Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

In Trump they trust: The president's global web of business partners

A previously little-known batch of billionaires And tycoons from Around the world suddenly find themselves in An unprecedented position: how do you cash in on A partnership with the president of the United States of America? from the Avaricious dealmakers to the Abandoned deals, meet the world's 36 mini-trumps

Published: Apr 13, 2017 06:43:12 AM IST
Updated: Apr 18, 2017 02:06:15 PM IST

In Trump they trust: The president's global web of business partners
Image: Clockwise From Top Left: Philip Cheung For Forbes; Jamel Toppin For Forbes; Jason Quibilan For Forbes; Vikas Khot; Tim Pannell For Forbes; Jamel Toppin For Forbes; Donald Trump: Jamel Toppin For Forbes

The night before Donald J Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States, his recently opened Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, serves as the capital’s de facto inner sanctum. Barricades ring the place; if you don’t have a room or a reservation, good luck getting in.

As with any club worth its gilt, secret, concentric rings of exclusivity sit in plain sight, and one starts near the lobby bar, which is lined with bottles of Dom Pérignon and draped with a giant American flag. There, Hary Tanoesoedibjo, Trump’s billionaire Indonesian business partner, sits on a plush sofa, texting with Trump’s billionaire Dubai partner, Hussain Sajwani. Eventually, they meet, and Tanoesoedibjo later posts an Instagram picture of himself, Sajwani and their wives mugging for the camera in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel.

Upstairs, Phil Ruffin, Trump’s billionaire partner in Las Vegas, has taken up residence in $18,000-a-night accommodations. The presidential suite, Ruffin says, was reserved for the president-elect. When he later complained about the price to Trump, the president demurred. Ruffin might need that money: His wife, Oleksandra, a former Miss Ukraine, has hit it off with Sajwani’s wife over their mutual love of expensive jewellery.

All told, at least 14 from this community of partners, from Turkey to India to the Philippines, attended the inauguration festivities. “People often talk about partners as not necessarily friends, almost as if they’re mutually exclusive. ‘If you’re a partner, you’re not a friend, and if you’re a friend, you’re not a partner,’ ” says Eric Trump, the president’s son and co-chief of the Trump Organization, who now sits, with brother Don Jr, at the nexus of this global network. “I think that’s a bad way of thinking.”

All these friends, old and new, mixed with an awesome amount of power and money, do not produce a good recipe for eight hours’ sleep. Joo Kim Tiah, a Malaysian heir who would shortly unveil the world’s newest Trump tower, in Vancouver, eventually complains: “Do you guys know what time it is?”

“I’m sorry, Mr Tiah, we can’t turn the music down,” the hotel staffer responds. “This is once in a lifetime.”

Indeed it is. Never has an American president taken office with such immense and complicated assets. Nor has one brought along a busload of rich partners who, by dint of previous deals and brand association, stand to reap profits in real time, as the president serves.

In Trump they trust: The president's global web of business partnersImage: Trump International Hotel & Tower Vancouver: Jeff Vinnick / Getty Images; Trump Towers Istanbul: Shutterstock.Com; Azerbaijan Trump International Hotel And Tower Baku: Shutterstock.Com; Uruguay Trump Punta Del Este: Miguel Rojo / AFP / Getty Images

To better understand this global network, Forbes looked into each of these 36 partners, travelling to five countries to interview more than a dozen of them. In the process, we made the following discoveries:

• A potential business partner in Russia says he exchanged  messages with the Trump family as recently as January.
• Ruffin and the Trump Organization are considering a Trump casino in Las Vegas, perhaps bolstered by a federally backed high-speed rail connection to Los Angeles—a matter that Ruffin says he’s discussed with the president himself.
• Trump’s partner in Indonesia, Hary Tanoesoedibjo, intends to use the Trump playbook to become president of the world’s fourth-most-populous country within 10 years—and has recently been accused of playing a role in an alleged plot to frame a top Indonesian government official for murder.
• Trump’s attitude towards Muslims spurred, in part, a family feud among his partners in Turkey.

But perhaps the most interesting tidbit comes in the aggregate. Trump’s network extends to at least 19 countries. And these guys (yes, they’re all men) share a set of consistent traits, even as property developers go. This group is uniformly rich—seven are members of the Forbes billionaires list; many more claim centimillionaire status. They reflect their partner—a mélange of bombastic marketing, over-the-top style and political connections.And all of them are trying to figure out, to various degrees, how to cash in on the 45th president.

Eric Trump motions to a small TV in the corner of his office in Trump Tower. “If I turn on the TV—let’s just see—I will bet you that [my father] will be on the screen in some way, shape or form.” He picks up the remote and clicks the power button. An anchor, fresh off a commercial break, stares straight into the camera: “A hearing in federal court today could allow hundreds of people who were deported under President Trump’s original—”Eric smiles as he turns off the set. “I see him up there all day, every day. And I realise how big of a magnitude the decisions he makes and the things he has on his plate.”

