The Trump Organization is largely a black box. A privately held company now one step removed from President Trump, its finances are mostly hidden from public view. To figure out what web of financial connections exists within its corporate walls, we’re left examining its fingerprints: the publicly announced deals, sales and connections.
That works to the president's advantage. Releasing his complete tax returns would give significant insight into the company, but since Trump has refused to release those documents we're left instead with his federally mandated personal financial disclosures. Those show what he owns and a broad range of their value, but not a whole lot else.
We are left, then, taking Trump's word for it when he says things like this.
The question of whether Trump has financial interests has risen to prominence in recent weeks as questions have emerged about the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. It’s increasingly believed that Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen living in the United States, died at a Saudi consulate in Turkey at the hands of agents acting on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government. Khashoggi was a regular critic of the Saudi government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS. If Khashoggi’s columns were a headache the Saudi government was hoping to eliminate, his death created a new, bigger one.
But Trump has been remarkably passive in his treatment of the crown prince, mirroring his hands-off approach to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump has given the Saudi government broad deference in accepting its official story, telling reporters on Monday that the Saudis denied having Khashoggi killed. It was the same language he used in Helsinki in July when informing the world that Putin denied interfering in the 2016 election.
As with Russia, many have therefore questioned what’s in that Trump Organization black box. Are there business ties we don’t know about? Trump assures us that there are not — or, at least, that there are none in Saudi Arabia.
That plays down the extensive business ties between the Saudis and Trump and his family that we already know about. The Post outlined a number of those ties earlier this month, after Khashoggi vanished.
At a campaign rally in 2015, Trump articulated the specific conflict that he denied on Tuesday morning.
"Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them,” he said. “They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
In the 1990s, as Trump’s business empire was stumbling, he secured cash infusions from deals with Saudi officials. He sold a yacht (coincidentally once owned by a cousin of Khashoggi’s) for $20 million to Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Trump sold a stake in the Plaza Hotel to the prince a few years later. In 2001, he sold a floor of Trump World Tower, near the United Nations in New York, to the Saudi government for $4.5 million.
More recently, the Saudi government spent $270,000 at Trump’s D.C. hotel.
"The rooms,” The Post’s David Fahrenthold and Jonathan O’Connell reported, “were used to house people visiting Washington to lobby against a law that the Saudi government opposed — a law that allows victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to sue the Saudi government.”
Earlier this year, the Trump International Hotel was able to turn around its two-year losing streak, seeing a profit in the first three quarters of 2018. How? A five-day stay in March by members of the crown prince’s entourage.
This excludes income from other Saudi Arabian nationals. Earlier this year, the management of Trump’s hotel in Chicago reported that business from Saudi Arabia was “up significantly over the previous year,” with 218 room-nights (one room booked for one night), compared with 116 to the same point in 2017.
All of this we know simply by tracking the Trump Organization’s fingerprints.
Fahrenthold and O’Connell also reported that the company was apparently working on a potential hotel deal in the country’s second-largest city even as the 2016 presidential campaign moved forward. That also mirrors Trump’s relationship with Russia: In January 2016, his personal attorney Michael Cohen reached out to an aide of Putin’s for help advancing a stalled hotel project in Moscow. The deal fell apart later that year.
How extensive are the ties between Russia and the Trump Organization has similarly been a subject of curiosity (as Trump suggested in his tweet). Donald Trump Jr. infamously told a travel-industry publication in 2008 that “in terms of high-end product influx into the U.S., Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
It’s not clear how clever Trump is being in phrasing his denial about having business ties to the Saudis. It’s certainly not clear that he has active business deals in the country itself. But if he hopes to leave the American public with the impression that no money flows from the Saudi government into that black box that is the Trump Organization — and, from there, into his own bank accounts — that impression is incorrect.