Trump sold $35M in real estate in 2017, mostly to secretive buyers

Nick Penzenstadler, USA TODAY Published 9:35 a.m. ET Jan. 10, 2018 | Updated 12:52 p.m. ET Jan. 10, 2018

President Trump’s companies sold more than thirty-five million dollars in real estate in 2017, most of which was to secretive shell companies that obscure buyer’s identities. Buzz60
President Trump’s companies sold more than $35 million in real estate in 2017, mostly to secretive shell companies that obscure buyers’ identities, continuing a dramatic shift in his customers’ behavior that began during the election, a USA TODAY review found.

In Las Vegas alone, Trump sold 41 luxury condo units in 2017, a majority of which used limited liability companies – corporate entities that allow people to purchase property without revealing all of the owners’ names.

The trend toward Trump’s real estate buyers obscuring their identities began around the time he won the Republican nomination, midway through 2016, according to USA TODAY’s analysis of every domestic real estate sale by one of his companies.

In the two years before the nomination, 4% of Trump buyers utilized the tactic. In the year after, the rate skyrocketed to about 70%. USA TODAY’s tracking of sales shows the trend held firm through Trump’s first year in office.

The Trump Organization blasts an email that says that Trump is still involved in his businesses and says it is embellished. Elizabeth Keatinge (@elizkeatinge) has more. Buzz60
Profits from sales of those properties flow through a trust run by Trump’s sons. The president is the sole beneficiary of the trust and he can withdraw cash at any time.

The opaque sales come at a time when Congress and ethics watchdogs have called on Trump to be more transparent about his domestic and foreign customers and partners, including the buyers of his companies’ real estate.

At least one of the 2017 sales was to a German couple. His company determined that transaction does not qualify as a “foreign deal,” which the president and his lawyers vowed to avoid while he is in office.

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Trump appointed an independent ethics advisor, attorney Bobby Burchfield, to review new deals.

Last year, when USA TODAY first reported the rapid rise in the share of obscured buyers among Trump’s real estate transactions, Burchfield would not reveal the details of his reviews. Now, he says a four-part test is used when evaluating deals: is it at fair market value or in the ordinary course of business; is it an appropriate counterparty; is there any indication the deal is intended to curry favor with the president and is there any likelihood the deal could compromise or diminish the Office of the President.

“If someone wants to do business with the Trump entities in the form of an LLC, we look behind the LLC to see who the owner of it is and where the funding is coming from,” Burchfield told USA TODAY. “If we can’t determine that, we won’t sign off on it.”

But those deep-dive identifications and financial disclosures are difficult and easily spoofed, said Ross Delston, a Washington DC attorney specializing in anti-money laundering compliance, who said Burchfield’s test is largely subjective.

“From what we know of the Trump Organization’s past real estate deals is they never see deals they don’t like,” Delston said. “Having an ethics advisor shut down a deal based on a test not mandated by law strikes me as somewhere between unlikely to unthinkable.”

The company’s internal ethics reviews also are not subject to public scrutiny.

Burchfield wouldn’t say if he declined to sign off on any Trump real estate deals in 2017.

New buyers last year ranged from real estate investment funds, wealthy individuals seeking an investment and vacation property to some that were unreachable by reporters — largely due to the secrecy associated with their shell company.

Ramsis Ghaly, a neurosurgeon near Chicago purchased a condo in Trump’s Vegas property in late December using an LLC. He said he used the LLC to protect his identity and on the advice of a financial consultant.

“Was I nervous my name could be associated with him? Sure, you’re always concerned with the politics and media, but for me the positives of the property outweighed the negatives,” Ghaly said. “A lot of my doctor friends buy in Trump Chicago—I was a little hesitant, but I believe in the guy and it wasn’t about politics.”

A single condo in Trump’s Vegas development sold in October for $1.6 million. That stretched the price per square foot to around $1,000, pushing the limits of the market, said Nicole Tomlinson, a high-rise sales specialist at Shapiro & Sher Group in Las Vegas.

“You pay a premium for a high floor, view and penthouse, but that’s high for condos and Las Vegas overall,” Tomlinson said.

Efforts to reach Lorraine Tan, the name listed on the deed for the 63rd floor penthouse were unsuccessful.

As president, Donald Trump has visited the Mar-a-Lago Resort — which he calls the “Winter White House” — seven times between February and May when it closed for the season The Mar-a-Lago Resort is seen on February 11, 2017, in West Palm Beach, Florida where Trump is hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.  Joe Raedle, Getty Images
Jason Feldman, a real estate investor in Florida, purchased a Trump condo in Las Vegas in December using an LLC.

Feldman said he is a member at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach. He said politics weren’t part of his decision to buy the Vegas condo.

