The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson has a profile piece of Donald Trump’s never-opened Trump International Hotel & Tower Baku, in the capital city of Azerbaijan. The hotel was built at the end of the downtown strip in the city of almost three million people. According to Davidson, the project seems poorly thought out at first blush.
The more time I spent in the neighborhood, the more I wondered how the hotel could have been imagined as a viable business. The development was conceived, in 2008, as a high-end apartment building. In 2012, after Donald Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, signed multiple contracts with the Azerbaijani developers behind the project, plans were made to transform the tower into an “ultra-luxury property.” According to a Trump Organization press release, a hotel with “expansive guest rooms” would occupy the first thirteen floors; higher stories would feature residences with “spectacular views of the city and Caspian Sea.” For an expensive hotel, the Trump Tower Baku is in an oddly unglamorous location: the underdeveloped eastern end of downtown, which is dominated by train tracks and is miles from the main business district, on the west side of the city. Across the street from the hotel is a discount shopping center; the area is filled with narrow, dingy shops and hookah bars. Other hotels nearby are low-budget options: at the AYF Palace, most rooms are forty-two dollars a night. There are no upscale restaurants or shops. Any guests of the Trump Tower Baku would likely feel marooned.
Davidson also points out that the timing of the project, specifically when the Trump Organization announced they would be involved in the building of the luxury hotel, was very odd as the “occupancy rate for luxury hotels in the city hovered around thirty-five per cent.” This was odd because if you want to have a viable luxury hotel business you are supposed to at least convince yourself that you can maintain at least a 60 percent occupancy rate over 10 years. How did this strange project, costing tons of money, get so far down the line?
The Azerbaijanis behind the project were close relatives of Ziya Mammadov, the Transportation Minister and one of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful oligarchs. According to the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, Azerbaijan is among the most corrupt nations in the world. Its President, Ilham Aliyev, the son of the former President Heydar Aliyev, recently appointed his wife to be Vice-President. Ziya Mammadov became the Transportation Minister in 2002, around the time that the regime began receiving enormous profits from government-owned oil reserves in the Caspian Sea. At the time of the hotel deal, Mammadov, a career government official, had a salary of about twelve thousand dollars, but he was a billionaire.
After Donald Trump became a candidate for President, in 2015, Mother Jones, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and other publications ran articles that raised questions about his involvement in the Baku project. These reports cited a series of cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan in 2009 and 2010, which were made public by WikiLeaks. In one of the cables, a U.S. diplomat described Ziya Mammadov as “notoriously corrupt even for Azerbaijan.” The Trump Organization’s chief legal officer, Alan Garten, told reporters that the Baku hotel project raised no ethical issues for Donald Trump, because his company had never engaged directly with Mammadov.
The New Yorker article goes on to show the mountains of circumstantial evidence showing that Mammadov has direct ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC)—a group the Trump administration is now considering for “terrorist” status. The Times of Israel explains a bit more about the IRGC.
According to the report, the IRGC’s interest in doing business in Azerbaijan with the Mammadovs may have in large part been connected to the latter’s ownership of a bank, allowing the IRGC to launder money at a time that Iran was largely cut off from the international financial system due to sanctions relating to the country’s nuclear weapons program.
The report noted that during the same years that the transportation ministry was awarding lucrative contracts to Azarpassillo, the Mammadovs invested in a number of building projects, while also putting money in a number of offshore banking accounts and shell companies, all of which are widely used for money laundering due to their lack of transparency.
All of these problems were brought to light by Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald months ago.
Another business relationship that could raise concerns about conflicts involves Azerbaijan, a country the State Department said in an official report was infused with “corruption and predatory behavior by politically connected elites.” According to Trump’s financial filings, the Republican nominee is the president of two entities called OT Marks Baku LLC and DT Marks Baku Manaaina Member Corp. Those were established as part of deals the Trump Organization made last year for a real estate project in the country’s capital. The partner in the deal is Garant Holding, which is controlled by Anar Mammadov, the son of the country’s transportation minister, Ziya Mammadov. According to American diplomatic cables made public in 2010, the United States possessed information that led diplomats to believe Ziya Mammadov laundered money for the Iranian military. No formal charges have been brought against either Mammadov.
Once again, however, this exposes potential conflicts between Trump’s business connections and national security. While the development is currently on hold, it has not been canceled, meaning that Anar Mammadov could soon be paying millions of dollars to Trump. If American intelligence concludes, or has already concluded, that his business partner’s father has been aiding Iran by laundering money for the military, will Trump’s foreign policy decisions on Iran and Azerbaijan be based on the national security of the United States or the financial security of Donald Trump?
As of right now, the Trump Organization continues to say that they didn’t drag their feet when doing their due diligence on figuring out who they were dealing with, they just took a very long time. The problem is that, by law, if they were to be investigated for having broken the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, they would have to at the very least show their “due diligence.” Davidson asks for this bit of evidence from Trump’s Organization.
I asked Garten how deeply the Trump Organization had looked into the Mammadov family’s political connections. Had it been concerned that Elton Mammadov, as a sitting member of parliament, might exploit his power to benefit the project? How much money had Ziya Mammadov invested in Elton’s company? Garten noted that he didn’t oversee the due-diligence process. “The people who did are no longer at the company,” he said. “I can’t tell you what was done in this situation.” He would not identify the former employees. When I asked him to provide documentation of due diligence, he said that he couldn’t share it with me, because “it’s confidential and privileged.”
Sounds about right.