His father’s presence in the business extends beyond his office television. In January, Trump stood in Trump Tower and announced that he was handing over control of his business to his sons as part of an effort to separate it from his presidency—though by putting his assets in a trust, he’s really just parking his holdings rather than divesting from them. And because he knows exactly what assets are in the trust, it’s anything but blind.

Trump’s network extends to at least 19 countries. and these guys (yes, they’re all men) share a set of traits

A month later, Eric seems to acknowledge this dilemma. One minute, he promises to never talk about the business with his father while he serves in the White House. Less than two minutes later, he says he will update his father on the company’s finan-cials “probably quarterly”.

He also claims that the business is following through on its plan to hand over profits at its hotels from foreign dignitaries to the US Treasury, even though the Trump business partner in Las Vegas says there is no such thing happening at their hotel. The pledge was intended to resolve concerns that the president would violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, a barely litigated section of America’s founding document that prohibits federal officials from receiving “any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state”. A group of legal scholars and bipartisan ethics experts have begun the lengthy process of suing Trump. “He has all of the conflicts of interest that he had before,” says Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for George W Bush, who is one of the lawyers facing off against him in the suit.

Some of Trump’s foreign partners are already finding themselves politically popular in their home countries. The Philippines’ strongman president, Rodrigo Duterte, appointed Trump partner Jose Antonio to serve as a special envoy to the US just before Trump’s November victory. In India, billionaire Mangal Lodha is developing a 75-storey Trump building while serving as a regional vice president of a major political party. Indonesia’s Tanoesoedibjo is building up a following as he mulls a presidential run.

“We have incredible relationships with the people we do projects with,” Eric Trump says. “You want somebody who trusts you. You want to be able to trust them.”

For all the clumsiness around how detached the president is from his business, from a management perspective, little has changed for the foreign partners. Although 85 percent of Donald Trump’s $3.5 billion fortune is wrapped up in stable buildings and golf courses in the US, the most dynamic part of his business are its foreign licensing and management deals, which garner an estimated 3-5 percent of revenues without adding any risk. And Eric and Donald Jr have for years served as deal scouts, logging hundreds of thousands of miles to find and close foreign partnerships. “He gives his sons a lot of autonomy to make the company’s decisions,” says Paulo Figueiredo Filho, who partnered with the Trumps in Brazil. “They were already conducting 90 percent of the business, even before the presidency.”

The Trump fils took an informal approach to vetting potential partners, relying, like their dad, as much on gut as numbers and analyses. “We’re a little bit of an insular company in that the vast majority of this stuff, we just do ourselves,” Eric says. “The first criterion that we look at if we’re going to do something with somebody else is ‘Are they a good person?’ . . . That’s the way it has to work. If you’re looking at documents, if you’re looking at contracts, something is deeply wrong.”

The brand attracts a certain type of partner—flashy and ambitious. In the Philippines, Jose and Robbie Antonio also designed a beachclub with Paris Hilton. Dubai’s Hussain Sajwani has forged a $3.7 billion fortune selling real estate and tossing in extravagant add-ons, including BMWs and Lamborghinis. In Russia, Emin Agalarov works alongside his billionaire father, Aras, on real estate projects, while also moonlighting as a pop star (Trump once made a cameo in one of his music videos).

These are not the types of businessmen to ignore the fact that they are now tied to the most famous, controversial person in the world. Trump’s own organisation himself has shown how to exploit the moment. During the weekend of the inauguration, guests swarmed the Trump hotel in Washington, DC, paying upwards of $70,000 for a four-night stay. At Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, initiation fees reportedly jumped from $100,000 to $200,000 in January. The property is now worth an estimated $175 million, roughly 15 percent more than it was six months ago, as its historical significance increases seemingly by the week.

“From a business standpoint, is the presidency beneficial?” Eric Trump says. “You have to look at it both ways. If you’re talking about existing assets, they’re doing amazing. If you’re talking about as a whole, we’ve made sacrifices in order to allow him—and he’s made sacrifices in order to allow him—to take the biggest office in the world.”

Ditto for his partners. The crew swanning around the inauguration was clearly thrilled, both with the proximity to power and with the opportunities that might afford. Agalarov says he would probably be working on a Trump Tower in Russia if the US real estate mogul hadn’t launched his campaign. A different partner in the nation of Georgia says the Trump Organization asked to cancel its deal in order to comply with the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.

(It is unclear why the Trump Organization might think its Georgia deal would have caused constitutional issues but not Trump’s other active foreign partnerships. A Trump Organization lawyer wouldn’t comment.) And just before he entered the White House, Trump said Hussain Sajwani offered him $2 billion for a new deal that the president turned down. In Istanbul, though, the Dogan family tried to terminate their agreement with Trump. In Toronto, partners reportedly tried to remove the Trump name from one of their buildings.

Most partners continue to pledge their support—in private if not publicly. “Today, the Trump brand is stronger all over the world,” Agalarov says. Any hard feelings about the cancelled tower? “As soon as he got elected, we sent congratulations letters, to which they replied, and we exchanged texts,” Agalarov adds. “He does not forget his friends.”

(This story appears in the 28 April, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)