“The Trump family involvement in the Vegas project played zero role in the purchase decision at all,” Feldman wrote in an email. “The deal was purely an economic decision. In my opinion I think these are underpriced given the growth of the Las Vegas market and likely will buy more units.”

4114 TIH LLC purchased a condo in Las Vegas in November. The company was formed just days before the purchase in Nevada by Georgia Attorney Robert Goldberg and his son Hayden Goldberg, of Las Vegas. Robert Goldberg said he plans to live in the unit part time and use it for rental income. “I’ll let the public record speak for itself on the sale, I’m not anybody. Using an LLC is standard procedure,” he said.

However, it wasn’t standard procedure for Trump buyers prior to his presidential bid, when fewer than 1 in 20 of Trump companies’ real estate buyers was an LLC.

Trump and billionaire partner Phil Ruffin still own about 350 units in the tower. Ruffin’s staff indicated the pair wouldn’t own fewer than 300. Maintaining that many units protects their options open for a casino license someday under Nevada law.

Trump is also sitting on dozens of other real estate properties for sale. That includes his 11-bedroom, 12-bathroom mansion on the Caribbean island of St. Martin.

Trump reduced his asking price from $28 million to $16.9 million in August, the list price today. Anyone can rent the property that sleeps 20 for roughly $10,000 a night from a third party vendor.

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To Pay for Wall, Trump Would Cut Proven Border Security Measures

President Trump has made the border wall a focus of his campaign against illegal immigration to stop drugs, terrorists and gangs like MS-13 from coming into the United States. Under spending plans submitted last week to Congress, the wall would cost $18 billion over the next 10 years, and be erected along nearly 900 miles of the southern border.

The wall also has become a bargaining chip in negotiations with Congress as lawmakers seek to prevent nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants from being deported.

But security experts said the president’s focus on a border wall ignores the constantly evolving nature of terrorism, immigration and drug trafficking

An internal budget document shows the Department of Homeland Security’s request was denied for an additional $2.2 million for Tethered Aerostat Radar Systems, which are used to monitor activity along the Mexico border with the United States from the air. Credit William Widmer for The New York Ti

“People that are dealing with this issue know that a third-century solution to a 21st-century problem is not going to fix this long-term,” said Representative Will Hurd, Republican of Texas and a former C.I.A. officer. Mr. Hurd, whose district includes more than 800 miles of border territory with Mexico, has pushed for more funding for sensors and other border security technologies.

Homeland Security officials have long and frequently described border security as a holistic system, made up not just of walls and fencing but also patrol routes, lighting, cameras, sensors and personnel.

Nor would a wall stop illegal immigration, other experts said. Data from the Department of Homeland Security and research groups like the New York-based Center for Migration Studies show that most undocumented immigrants now simply overstay legally obtained short-term visas — and did not sneak across the border.

“So unless the wall is 35,000 feet high, it’s not going to do much to stop those overstaying these visas,” said Robert Warren, a fellow at the Center for Migration Studies who has worked on immigration issues for Republican and Democratic presidents.

Additionally, Mr. Warren said, many people who have been stopped by the Border Patrol in recent years are seeking asylum — including some who simply walk up to agents and surrender.

Mr. Trump’s budget request for a wall represents more than half of the $33 billion spending blueprint for border security over the next decade. It either eliminates critical funding for border security programs or shifts money from them, threatening to leave gaping holes. A Government Accountability Office study released last February found that Customs and Border Protection has not shown how much fencing and walls bolster border security.

An internal budget guidance document for the 2019 fiscal year shows that the White House Office of Management and Budget asked officials at the Homeland Security Department to reduce or delay funding requests for additional border security technology and equipment. Instead, the document instructed, Homeland Security should dramatically increase funding for a wall on the Mexico border.

Homeland Security officials said the plans are subject to change. Still, the document underscores the priority that a border wall remains for Mr. Trump, who promised its construction during his presidential campaign. It also instructed the department to seek $1.6 billion in the upcoming fiscal year to build 74 miles of a border wall — about $700 million more than Homeland Security officials felt they needed to build that.

Parts of the document were viewed by The New York Times; the rest of it was based on reports by the Democratic staff of the Senate Homeland Security Committe

 The administration has proposed cutting nearly 200 customs canine units, which customs officials say play a crucial role in preventing terrorism and drug smuggling. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

The cuts include money for a remote video surveillance system in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, an area known for high numbers of border crossings and drug smuggling. The system is composed of infrared cameras mounted on poles, towers and buildings, allowing Border Patrol agents to track attempted smuggling and border crossings.

In the internal document, the White House budget office called the surveillance system important but said its funding requests were lowered “to offset the costs of presidential priorities not funded in the D.H.S. request.”

