BUENOS AIRES — Donald Trump’s business partners in Argentina hadn’t made much headway on their plans for a 35-story, $100 million Trump Tower in the heart of Buenos Aires.
Then, just days after Argentine President Mauricio Macri called to congratulate Trump on his Nov. 8 win, the American businessman's Argentine partners began promoting their project, telling reporters they wanted to break ground in June 2017 and complete the tower in 2020.
The partners, YY Development Group, are constructing a Trump Tower luxury condominium building in neighboring Uruguay, and said that while Trump has wanted to put a tower in Argentina for years, conditions weren’t yet ripe — until now.
Their statements attracted new attention when Jorge Lanata, the host of a popular Argentine current affairs program, alleged Sunday that Trump personally asked President Macri to help get the Trump Tower project approved when the two men spoke by phone on Nov. 14.
“It’s a scandal,” his panelists declared.
The story was picked up Monday by bloggers in the United States and has spread feverishly on social media since then.
But no evidence has emerged to back the claim that Trump asked Macri for any such favor. City officials say no new permits have been granted to the developers. The Argentine president’s office has vigorously denied any such conversation with Macri took place when he spoke to Trump and his daughter Ivanka.
And when reached by phone Tuesday, the panelist on Lanata’s show who made the allegation of Trump’s favor-seeking changed her story, and said it was Ivanka Trump, not her father, who discussed the family business on the call with Macri.
However thinly sourced the allegations appear to be, they are a sign of the many potential conflicts of interest the new U.S. president will face as his business partners abroad may look to capitalize on his victory.
A project like the Trump Tower in Buenos Aires almost certainly has a better chance of going forward and attracting investors now. Not necessarily because Trump asks for help, but because he’s the president-elect of the United States.
Here's what we found in trying to run down the allegations of Trump's request for help from the Argentine president:
Lanata, who initially made the claim during the Sunday evening broadcast of his show “Journalism for All,” responded to our email by referring questions to the panelist who reported the Trump story, Romina Manguel.
When reached by phone, Manguel, a radio host who is a regular guest on Lanata's show, changed her version of the story. She said her source told her it was Ivanka Trump, not her father, who used the opportunity to discuss business with the Argentine president.
Manguel said she was not willing to publicly identify her source — but he was not a member of the Argentine government and was not present during the phone call.
The Argentine president's spokesman, Ivan Pavlovsky, who was present in the room during the Nov. 14 call, adamantly denies that Trump or his daughter made any request for a favor related to his real-estate project.
“There was no discussion of building any tower,” he said.
Trump's office issued a similar statement.
Still, a closer examination of the Trump family’s business ties in Argentina suggest his win alone — and not necessary a direct request for a favor — might be enough for his partners to kick-start the tower project.
Felipe Yaryura, one of the executives behind YY Development, is a friend of Trump’s son Eric — who helps run his father's businesses. The developer was the go-between who helped the Macri government establish contact with the U.S. president-elect after he won.
The Argentine presidential spokesman said a high-level Macri adviser had met with Yaryura prior to the election, and that after the results were announced, the businessman put the Argentine foreign minister in contact with Eric Trump, who helped arrange the Nov. 14 phone call with his father.
Three days after that phone call, Yaryura touted the tower project in an interview with La Nacion newspaper, saying his company began negotiating with the Trump family in January, and that construction would start once a few "administrative details" were resolved.
Yaryura declined a request for an interview, but sent a brief message to a Washington Post reporter confirming that his company has filed permit requests for the tower with the city of Buenos Aires that are awaiting approval.
The developer told La Nacion that Trump had been reluctant to invest in Argentina in the past because of foreign exchange controls and import restrictions that were in place under the previous government of leftist president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. She was replaced by Macri, a wealthy businessman, who won the presidency in November 2015.
Yaryura said his firm approached a company whose permit to build a tower on the site had expired years earlier, and then submitted a request in March to use that permit for its Trump-branded building.
In an interview on Argentine radio on Tuesday, Yaryura also insisted that Macri and Trump did not discuss the Trump Tower project during their conversation. “No. Nothing. Zero,” he said.
An official from the Buenos Aires city planning office confirmed that the developers' company filed a request earlier this year to renew the permits to build a tower on the site, but said that no determination had been made. The official was not authorized to discuss the application with reporters, and spoke on the condition of anonymity.