Not America first, Trump first
Following President Donald Trump’s electoral victory, Argentine President Mauricio Macri urgently sought to reach Trump by phone to congratulate him on his win, especially since Macri had publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton during the election and since the Trumps and the Macris have a complicated history. President Trump and President Macri have known one another since 1979, when Macri’s father, Franco, tried to purchase more than 60 percent of the shares in a Trump real estate project in Manhattan. When the project eventually fell through, it ended up costing the Macris $30 million. In the 1980s, according to a book written by Franco Macri, Trump threw a tantrum and broke his clubs after Mauricio Macri beat him in a golf game while they were working on that real estate deal. Franco Macri also reportedly briefly suspected Trump of being behind his son’s 1991 kidnapping, a charge that has never been substantiated.
Macri did eventually get in touch with then-President-elect Trump, but it took some doing. According to La Nación, Felipe Yaryura, co-owner of the Argentine development firm YY Development Group and also a close friend of the Trump family, facilitated a call between Eric Trump and then-Foreign Minister of Argentina Susana Malcorra so that Malcorra could get in touch with Trump’s foreign affairs team.
But let’s backtrack for a moment: In 2012, the Trump Organization signed a deal with YY Development Group to develop a Trump-branded tower in Punta del Este, Uruguay, with the longer-term goal of developing Trump-branded property in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Trump reportedly spent years trying to develop property in Argentina but had been unable to acquire the necessary permits, which is why the Argentine developers at YY Development Group financed the Trump building in Uruguay first. In February 2016, however, according to YY Development Group chief executive Juan José Cugliandolo, the group submitted plans to develop a 35-story office building in Buenos Aires and were awaiting the city government’s approval, which they still had not received as of Election Day.
Trump and Macri did finally speak on the phone on November 14, 2016, along with Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who at the time was still very much involved in the Trump Organization. It appears that then-President-elect Trump conducted many of his initial calls with foreign leaders from unsecured phone lines, including his call with Macri. As Robert Mackey of The Intercept points out, “[I]t seems possible that at least one foreign government might possess a recording of the conversation with Macri. If Trump did ask Macri about a building permit for his tower, anyone with audio of those remarks would seem to have leverage over the [then] incoming president.”
Argentine journalist Jorge Lanata, along with reporter Romina Manguel, informed the audience on his weekly television show that during Macri and Trump’s phone call, Trump asked Macri to approve the permits required to build his property in Buenos Aires. Later reporting from The Guardian revealed that the source behind the claim came from Macri’s staff, and Manguel further described the allegation, stating, “Macri told Trump that Argentina is welcoming foreign investment now, and Trump replied that he has a $150 million investment in Argentina stalled because of a building permit in Buenos Aires.” Additionally, a prominent Argentine politician told BuzzFeed that Macri recounted Trump’s permit remarks to governors.
Spokespeople for both Trump and Macri have denied the allegations. Just three days following the so-called congratulatory phone call, however, La Nación reported that officials with YY Development Group announced that the Buenos Aires project was moving forward, with only a few administrative issues remaining to be cleared up before the expected groundbreaking in July 2017.
Following reports of the phone call, the Buenos Aires Ministry of Urban Development and Transportation released a statement explaining that the project to develop a Trump tower in the city first came about in 2007 when the firm Kubic S.A. filed a building request that was approved but expired after three years because no construction took place. After another failed attempt in 2016 by a different firm to restart the project, the city said developers would have to submit new paperwork. So despite YY Development Group’s assertions that the project was moving forward, the proper paperwork to do so had not been submitted according to the city government.
In January 2017, a Trump Organization spokeswoman, who requested not to be named, told Reuters that the organization had “no plans to build in Buenos Aires.” It was a predictable response given the media uproar over the obvious conflicts of interest in this case. Reuters also reported that YY Development Group told La Nación that the project had been called off—for the moment.
YY Development Group, in charge of Trump’s projects in both Argentina and Uruguay, has a number of personal connections with the Trump family and with officials in the Macri government. YY Development Group managing partner Moisés Yellati is the brother-in-law of Argentina’s new finance minister, Nicolás Dujovne. Both men have previously been partners in separate real estate ventures. Dujovne’s father, Bernardo Dujovne, is the founding architect of and partner in Dujovne-Hirsche & Associates, which is the firm working with YY Development Group to build Trump’s tower in Punta del Este, Uruguay.
Felipe Yaryura and Moisés Yellati both attended Trump’s victory party on election night, as well as each of the debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton. In an interview with La Nación, Yaryura touted his relationship with the Trumps, noting that the morning after election night, he joined one of Trump’s children for breakfast to discuss Trump’s presidency and how it would improve the Trump brand around the world, particularly in Argentina. As noted above, Yaryura’s close relationship with the Trump family, particularly with Eric Trump, was the reason the Macri government was able to connect with Trump following the election.
Follow the paper trail
According to Trump’s May 2016 financial disclosure—which was not verified by regulators and therefore may not include all of his foreign deals or assets—Trump owned, had ownership interest in, or was a managing member of one company possibly related to business in Argentina, which the filing claims was started on April 20, 2016:
- TC Marks Buenos Aires LLC, president, member
Argentina illuminates the dangers to American interests of Trump’s highly conflicted me-first approach to foreign policy. Rather than push Argentina for more favorable trade terms or to work on shared security concerns, there is credible reporting that the very first thing Trump raised with Argentina’s president was getting the permits for his hotel project. Essentially, Argentina is in a position to offer Trump a petty bribe in the form of approval for his building project as a way to avoid taking action on key foreign policy concerns not to its liking but that could benefit America and the American people. This is why Trump’s conflicts of interest are so concerning and, ultimately, so corrupt.
Read the full series of columns here.
Carolyn Kenney is a policy analyst with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress. John Norris is a senior fellow at the Center.