Customs and Border Protection faces several cuts.

Its $7.9 million request for technology upgrades to its P-3 surveillance aircraft — which operates thousands of miles beyond American borders to track narcotics being shipped from Colombia, Peru and other drug producing countries — was denied. In 2016, the latest data available, the P-3 aircrews contributed to 145 drug seizures, helping American and foreign authorities capture a combined 34,108 pounds of marijuana and 193,197 pounds of cocaine.

The internal document also suggested delaying a request to buy 15 new Coastal Interceptor boats to catch drug smugglers. The agency had sought nearly $15 million to replace its aging fleet to keep up with drug smugglers’ smaller, faster boats.

It also would cut nearly 200 of the 500 canine units that customs officials say play a key role in programs to prevent terrorism and drug smuggling. The dogs’ handlers would then be reassigned to ports on the southwest border to help with staffing shortage.

A customs officer inspecting the inside of an empty semi trailer at the border inspection station in Pharr, Tex., last year. The spending blueprint for fiscal 2019 would not fund the hiring of new customs officers. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

“The lack of funding and the elimination of the canine teams is shortsighted and poses a serious threat to border security,” said Tony Reardon, the president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents customs officers. “If you are going to focus on border security, you can’t do that without talking about the men and women who man these ports of entry.”

Perhaps most significantly, the proposed budget would not fund the hiring of new customs officers — the agents who denied 200,000 people from entering the United States at ports of entry in fiscal 2017 and who stopped 600,000 pounds of drugs, including cocaine, heroin, meth and fentanyl. Customs officers also intercepted nearly $70 million in illicit currency, much of it headed back across the border to fill the coffers of Mexican drug cartels.

Experts said the absence of hiring funds could potentially have the most impact on border security; the agents form a crucial line of defense against smugglers and terrorist threats. An internal Customs and Border Protection review showed that the agency’s ranks were about 3,700 officers below required levels, according to the National Treasury Employees Union.

By comparison, Mr. Trump has called for hiring 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents and 10,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

“A wall is the single most expensive thing you can do in terms of trying to secure the border, and not necessarily the most effective on its own,” said Doris Meissner, who was the top immigration official during the Clinton administration. “If you want to be strategic about it, you want to invest in technologies and programs that can stop threats well before they can actually get to the border.”

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Trump once said he was ‘100 percent’ willing to talk to Mueller. Now he’s not so sure.

During a news conference on Wednesday, Trump indicated he may not be willing to talk after all.
Aaron Rupar Jan 10, 2018, 4:13 pm
During a joint news conference with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg on Wednesday, President Trump dodged a question about whether he’d be open to sitting down for an interview with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Instead of answering, Trump began his response by asserting “there’s been no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians, or Trump and Russians. No collusion.” But whether or not there was collusion remains an open question, and Trump has established a precedent for lying about his campaign’s Russia contacts during previous news conferences.

Trump then detoured into talking about about how Hillary Clinton was treated during the course of the FBI investigation into her emails, before asserting that the whole investigation is “a Democrat hoax that was brought up as an excuse for losing an election.” (In fact, the investigation began in July 2016, months before the election occurred.)

“It has been determined there is no collusion,” Trump said, making another false claim, as there is in fact substantial evidence supporting the conclusion that collusion occurred.

Trump closed by suggesting that he may not in fact be open talking to Mueller after all.

“When they have no collusion and nobody has found any collusion at any level, it seems unlikely that you’d even have an interview,” he said.

While Trump’s legal team has repeatedly promised to fully cooperate with Mueller’s investigation, multiple recent reports have indicated that they’re wavering now that the special counsel has expressed interest in interviewing their notorious truth-averse client.

Trump repeatedly promised to fully cooperate with Mueller. Things are changing quickly.
Trump’s lawyers, all of a sudden, are singing a different tune.
It’s unclear whether Trump would get away with refusing to comply with a subpoena from Mueller. But as NBC details, precedent established during the Nixon and Clinton administration suggests that Trump has “no authority to decline.”

Trump himself has previously indicated he would be willing to talk to Mueller. During a news conference in June, Trump said he was “100 percent” willing to testify under oath that former FBI Director James Comey lied during his testimony to Congress when he said that Trump asked him to quash an active investigation into one of his associates in February of last year, weeks after the president asked his former FBI director to pledge personal loyalty.

Trump says he’s willing to testify, under oath, that the former FBI director lied to Congress
The president says he’s willing to do it, “100 hundred percent.”
Evidence that has emerged since last summer has corroborated Comey’s version of events.

The discrepancy between what Trump said then and what he’s saying now was encapsulated by a USA Today breaking news alert above a report about Trump’s comments last June.

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