A Towering Mistake in Baku


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Extreme vetting and due diligence are standards which President Donald Trump wishes to be exercised by everybody except for himself and his family. Before him, almost every presidential candidate, and for that matter every candidate for public office, had felt duty-bound to reveal his or her own finances. Mr. Trump, however, refused to divulge his finances and the taxes he had paid, but he got elected anyway. He did, however, pledge to extricate himself from his businesses, delegating the day-to-day operation to his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, but he continues his financial interest in the company.

Experts on the matter of ethics, including the Office of the Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub, say that President Trump is not doing enough to divest himself from his business interests. That kind of involvement will open the presidency up to criticism that those interests may color how the US approaches that country, since he has international business interests around the world, especially in some volatile spots.

Already, Mr. Trump’s administration’s warm relations with Vladimir Putin and his soft spot regarding Russian issues are believed to be derived from his business interests in that country.

If those allegations are of a speculative nature, more factual criticism has recently been directed at the president and his business interests in one of the most corrupt states in the world, namely Azerbaijan.

In 2014, Trump announced a hotel project in Baku, in which he partnered with Anar Mammadov, the son of Azeri Transportation Minister Ziya Mammadov, one of President Ilham Aliyev’s cronies. Mammadov is considered one of the most corrupt government officials, a standout even in Azerbaijan, well known for rampant corruption by the government. (Mammadov’s son had a recent fallout with First Lady Mehriban Aliyev’s clan, the Pasha Holding Group, having duped his partners in a business deal.)

The American public is exposed daily to such scandals, which have become common place. But Mr. Trump’s association, in doing business with corrupt governments, goes beyond business ethics to impact US laws and national security.

Indeed, a letter by three Democrat senators addressed to respective authorities, has requested an inquiry into the Trump project in Baku, in light of revelations which appeared in article in New Yorker magazine (“Trump’s Worst Deal,” March 13). The letter by Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Diane Feinstein of California and Ben Cardin of Maryland was addressed to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and FBI Director James Comey. The senators specifically noted in the letter: “It appears that the lack of due diligence by the Trump organization described in the article exposed President Trump and his organization to notoriously corrupt Azerbaijani oligarchs and may also have exposed the Trump organization to the IRGC or Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“Even though the Trump organization appears to have withdrawn from the Baku tower deal, serious questions remain unanswered about the Trump organization’s potential criminal liability,” they wrote.

Before coming to the legal impact of the above deal, one major question pops up in our minds: why was Azerbaijan excluded from the Muslim countries whose citizens are banned from receiving visas to the US?

But the request for the probe seems to have more serious political and legal implications; thus, Ziya Mammadov had ongoing business relations with the Iranian construction company Azarpassillo, which in turn is believed to be a front for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. That would have violated US and international sanctions put in place against Iran.

From all indications, the Baku tower project has gone bankrupt because of many miscalculations.

In defense of the Trump operation, the company lawyer Alan Garten has announced that “we did not own the hotel. We had no equity, we did not control the project, we did not pay any money to anyone. Therefore, it could not be a violation of FCPA.” (The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, passed in 1977, forbade American companies from participating in a scheme to reward a foreign government official in exchange for material benefit or preferential treatment.) That kind of statement is the primary duty of any lawyer but it remains to be seen what an investigation would reveal if one is carried out.

According to the New Yorker story, a photo appeared of Ivanka Trump on her website, in which she wore a hard hat, in the Baku building, with the caption, “Ivanka has overseen the development of Trump International Hotel & Tower Baku since its inception, and she recently returned from a trip to the fascinating city in Azerbaijan to check in on the project’s progress.”

It is good to know that all the money wasted on the project was from Azerbaijan, whose fortunes are dwindling in recent months. In an unrelated issue, British Petroleum (BP), which is the main investor in Azerbaijan, has decided to cease its operations in Shahdeniz oil field. Also, Georgia, which has bypassed Armenia in all regional projects as part of its friendly ties with Azerbaijan, has decided to cut its dependence on Azeri gas supplies.

Whether an investigation is carried out or not, the revelations themselves have already tarnished Trump’s business deals.

When so many business interests are at play, what would be the prospect of a Trump solution to the Karabakh issue? He has not yet addressed that problem because he has been learning the trade on the job.

What message he would issue for the Armenian community on April 24 is also a great unknown.

Unpredictability has been the hallmark of Trump policies but he must at least be consistent with himself. If extreme vetting is a priority for the president, he must be the first one to comply with that policy. Otherwise, Baku’s bankrupt tower may come to symbolize his policies.