NEW DELHI — Donald Trump Jr. landed in India this week for a long-planned and contractually obligated trip to promote his family’s branded real estate projects here that appeared to be orchestrated to avoid missteps, with private events and limited press.
But controversy dogged the president’s eldest son as he leapfrogged the subcontinent, attending exclusive dinners and investor meetings in New Delhi, Kolkata, Pune and Mumbai.
Trump stepped back from a planned foreign policy speech at a business summit Friday on “Indo-Pacific relations” that had provoked an outcry in Washington. He instead appeared for an innocuous “fireside chat,” where he spoke of his father’s stressful job, his sister Ivanka and the potential for India’s real estate market.
“I’m here as a businessman,” Trump said in his remarks at the Global Business Summit in New Delhi. “I’m not representing anyone.”
After a closed-door meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Trump attended a dinner for buyers at a JW Marriott with free-flowing champagne and photo ops with him — though buyers could linger for only a moment before they were whisked away by security. Trump had appeared in full-page glossy advertisements urging people to pay a booking fee of $38,000 to reserve their luxury residential units in a new Trump Towers project by Thursday so they could join him for “a conversation and dinner” Friday.
His activities have sparked ethics concerns from watchdog groups.
“With this trip to India, the Trump Organization is literally selling access to the first family,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor and ethics expert at Washington University in St. Louis. “It is providing condo buyers with a chance to curry favor with President Trump through that purchase and also giving them an opportunity for face-to-face communication with one of Trump’s sons.”
Trump Jr., 40, the executive vice president of the Trump Organization, dismissed conflict-of-interest concerns as “nonsense” and said in Friday’s speech that the family had made a “sacrifice” by putting other potential India deals on hold for the duration of his father’s presidency.
“It’s difficult. It’s tough as a businessman, but it’s fully understandable,” the president’s son said, vowing to get back into dealmaking in the Indian market “when we’re out of politics.” The Trump Organization did not respond to emails or telephone calls requesting comment.
Trump Jr. has been scouting deals in India for more than a decade, work that eventually resulted in lucrative licensing agreements for two residential towers in the western city of Pune and a 78-story Mumbai project that is set to be completed next year and is supposed to evoke a glass of champagne when lit at night.
Trump was festooned in Mumbai with a jasmine welcome garland, and his forehead was smeared with a red vermilion powder as he snipped the ribbon on a tower that will have its own private jet service. Plans are in the works for an office tower and residences in Gurgaon, a New Delhi suburb, as well as Kolkata.
In conversations with handpicked Indian journalists, Trump strayed briefly from the business at hand to hold forth about American mainstream media — “disgusting” — and the difficulty of being a husband and father while living in a high-pressure fishbowl. He also spoke of the grind of a federal investigation into Russian interference in support of his father in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“The level of scrutiny is ridiculous,” he said. “The good thing is, after all that — millions in legal fees, hundreds of hours of preparation, every headline in the world trying to attack me personally — they kept digging and the only thing that they found is that the other side is doing these things and we didn’t do anything.”
Trump was well-received in India, which has had largely positive relations with the Trump administration, except for tension over trade.
A Times of India reporter who covered the Kolkata leg of his tour wrote that a “dapper Donald Trump Jr.” was seemingly unperturbed by criticism back home and “charmed” an audience of buyers and real estate honchos at a gala dinner.
Washington was less sympathetic. On Wednesday, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) wrote a curt letter to the U.S. ambassador in India, seeking assurances that the embassy had not helped Trump on his speech or expended funds for it. Menendez said on Twitter that the trip raised “red flags.”
The embassy said it had provided only routine support to Trump’s Secret Service detail.
“The optics of the visit do not look good from Washington — or from any other place, for that matter,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “Though at the same time, I think there’s a realization that this is the new normal and there’s not much that can be done about it.”
This week, a steady stream of prospective buyers came through the new Trump showroom in the burgeoning New Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, many eager to pay the $38,000 booking fee for luxury residences in a Trump Towers project with units selling for up to $1.6 million.
When the project — a joint venture between Mumbai-based Tribeca Developers and M3M, a family business that stands for “Magnificence in the Trinity of Men, Materials and Money” — was launched in January, its promotional materials touted an infinity pool, “reflexology garden” and sweeping views of an “adjoining 9-hole golf course.”
The golf course actually sits in the neighboring Golf Estate development, a project that also is owned by M3M and has been plagued by delays. Disappointed home buyers said that M3M initially marketed the course as an executive-level grass playing surface but eventually abandoned those plans and put in synthetic turf instead. Pankaj Bansal, director of M3M Group, said that the existing holes are synthetic turf and a portion of the rest will be greens.
Manoj Gulati, owner of one of India’s largest spice conglomerates, was among those who booked a four-bedroom apartment in the Trump Towers on Monday, a day when sales worth $15 million were recorded. Gulati, who has apartments across the country, said he decided to invest in Trump Towers after a friend recommended it to him, not to have access to the first family.
“It was a good investment. Trump’s name adds credibility to the project, and I know that the construction will be good,” Gulati said.