Trump Jnr turns his Indian ‘foreign affairs’ speech into a ‘fireside chat’ after outcry

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 February, 2018, 6:18am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 February, 2018, 6:18am

Donald Trump Jnr backed off a planned speech on regional affairs Friday, opting instead for a cosy “fireside chat” on pressures of work and family amid questions over possible conflicts on a trip to promote Trump properties.

The US president’s son arrived in India earlier this week for a contractually obliged trip to promote his family’s branded real-estate projects, but controversy seemed to dog him at every turn. 

Critics wondered why he was giving a foreign policy speech on a private business trip and slammed a high-profile advertisement campaign offering conversation and dinner with Trump real estate buyers as influence peddling.

After the speech subject was hastily switched Friday, Trump Jnr sat before a video-projected fireplace and spoke of such safe topics as his father’s stressful job, his sister Ivanka and the potential for India’s real estate market.

Trump Jnr, 40, the executive vice-president of the Trump Organization, said the family has voluntarily decided to stop pursing new deals in India after his father was elected president – a business decision he described as “unfortunate.”

“It is difficult. It’s tough as a businessman but it’s fully understandable,” he said, vowing to get back into deal making the Indian market “when we’re out of politics.”

After his speech, Trump Jnr was whisked away to the dinner with buyers of Trump properties, who had been urged to book their pricey flats by Thursday to qualify for “a conversation and dinner” with the president’s son, alarming watchdog groups.

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“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 favour with President Donald Trump through that purchase and also giving them an opportunity for face-to-face communication with one of Trump’s sons.”

The Trump Organization did not respond to emails or telephone calls requesting comment.

For his part, Trump Jnr, 40, the executive vice-president of the Trump Organization, dismissed such conflict-of-interest concerns as “nonsense.”

He told Indian reporters in a round table that his family had voluntarily agreed to put a number of promising deals in India on hold after his father was elected.

“That will cost us quite a bit of money, I’m sure, in terms of lost opportunity,” Trump Jnr, said. The Trump Organization did not respond to emails or telephone calls requesting comment.

Trump Jnr has been scouting deals in India for over a decade, work that eventually resulted in lucrative licensing agreements for two residential towers in the western city of Pune and the 78-story Mumbai project, which is set to be completed next year and is supposed to evoke a glass of champagne when lit up at night.

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There, Trump Jnr was festooned with a jasmine welcome garland, his forehead smeared with a red vermilion powder, as he snipped the ribbon on the tower that will have its own private jet service.

Plans are also in the works for an office tower and residences in Gurgaon, a New Delhi suburb, as well as Kolkata.

In conversations with hand-picked Indian journalists, Trump did once stray 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 talked about the grind of the investigation into alleged Russian involvement into his father’s presidential campaign.

“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 Jnr was well-received in India, which has had largely positive relations with the Trump administration for the last year, except for some tension over trade.

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A Times of India scribe who covered the Kolkata leg of his tour wrote that a “dapper Donald Trump Jnr” was seemingly unperturbed by criticism back home and “charmed” an audience of buyers and real estate honchos at a gala dinner.

Washington, of course, was less sympathetic. That same day, Senator Robert Menendez (Democrat, New Jersey) wrote a curt letter to the US ambassador in India, seeking assurances that they had not helped Trump Jnr on his speech or expended funds for it.

Melendez said on Twitter the trip raised “red flags.” The embassy said it had only provided routine support to his 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 Programme at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

“Though at the same time, I think there’s a realisation that this is the new normal and there’s not much that can be done about it.”

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This week, a steady stream of prospective buyers came through the new Trump showroom in the burgeoning suburb of Gurgaon, eager to pay a US$38,000 booking fee for luxury residences in a Trump Towers project with units selling for up to US$1.6 million.

The project is 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.”

It was launched in January, its promotional materials touted an infinity pool, reflexology garden and a sweeping views of an “adjoining nine-hole golf course.”

The golf course actually sits in the neighbouring Golf Estate development, also owned by M3M, which has been plagued by delays.

Disappointed homebuyers 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. M3M officials did not respond to telephone calls or a list of questions by email

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Manoj Gulati, the owner of one of India’s largest spice conglomerates, was among those who booked a four-bedroom flat in the Trump Towers on Monday, a day that saw US$15 million in real estate sales.

Gulati, who has multiple flats across the country, decided to invest in the Trump Towers after a friend recommended it to him, not to have access to the first family.

“It was a good investment,” he said. “Trump’s name adds credibility to the project and I know that the construction will be good.”