Politics

Qassem Soleimani and Donald Trump Were in the Same Business

Out past the bounds of respectable financial activity, there are deals to be done.

Trump disembarks from the presidential helicopter at night as a saluting Marine awaits him.
Donald Trump on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

On Monday, Donald Trump complained on Twitter about recent reporting that Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani was not actually planning “imminent” attacks on U.S. interests when he was killed in a Baghdad airstrike, as the White House has claimed. Trump’s argument is that Soleimani was always a bad guy, so who cares when he died:

The idea that previous administrations should have done something to stop Soleimani is particularly interesting in light of a 2017 New Yorker story about Trump’s partners in a construction project in Azerbaijan, which borders Iran to the north.

Beginning in 2012, the Trump Organization was paid at least $5 million to license its brand to a luxury hotel and condo building that was erected in the nation’s capital, Baku, by a company owned at least in part by family members of a powerful Azerbaijani official named Ziya Mammadov. Mammadov, as the New Yorker documents, is believed to have awarded hundreds of millions of dollars of Azerbaijani government contracts to businesses ostensibly run by his family members but actually controlled by him. There’s also evidence, including a 2009 U.S. State Department memo published by WikiLeaks, that Mammadov awarded similarly inflated contracts to a construction company widely assumed to be controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the organization for which Soleimani directed foreign paramilitary and terrorism operations. (Because of sanctions against Iran and international scrutiny of terrorist finance networks, the guard uses front companies to raise and distribute the funds with which it pays for weapons and otherwise supports terror and proxy militia operations.)

The building that Trump and the Mammadovs collaborated on in Baku was finished, but it never opened, and per the New Yorker it was built in an inaccessible and not particularly upscale area of the city. So it is not making money by operating as a hotel or by selling condo units, and it does not seem well positioned to go up in value as a real estate asset. This makes it seem plausible it was built not to turn a profit but to distribute money to somebody (or multiple somebodies) through bloated “construction” contracts. The Trump Organization and the Mammadovs, meanwhile, have refused to disclose a full list of investors in the property, which leaves open the question of exactly whose money was being thrown around so freely, especially given the family’s known connections to the guard.

This doesn’t establish that Trump definitely laundered money for the Revolutionary Guard. To prove that would mean demonstrating that he had knowingly abetted a transaction that allowed the guard to use the “legitimate” international financial system to transfer money that was obtained illegally or was intended for an ultimately illegal use. (A classic example of this kind of money laundering would be selling an expensive apartment in cash to, let’s say, an illegal arms dealer. One day, they have a sack of money that they can’t take to the bank without dealing with employees who have legal and institutional obligations to ask where the money came from. The next day, they have legal title to a piece of property whose value is likely to appreciate, and you have the sack of money—which you can freely take to the bank, as the proceeds of your real estate dealings.) There isn’t proof that Revolutionary Guard fronts were involved in this particular Mammadov project.

What the New Yorker article makes clear, though, via interviews with individuals who worked on the Baku Trump project and corruption law experts, is that the Trump Organization made little effort to check that it wasn’t being used to create a façade of legitimacy behind which to distribute dirty money. Public evidence of the Mammadovs’ corruption was available before 2012 and should have itself been a red flag: Mammadov held a government position, and the hotel was built in part on government property. (Engaging in corruption with a foreign official is a violation of the aptly named Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.) Likewise, even though the WikiLeaks cable outlining Mammadov’s work with guard proxies was put online in 2011, the Trump Organization claims it didn’t become aware of the connection until 2015, and it didn’t terminate its work on the project until after Trump was elected.

This is not surprising. As other news outlets and nonprofits have documented, Trump has a long history of selling properties to, and forming partnerships with, individuals who’ve been accused or convicted of money laundering, drug trafficking, and other crimes. As far back as the 1980s, Trump maintained a contract with a helicopter company that provided flights to casinos even after its proprietor was convicted of cocaine trafficking—then let the convicted trafficker move into Trump Tower after he got out of prison. Trump’s partner on an aughts-era development project in Manhattan and on the infamous Trump Tower Moscow project was a twice-convicted felon. The sanctions against Russia that Trump has tried repeatedly to eliminate are intended to prevent illegally obtained money from being moved into the U.S. financial system; the three Russians present at the “if it’s what you say I love it” meeting that Donald Trump Jr. conducted at Trump Tower in 2016 have all been formally accused of, or have worked for companies accused of, such activity.

Hell, Trump’s current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has lobbied the Trump administration on behalf of individuals from Turkey, Ukraine, and Venezuela accused of bribery, money laundering, and sanctions evasion crimes—including one who was convicted of circumventing sanctions against Iran!

Various accounts describe the Revolutionary Guard as, like Trump, dependent on working with unscrupulous partners. In 2009, for example, the U.S. froze the assets of a company it accused of holding real estate in New York City on behalf of an Iranian bank that funded the guard. The Trump Organization rented office space to the same bank from 1998 to 2003; in 1999, the bank was formally identified by the U.S. as an instrument of the Iranian government, which had in turn been designated as a state sponsor of terror since 1984. On the construction side of things, a June 2019 Wall Street Journal piece, citing “advisers to the [Revolutionary] Guard,” said that the group was raising urgently needed money by procuring construction contracts in friendly countries through front companies—the same practice that Trump’s Azerbaijani partners were accused of facilitating in a document made public a year before Trump began working with them.

Whether their problem is serial bankruptcy or terror ties, financial pariahs rely on doing business in a quasi-legal space that exists because it is difficult to enforce laws against money laundering, and to write laws that keep pace with advancements in criminal techniques. It’s a lucrative space, if you have a tolerance for risk and don’t mind facilitating criminal activity for the sake of your personal goals, whether they be self-enrichment or the worldwide advancement of the Shiite revolution. Trump’s strike against Soleimani may have been an act of war, but in another way it was just friendly fire.