Trump: Follow the Money
THERE’S a scene in the classic 1976 movie All the President’s Men when Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (aka Robert Redford) says to his source Deep Throat regarding the Watergate break-in: “The story is dry. All we’ve got are pieces. But we can’t seem to figure out what the puzzle is supposed to look like”. Famously, Deep Throat replies: “Follow the money”.
That’s what we should do regarding Donald Trump – following the money trail in Scotland.
Ever heard of an Unexplained Wealth Order, or UWO? These came into force in the UK in January of this year. A UWO requires that a person who is reasonably suspected of involvement in – or just connected to a person involved in – serious crime must explain the nature of their interest in a named property – say a golf course that loses a lot of cash.
Scottish Ministers have the right to seek a UWO from the Court of Session. The legislation is clear that a UWO can be applied against politicians from outside the UK or European Economic Area, or against their family and associates. That would include not just The Donald, but his son Eric, who runs Trump’s two golf courses in Scotland. Or Trump associates such as Erik Prince, former boss of the Blackwater mercenary corps, who is under investigation in America as a key player in the President’s alleged links to Russian money.
In a Russian Bunker
But are there “reasonable” legal grounds for suspecting Trump has links to possibly criminal persons? Remember that for an investigatory order to be granted, all you need is a reasonable suspicion he may have been in contact (consciously or not) with dodgy elements – not that he was a co-conspirator.
Trump owns two golf courses in Scotland – Turnberry and Aberdeen. He purchased Turnberry in 2014 with cash – unusual in the golf business. In the same period, from 2006 to 2014, he bought no less than 12 other properties cash down without mortgages – a remarkable change of tack for the self-proclaimed “king of debt”. Where did this money come from?
After a series of bankruptcies in the 1990s left the property business Trump inherited from his father largely unable to borrow from mainstream banks, The Donald turned to Russian backers. This was a time when the former Soviet Union’s new oligarchs were desperately seeking foreign havens for their newfound loot – mostly acquired by dubious means in the chaos that followed the collapse of Communism. In 2008, Trump’s son, Donald Jr, boasted to a real estate conference: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets… We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
And a lot of money it was. For instance, according to a Financial Times special investigation, one Russian oligarch bought a Palm Beach estate from Trump in 2008 for $95m – more than double what Trump had paid for it four years earlier. Reuters reports that in Florida, 63 Russians – some with known political connections – spent $100m buying property at seven Trump-branded luxury tower blocks. Money laundering?
The Scottish Connection
Clearly the US authorities believe there are reasonable grounds to investigate Trump’s links with Russian cash of a dubious provenance. Paralleling separate investigations by Special Counsel Robert Meuller, the US Senate has already taken testimony regarding Trump’s two Scottish golf resorts. If that’s not grounds for ScotGov asking some questions of its own via a UWO, I don’t know what is.
The economics of Trump’s Scottish businesses are weird to say the least. His Turnberry golf course lost $4.5m (£3.5m) in 2017 – its fourth consecutive year in the red since he acquired the property. To date, Trump has invested over $212m in Turnberry – $67m for the purchase plus an additional $144m for renovation and to cover consistent annual losses.
Not that The Donald is completely out of pocket – thanks to the generosity of the Scottish taxpayer. Trump’s Turnberry operation benefited from public subsidies to the tune of £109,530 in 2017-18, under the transitional business rates relief scheme. Fortunately, Finance Secretary Derek Mackay has changed the rules, so Trump won’t get any more of this boondoggle.
Trump’s ability to find cash comes at a time when his business empire is doing badly. Recently his company lost hotel franchises in Panama, Toronto and New York’s SoHo neighbourhood, as the property owners severed ties with his increasingly toxic brand. In New York and Chicago, hotels under his personal ownership have seen a sharp decline in custom since 2015. One more reason for asking him to open his books.
Now here’s the interesting part about an Unexplained Wealth Order. While the UWO is only an investigation tool, any failure to respond – and you can just imagine Trump telling the Scottish Government to get lost – allows the civil authorities to launch legal proceedings in the Court of Session to seize the properties concerned, under the proceeds of crime legislation. Just saying.