There is a lot more to the Trump Argentina story

Foreign press reports—available only in Spanish—reveal a tangled web of family, business, and power.

Donald Trump and Mauricio Macri’s methods of communication raise ethical red flags. CREDIT: AP Photo/Adam Peck
Donald Trump and Mauricio Macri’s methods of communication raise ethical red flags. CREDIT: AP Photo/Adam Peck

Like other international leaders, who were “blindly dialing into Trump Tower” following Donald Trump’s upset victory, Argentinian President Mauricio Macri had no idea how to contact the new president-elect of the United States. Macri asked his entire cabinet if anyone knew someone who could “urgently” connect him with the soon-to-be head of state.

They would have plenty to discuss: Macri was reportedly quite anxious to talk to Trump to ensure the cooperation that existed under President Obama on intelligence sharing, combating drug trafficking, scientific research, and other areas would continue. The two men — both heirs to real estate fortunes before entering politics — also have a decades-long history of personal and professional tension.

But the future U.S. president wasn’t an easy man to reach. Trump rejected the State Department’s help in fielding calls from around the world, and chose instead to wing it on unsecured phone lines.

Argentine press reported that it was Felipe Yaryura, the Trump family’s lead business partner in Argentina, who connected Macri’s Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra with Donald Trump’s son Eric. Yaryura was asked directly if he set up the call, but “completely avoided answering.” Malcorra also refused to answer in a recent press conference when asked if the businessman served as the conduit between the two governments.

Eric Trump, both a key player in the president-elect’s transition team and the family’s real estate empire, told the Argentine government that his father was too busy to talk to Macri, and that Trump would reach out when his schedule permitted.

It wasn’t until November 14 that Trump carved out time for the South American leader. They spoke for 15 minutes. Prominent Argentine journalist Jorge Lanata reported that this call included a request from Trump that Macri help him secure the necessary permits to build a long-awaited downtown Buenos Aires Trump tower. Talking Points Memo was the first U.S. outlet to pick up the accusation, which both Macri and Trump swiftly denied.

Yet Reuters later confirmed that Ivanka Trump — who is a key player in the family business — was also on the call. The very next day, the investment group building the $100 million Trump-branded tower in Buenos Aires announced that they were moving full speed ahead, and that they “just barely need to take care of a few administrative details.”

U.S. media has largely breezed past the story. But foreign press reports paint a complicated picture of the relationship between the Argentine government, Trump’s Argentine real estate partners, and the emerging Trump administration. Those reports lend further support to the existing evidence that Trump and his adult children are leveraging the presidency to advance their business interests.

“Planets are aligning.”

On election night, Trump’s victory reportedly shocked the mogul himself as much as it did the media and most of the nation. Yaryura, the Argentinian investor working on building a Trump Tower in Buenos Aires, was at his Manhattan victory party that night, and told the newspaper La Nación that he had a “very emotional, intense moment” with the new president-elect. He added that he breakfasted with Ivanka, Eric, and Don Jr. the following morning, where they spoke about how Trump’s presidency would improve his company’s brand worldwide, and in Argentina in particular.

“You see how the planets are aligning?” Yaryura asked. “Macri is looking for investment in Argentina, and we are looking to get into foreign products. This is the moment.”

Trump has been attempting break into the South American real estate market for many years, and in 2012 made his “debut” with a coastal tower in Uruguay financed by Argentine investors. The company said at the time that their goal was to “bring the Trump brand to Buenos Aires.”

It was a difficult goal to accomplish under the leftist government of Christina Kirchner, who was much more critical of multinational corporations than Macri is. Trump set his sights several years ago on a prime location in Argentina’s capital, but as of this September, he had still not gotten the government permits necessary to begin construction.

After speaking with Macri, however, the prospects for a Trump Tower in Buenos Aires appear to have improved considerably. “They showed confidence that the construction would begin on 9 de Julio Avenue next year,” La Nación reported after talking to Yaryura and Trump’s other partners in the venture. Now, the only hurdle for the project now is approval from the Buenos Aires city government, whose mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta is a close ally of Macri’s.

Past and future conflicts

Donald Trump and Mauricio Macri have known each other for decades. According to a book written by Macri’s father Franco, Trump threw a tantrum after losing a round of golf to Mauricio Macri and broke his friend’s golf clubs one by one.

In 1979, the elder Macri tried buy a majority share in one of Trump’s Manhattan real estate projects, and ended up losing $30 million when the deal fell through. When the younger Macri was kidnapped and held for ransom in 1991, his father briefly suspected that Donald Trump was the “true intellectual author” of the crime.

Macri — a right-wing politician with little governing experience who took office last December — openly supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election, saying earlier this year: “It would be hard to work with someone who would want to build walls.” His Foreign Minister Malcorra said Trump was “more closed, more isolationist and xenophobic.” Prominent Argentinian journalists are now voicing concerns that their government needs to quickly make amends with Trump, saying their only hope is that he was too busy to read up on what the Macri Administration said about him.

Spokespersons for both Macri and Donald Trump have thrown cold water in reports that Trump used the diplomatic phone call to push for a permit for his Buenos Aires development. Macri’s administration called the allegations “absolutely untrue,” while Trump’s transition spokesman Jason Miller said they were “baseless claims.”

Yet the participation of Ivanka Trump as well as the ensuing confident announcements from the tower’s developers raise serious questions about the blurred lines between Trump’s international business empire and international relations. Ivanka’s presence in a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raised similar red flags that the family is attempting to use political power to advance their financial interests.

The president-elect sees no such conflicts of interest in his complex tangle of business, diplomatic, and family relationships. While campaigning earlier this year, Trump promised to cut ties with his corporation, saying in a debate: “I wouldn’t ever be involved because I wouldn’t care about anything but our country, anything.”

In a meeting with the New York Times editorial board on Tuesday, however, Trump made a complete reversal. He asserted that there was no problem with mixing his corporate interests with his plans to govern. “The law is totally on my side,” he said. “The president can’t have a conflict of interest.”

Trump is correct that the law banning federal employees from participating in matters in which they or their immediate family have a financial interest in the outcome does not apply to the president or vice president.

But the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause bars him from accepting “any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”

Legal experts told ThinkProgress that if Macri helps Trump secure the permits for his Buenos Aires project, it could be considered an unconstitutional gift under the Emoluments Clause.

Yaryura’s involvement in Trump and Macri’s diplomatic phone call was first flagged by attorney Susan Simpson, who specializes in international white collar crime.