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Expert Opinions: The Trump Organization in the Caucasus

In this episode, Masha Undensiva-Brenner speaks to the New Yorker’s Adam Davidson about his investigations into Trump's Baku and Batumi deals.

Illustration by Sofo Kirtadze

Masha Udensiva-Brenner tells the story of New Yorker staff writer Adam Davidson’s two investigations into Trump Organization deals in Baku, Azerbaijan and Batumi, Georgia.

This episode is the third in a three-part series that examines real estate and offshore financial activities connected with the post-Soviet region. In part one of the series Udensiva-Brenner spoke to Harriman Institute Director Alexander Cooley about why luxury real estate deals are so susceptible to money laundering operations; in part two, she spoke with Columbia University Journalism School Fellows, Manuela Andreoni and Inti Pacheco, about their investigation into the Trump Organization’s deal in Batumi, Georgia, which contributed to Davidson’s article, “Trump’s Business of Corruption,” published in The New Yorker in August 2017 (Davidson's article about Azerbaijan, "Trump's Worst Deal," was published in March 2017).

Adam Davidson writes The Financial Page column and contributes larger features and web stories to The New Yorker. Previously, he was the “On Money” columnist and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He also co-founded and co-hosted National Public Radio’s “Planet Money,” after serving as the international business and economics correspondent for NPR.

 

Episode Transcript

Adam Davidson: That’s the fascinating thing about Trump now, is that there’s this scrutiny of deals that were designed not to withstand scrutiny.

[MUSIC]

Masha Udensiva-Brenner: You’re listening to Expert Opinions - Russia, Eurasia, the Harriman Institute’s podcast on Eurasianet.org. I’m your host, Masha Udensiva-Brenner, and the voice you just heard, that was Adam Davidson. He became a staff writer at The New Yorker in 2016, after working as the On Money Columnist for The New York Times magazine and co-founding NPR’s Planet Money. The same year Adam started his new job at The New Yorker, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. And, since Adam has devoted the bulk of his career to covering business and economics issues, it was only natural that he became curious about the business dealings of the Trump Organization.

Davidson: I really just found myself hearing a lot of stories, this was, you know, right before and after the election, about the Trump Organization. And I…I really had a hard time picturing, like, how did this work? Like, how many people are involved? Who are they calling? Just how did this company work?

Udensiva-Brenner: So, he started looking into the Trump organization’s various deals, which span the world from the Philippines to Uruguay

Davidson: For that story, I wanted to pick any country where I thought the deal would be interesting and worth investigating.

Udensiva-Brenner: He ended up finding two such countries and writing two stories. And both of them examined deals that took place in the Caucasus—one in Azerbaijan, and the other in Georgia. In the previous episode of Expert Opinions, you heard from two Columbia Journalism fellows who helped Adam investigate his second story, about the deal in Batumi, Georgia. Today you’ll hear my interview with Adam about both articles and what it was like for him to report in the former Soviet Union for the first time.

[MUSIC]

Udensiva-Brenner: One of the first things I wanted to know from Adam was why, out of all the Trump Organization deals in the world, he’d picked two stories in the Caucasus.

He told me that it was a little bit arbitrary.

That he’d looked at a bunch of deals the Trump Organization had done and first considered investigating one in Indonesia. But then he became interested in the one in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Davidson: It seemed particularly, sort of obviously, a bad decision 

Udensiva-Brenner: When Adam started his research, he needed only the slightest bit of internet sleuthing to discover that the Trumps’ business partners on the deal should have immediately raised red flags for the organization.

Davidson: It just seemed like, boy, no normal company would do business with such people, why did he?

Udensiva-Brenner: The people Adam’s referring to are close relatives of Azerbaijan’s transportation minister Ziya Mammadov. Ziya is not your typical career government official. At the time of the Baku deal his salary was only $12,000 a year, yet somehow he was a powerful oligarch worth billions of dollars.

