Tower in New York, irking government ethics veterans.
Trump has repeatedly denied a connection between his business and his presidency, but multiple lawsuits, Democrats and government ethics specialists have accused the president of improperly mingling the two. The White House and Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment for this report. Neither said whether Don Jr. and Eric would join for the trip to India, though Trump will be accompanied on the trip by his daughter, Ivanka Trump, a former executive at the Trump Organization who now serves as a senior advisor at the White House.
Trump is scheduled to leave Sunday for India, where he will hold a massive rally with Modi at a cricket stadium in Ahmedabad in the western part of the country before he travels to the capital, New Delhi, for official talks.
Trump visited his properties inScotlandin 2018 andIrelandin 2019 on trips but isn’t expected to visit his Indian developments which are condo buildings, not resorts or clubs. Yet Trump has shown in the past that he is willing to drop in references to his properties while discussing unrelated political issues.
“It’s a little different situation than him going to his own club and being able to hold court there,” said Alyssa Ayres, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia who now serves as senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “This trip will make [his properties] more visible in India.”
The Trump Organization’s history in India goes back over a decade. The company began talks with developers in India around 2007, initially signing a deal to develop a skyscraper in Mumbai. But that project floundered and it took another six years before the company finally entered Indian market in 2013.
Today, the company has four luxury condo projects across the country with what has beenreportedin India as revenue potential of $1.5 billion. In April 2016, it alsoproposedan office building in Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi.
Trump Tower Pune, the first Trump development in India, is a pair of 23-story skyscrapers in the western Indian state of Maharashtra that boasts of redefining the Pune skyline.Trump Tower Kolkatais a 36-story skyscraper of black and silver glass that touts floor-to-ceiling windows in every room.Trump Tower Mumbaihas a shimmering gold facade covering 75 floors that feature panoramic views of the Arabian Sea — there’s also a private jet available for customers. And each of the twoTrump Towers in Delhirise 50 stories.
At least one of the Trump Organization’s partners is struggling, though. Macrotech, the developer of Trump Tower Mumbai, is saddled with mounting debt and was downgraded late last year by global credit rating agencies, including Moody’s and Fitch. It has a bond repayment due weeks after Trump’s visit.
The developments took Trump to India at least once in 2014, 10 months before announcing his presidential run, according to interviews. He attended the launch of the tower in Mumbai and promoted another property in the nearby city of Pune.
In India, the Trump Organization licenses its name and receives royalties from the projects instead of owning and managing the properties outright. It’s a similar set up to many of the company’s developments around the globe. The company often retains great interest in how the properties are developed and promoted, though.
According to the president’s personal financial disclosure forms, the company’s Indian properties have earned Trump millions. Since 2014, Trump has likely earned more than $10 million in royalties from his deals with Indian developers, though exact numbers are not listed. In 2018, for example, he earned between $1 million and $5 million from the Kolkata property.
“India, among other emerging markets, is the biggest push for our organization,” Trump Jr.sayson one of the Indian developer’s websites.
House Democrats areinvestigatingwhether the profits Trump receives from spending byforeign governmentsorU.S. officialsat his properties violates the Constitution emoluments clause, which prohibits a president from receiving gifts from foreign governments or any compensation from the U.S. government other than his salary.
Left largely unexplored is the effect Trump that the president’s travel and diplomatic discussions have on his foreign properties. Trump has met with leaders ofat least 10 countrieswhere he has a property or is developing one, as well as leaders of three countries where state-owned companies are developing new Trump resorts, according to White House records.
In India, many of Trump’s business partners are also closely tied to the government.
Supriya Sule, who owns a stake in the company developing the Pune property, Panchshil Realty, is a member of Indian Parliament and daughter of Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar,
Mangal Prabhat founded Lodha Group, the company working on the Mumbai development, and also heads the Mumbai unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi’s political party.
The director and president of the company developing the Gurgaon property, IREO, are also both related to BJP member Sudhanshu Mittal.
Each company has also had brushes with the law.
IREO wasaccusedof cheating investors out of nearly $150 million in a scheme unrelated to the Trump development, according to complaints filed with Indian authorities. The Lodha Group was fined $1 million after failing to report $30 million in income. Panchshil Realty wasinvestigatedby local police and state government following after discrepancies in land documents.
In February 2018, Trump Jr. visited India to promote the Trump properties with newspapers carrying front-page ads featuring photos of Trump Jr. asking “TRUMP HAS ARRIVED. HAVE YOU?” and “TRUMP IS HERE. ARE YOU INVITED?”
It was on that trip that Trump Jr. headlined the lavish dinner with the $39,000 deposit entry fee. His trip net$15 millionin real estate sales for the Trump Towers in Gurgaon.
Trump Jr. drew national media during the trip, when it emerged that he was planning to deliver a speech on foreign policy. Amid criticism from ethics experts and Democrats, Trump Jr. scrapped the talk. Still, he got flack for the closed-door meeting he held with Modi while there. Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,wroteto the U.S. ambassador to India, urging him to treat Trump Jr. like “any other American visiting on private business.”
But the following year, it was clear that Indian buyers of Trump condos who flew to New York City as part of a promotion did not treat Trump Jr. as any other American.
The 100 purchasers of residences in Trump Towers Delhi stayed at Trump Tower and dined with Trump Jr. at Trump Ferry Point, where “he talked about the success of the Trump India projects, future plans of investment in India & more,” according toLinkedIn.
After returning to India, at least one buyer gushed about meeting the son of the president. “It’s a dream come true, shaking hands with the son of the U.S. president,” the persontoldthe Telegraph India. “I am ready to buy one more flat if they give it to me at the old price. I am ready to make a single shot payment right now.”
To the president’s critics, it’s a troubling mixture.
“There’s this complete merging of the Trump financial interests and the president’s actions as president of the United States,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a member of House Democratic leadership who serves on the Judiciary Committee. “We can have no confidence that the president is not being influenced by his business.”