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Donald Trump Jr.’s tour through India is staggeringly corrupt

The Trump brand is surprisingly hot in India — and the president’s son is exploiting his connections to milk this moment.

AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Donald Trump Jr. arrived in India on Tuesday for a week-long visit, and his trip has already revealed a couple of things.

First, it’s clear that the Trump administration is still embroiled in huge conflicts of interest. And second, it’s evident that the Trump brand, though toxic at home, commands surprising power in the world’s second most populous country.

President Trump’s eldest son will be spending his time in India promoting Trump-branded luxury apartments across the country. He’ll be meeting with real estate brokers and potential buyers throughout the week in his family business’s biggest market outside the US.

He’s also offering a special reward to Indians who buy property from him: He’ll join them for an intimate meal.

Indian newspapers have been running advertisements that promise homebuyers willing to pay a roughly $38,000 booking fee an opportunity to “join Mr. Donald Trump Jr. for a conversation and dinner.”

Government ethics experts in the US are appalled by that prospect, and say that the arrangement encourages Indians — especially those with ties to India’s government — to use purchases of Trump-branded property as a way to gain favor with the Trump administration.

“For many people wanting to impact American policy in the region, the cost of a condo is a small price to pay to lobby one of the people closest to the president, far away from watchful eyes,” Jordan Libowitz, the communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told the Washington Post.

Trump Jr.’s India visit also highlights something else: While Trump’s polarizing presidency has put a dent in his domestic businesses, it doesn’t seem to have damaged his reputation in India. In fact, the Trump brand seems to be chugging along quite nicely there.

How the Trump family is profiting from corruption

Trump Jr.’s visit to India not only suggests that the Trump Organization wants to lean into its investments in India — it almost seems designed to invite corrupt behavior.

Experts say Junior is selling access to himself — and by proxy, to the president of the US — in exchange for buying his products. He knows that if a member of the Indian elite wants a chance to advocate for a policy that they’d like to see enacted, buying Trump property is a simple way to do it.

But what makes it crystal clear that Trump Jr. wants to use his political ties to advance his business interests is the fact that he’s planning to deliver a speech on Indo-Pacific relations at an event in India on Friday. (It’s a serious affair — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be speaking at the same summit.)

Unlike his sister Ivanka, Trump Jr. is not a formal member of the White House. He’s technically just a businessman running the Trump Organization on behalf of his father.

But by delivering a foreign policy speech, Trump Jr. is signaling to Indians that he’s in their country as a businessman and as a surrogate for the US government. If any wealthy Indians were on the fence about whether it was worth buying a condo just to talk to Trump Jr. about, say, trade policy, the fact that he’s delivering that speech should make it seem worthwhile. Trump Jr. is sending a clear signal that he wants to talk policy.

And since he is deliberately blurring the lines between his role as a businessman and as the son of the president, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that President Trump’s foreign policy could be for sale to the highest bidder.

The Trump brand is hurting in the US, but it’s hot in India

Back in the US, Donald Trump’s pivot to politics seems to have hurt a number of his businesses.

The Trump Organization saw a 3 percent decline in revenue during the 2016 campaign and the early months of the Trump presidency.

And during the past year, a number of Trump’s businesses — particularly those in blue states — appear to have taken a substantial hit. For example, attendance at his golf courses in the Northeast and on the West Coast has declined, with a double-digit drop in revenue at his course outside of Los Angeles.

In New York City — Trump’s hometown — the Trump brand seems radioactive in some quarters. In November, the residents of a Manhattan condo complex voted to have Trump’s name removed from three buildings. A Trump-branded luxury condo building on Manhattan’s West Side is currently suing for the right to do the same thing — although a Trump Organization lawyer has threatened to countersue if the building tries to do it.

According to CityRealty, a real estate website that tracks market data, between November 2016 and November 2017, the average price per square foot for condos sold in 11 Trump-branded buildings dropped by 7 percent compared to the year before.

But surprisingly, the Trump brand has far brighter prospects in India.

Currently, the Trump Organization is overseeing five projects in India, making it the largest international market for the company. In India, as in many other places, the Trump Organization strikes licensing deals with local building partners. It sells its name to the partner to boost the profile of a building and then gets a cut of the profits.

Since 2014, those licensing deals in India have resulted in payments that range from $1.6 million to $11 million, according to the Washington Post.

The Trump Organization gets a bigger chunk of money when Trump-branded property sells above market rates — and that appears to be happening. According to the New York Times, many units are currently selling at 30 percent per square foot higher than market rate.

Pankaj Bansal, director of the real estate firm M3M India, told CNN in January that he can sell Trump-branded apartments for more than other luxury real estate because the brand is so hot in India.

“It’s all about status symbols,” Bansal said. “People want to be able to say: ‘Come, let’s go have a drink at the Trump Tower.’ That’s what we’re trying to tap into.”

Trump appeals to India’s conservatives and growing pool of wealthy elites

Experts say the Trump brand is thriving in India in part because Trump himself appeals to large swaths of the population, both for his politics and for his perceived business acumen.

“[Trump is] popular on the right, especially among supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the current ruling party in India, who admire his Islamophobic rhetoric and blunt nationalism,” Aditya Dasgupta, a scholar of Indian politics and economics at the University of California Merced, told me.

The Trump administration has spoken highly of its partnership with India and taken aim at India’s major rivals over the past year. Trump announced that he was suspending military aid to Pakistan in January and is on the path to a trade fight with China after criticizing its practices for years — moves that make India feel better about its own ties to the US.

A Pew Research Center survey released last fall found that Trump’s approval rating in India was about twice his approval rating in other countries in the region like Japan and Indonesia.

But Trump’s popularity among Indians also stems from the way he symbolizes wealth and power.

“India has a rapidly growing and prospering urban middle and upper class, which often looks aspirationally to American society for symbols, brands, and status markers to emulate,” Dasgupta explained. “It’s no surprise that the Trump brand, and the conspicuous consumption it is meant to signal, would attract buyers.”

Niranjan Sahoo, a senior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank in New Delhi, told me the Trump Organization is also reaping the benefits of taking a gamble on India’s market. He said that many other foreign companies have stayed away from India’s real estate market due to concerns about corruption and bureaucracy.

“The Trump Organization has taken a sort of risk, which is now paying off, particularly after Trump became president,” Sahoo told me.

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