Davidson: This is a man whose entire career was in government service, he lives in an enormous mansion, like an unbelievable estate, and then owns another unbelievable estate in another part of Baku along the beach, his son is reportedly worth a billion dollars based on a company he founded while he was living in London as a college student…

Udensiva-Brenner: This part’s important, because, Ziya Mammadov’s son, Anar, was one of Trump’s partners on the deal. The company that he supposedly founded while living and studying in London as a late teen it’s called ZQAN, Z-Q-A-N, an acronym for all the names in Ziya Mammadov’s immediate family. Strangely enough, Anar, ZQAN’s purported founder and owner barely set foot in Azerbaijan during the first few years of the company’s operations, even though all the major business transactions were taking place there. Meanwhile, business was booming, and it was booming largely because of contracts with Azerbaijan’s Transportation Ministry—the very ministry Ziya Mammadov was in charge of. According to Adam’s sources, it’s been widely accepted by Azerbaijanis, that while Anar is the official owner, his father, Ziya Mammadov actually controls ZQAN. In other words, the transportation minister owned a company that made huge profits off of the government ministry he was running, and his family didn’t even bother trying to hide it because…they didn’t have to. In Azerbaijan,

Davidson: There is zero subtlety about corruption. There is no, it’s just open and blatant and no questions.

Udensiva-Brenner: As a rule of thumb, most U.S. companies shy away from doing business in places where corruption is so rampant. This is a precautionary measure, because, if it’s proven that parties you’ve done business with have participated in financial misconduct, you could be vulnerable to criminal persecution under the foreign corrupt practices act. So, for Trump to make a deal with openly corrupt partners like the Mammadovs, it was risky in its own right. But, in this case, corruption was just the tip of the iceberg. Far more troubling were accusations that had been circulating against the family since 2010, four years before the Trump organization publicly announced the deal.

Davidson: It was known at the time that they did the deal, you know from WikiLeaks dumps, that the U.S. government suspected them of supporting money laundering efforts of the Iranian revolutionary guard and various other, you know, highly, highly corrupt and illegal activity

Udensiva-Brenner: The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps grew out of Iran’s 1979 revolution. Since then, it’s been a part of the country’s armed forces, the division dedicated to the protection of the Islamic Republic. Not only is it on the U.S. sanctions list, but it’s also been accused by the U.S. Government of drug trafficking, money laundering, and exporting terrorism. And the Mammadov’s potential connection to the organization looks like it goes back to sometime in the mid aughts, but it didn’t become public until 2010, when WikiLeaks released a series of U.S. diplomatic cables that revealed U.S. suspicions that the family was helping the Guard to launder money.

So, how much of this did the Trump Organization know about at the time of the deal? Alan Garten, the company’s chief legal officer, claims that it knew nothing. That, in spite of hiring a due diligence firm, the organization did not find out about the allegations until 2015.

Davidson: Even if that’s true, that means that for the entire presidential campaign, Donald Trump was knowingly in business, since he says, or his general counsel says, they knew since 2015, and they didn’t cancel the deal until the end of 2016, after the election — that for the entire presidential campaign, Donald trump was in business, knowingly in business, with people who were laundering money, probably, highly likely, laundering money. As it turns out the WikiLeaks cable got a few names wrong, got a few details wrong, we were able to flesh out the details and identify who those partners were, what their relationship with the Iranian revolutionary guard seemed to be, it did make it frankly more upsetting

Udensiva-Brenner: The partners were an Iranian construction company called Azarpassillo. Its chairman is this man named Keyumars Darvishi who used to be the head of Raman, an Iranian construction firm controlled by the Revolutionary Guard. Then, during a period when Iran was looking for ways to send its money abroad, Darvishi left Raman to run Azarpassillo, and he made a series of deals with Azerbaijan. Mammadov ended up hiring Azarpassillo to help build several major roads. And he hired them at a cost much higher than the work was actually worth. This is all sounds a little suspicious, and, according to experts, Azarpassillo is very likely to be a front for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Davidson stressed to me that none of this was difficult for him to uncover.

Davidson: All of that information came from simply looking at websites and getting someone who knows Farsi to translate what was written on them.

