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The controversy over Trump's tower project in Argentina: what we know

Trump spoke to Argentina's president — three days later, his building project there showed signs of new life.

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The global reach of Donald Trump’s business empire is raising questions about whether foreign governments might try to curry favor with the president-elect by giving his businesses special deals. Recent developments surrounding a long-stalled Trump Tower construction project in Argentina suggest that could already be happening.

On his popular Sunday night television program, Argentine investigative reporter Jorge Lanata alleged that Trump used his phone conversation with Argentine President Mauricio Macri last week to encourage him to green-light permits for the construction of a Trump Tower in Buenos Aires that’s been held up by red tape for years.

The Washington Post cast some doubt on Lanata’s claim, because he did not indicate the nature of his source and prefaced his revelation by saying he was “half joking, half serious.” As the Post notes, “It wasn’t clear whether Lanata meant the allegations were ‘half serious’ or whether the story so defied credulity as to seem like a joke.”

But Lanata is a respected journalist in Argentina, and his allegation was reported on widely, both locally and abroad. Macri’s office then denied that he and Trump ever discussed anything beyond the US-Argentine relationship and their personal bond, which stretches back for decades. Trump’s transition team also denied that there was any talk of business interests.

But as CNN reports, the YY Development Group, the company meant to build the Buenos Aires tower, announced just three days after the Trump-Macri call that construction on the tower could begin in summer of 2017. The project has a $100 million budget, and is “only waiting final approval from the city government.”

The Trump Tower still needs a final permit, but the developer’s announcement makes it sound as if construction on a project that’s been stuck for years is now “all but a done deal,” according to CNN’s report. While there isn’t hard evidence linking the call to the announcement, there are a number of red flags that raise the appearance of possible impropriety. Here’s what we know, and, just as importantly, what we don't.

Macri and Trump have a huge web of connections

President Mauricio Macri of Argentina.
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Macri and Trump have a history and a number of similarities in their backgrounds. They’re both sons of wealthy real estate tycoons, and were elected in part based on their perceived business acumen. And their personal lives and business lives have been intertwined for some time. As CNN notes, “the Macri family did a real estate deal with Trump in New York in the 1980s. Macri and Trump were friends at the time, and Macri has known [Trump’s daughter] Ivanka since she was a kid.”

In fact, Macri said that he used part of the call last week to catch up with Ivanka, according to an interview with a Japanese publication that came out Monday. Her participation in the call had sparked its own wave of controversy earlier in the week, since Trump’s children are supposed to be taking the reins on his businesses while staying out of his administration. Ivanka sitting in on the call means that somebody who is supposed to be formally overseeing the Trump family’s business ventures was talking directly to the leader of a country hosting one of those ventures.

But it’s not just mixing professional and personal matters that puts Macri and Trump in an unusual position. Macri expected Clinton to win the election, and openly said he preferred her as president. When Trump pulled off his stunning upset, Macri put together a “a crisis meeting” with his administration to make sure he could smooth things over with Trump, according to Quartz.

In addition to all of this, Argentine foreign minister Susana Malcorra recently spoke with Trump’s son Eric — one of the children taking over his father’s business — on the phone before she connected with Trump’s foreign affairs team. The Argentine newspaper La Nación reports that the call was facilitated by a co-owner of the YY Development Group — the company that’s supposed to build the Trump Tower.

At the moment, it appears that it shouldn’t be too difficult for the Trump Tower to get that final city permit. CNN reports that the current mayor of Buenos Aires was Macri’s chief of staff when Macri was mayor between 2007 and 2015.

There’s no way to draw a firm conclusion based on the information that we have so far, but it’s a story to keep watching. It’s also important to realize that even if no evidence of shady business dealings comes to light, the perception of possible corruption interferes with statecraft, and is enough to add to the mounting list of concerns about Trump's refusal to fully sever his business ties while he's in office.