[MUSIC]

Udensiva-Brenner: So it sounds to me like the work you did was labor intensive but it would have been pretty easy for the Trump organization to find out all of this information if they closed the deal…

Davidson: Yes, exactly. It wasn’t even that labor intensive, if I’m honest.

Udensiva-Brenner: How long did the whole investigation take you?

Davidson: I mean, it ended up taking me three and a half months, working alone for most of that time, with some help from like Farsi translators and stuff, and, you know, traveling to Baku, etc., etc. But, the Trump organization claims that they hired a due diligence firm to conduct due diligence, they wouldn’t tell me who that was or share any of the information about that firm, and…so I can’t speak to that, but you know, many due diligence firm employees have told me that this would have been trivially easy to uncover. You know, this was not hard stuff.

I’ve covered the global economy for a long time, and I’ve covered stories of rampant corruption and also subtle corruption. One thing that struck me in Azerbaijan and with the Mammadov family in particular, is, it is not like other parts in the world where companies and individuals work extremely hard to hide their corruption. This was just out in the open, it wasn’t…There was minimal attempt, practically no attempt, to hide it. I mean, I don’t want to put myself down, I wanna say to you, I’m the best investigative reporter ever, and wow I’m such a genius that I cracked all of this, but this, this was not proof of that. This was simply proof that I looked at Google and hired a Farsi translator.

[MUSIC]

Udensiva-Brenner: Davidson’s research resulted in an article called “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal,” which was published by The New Yorker in March 2017. Shortly thereafter, some democratic senators wrote a letter addressed to then FBI director James Comey, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The senators were asking for a government investigation into the Baku deal. Specifically, they wanted to know three things: one, whether the Trump organization had violated the foreign corrupt practices act; two, whether the Mammadovs were indeed working with a construction company that was a front for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard; and three, whether the Trump Organization had violated U.S. sanctions laws by receiving payments that could be traced back to the Guard.

Davidson: I’m not aware of any response from the White House or any prosecution.

Udensiva-Brenner: In general, the Trump Organization’s potential involvement with the Guard hasn’t received much scrutiny.

Davidson: I mean to this day, I don’t understand why that fact hasn’t gotten more attention. If you’d asked me a year ago if someone discovered that the president of the United States had knowingly taken money from a company that was at the same time laundering money, or likely to be laundering money, for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the entity in Iran responsible for building the nuclear arsenal, funding terrorism, and many other bad things, you know, you would think, oh, OK, well that president would be impeached the very next day.

[MUSIC]

Udensiva-Brenner: If someone were to open an investigation into this under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, how would they go about it?

Davidson: So, the first thing a prosecutor would want to look at is the Iranian revolutionary guard money laundering because that is what’s called strict liability which means there is no requirement to show that the people knew that it was Iranian Revolutionary Guard money. If you get money from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard then you are guilty of sanctions violations even if you didn’t know. So you don’t have to spend the time that prosecutors often devote a lot of time to proving someone knew something. It turns out it’s hard to prove someone knew something unless you have an email specifically saying, boy, I know this thing. And usually people are smart enough not to write such things. Although Donald Trump Jr. has suggested that maybe he does write things that he shouldn’t write.

So…I would think that would be the juicy one, and you would need to show that the specific money the Trumps got originated in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, so you’d have to show that you’d have to really prove that they were in business with the Mammadovs and that this money, these millions of dollars directly came from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. That would be hard.

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prosecution would also be very hard because you would have to prove that…first of all you would have to prove knowledge, or at least what they call willful blindness, meaning that if they didn’t know they should have known, that there was ample reason to be suspicious, and that they essentially took action not to know what was going on. So you’d have to deal with that, then you would have to show that there was a scheme to bribe a public official, or enrich a public official, or benefit a public official, in exchange for something of value. I think that part would be fairly easy because you have this transportation minister basically expropriating government land, kicking a few citizens off their land to build the land for this project. So that’s probably there.

But then you’d have to show that the money the Trumps got came from that corrupt plan and that they should have known it. And that would be tricky, that’s not trivial to prove. So, if Trump were just some developer in New York who had done this deal, which he was of course at the time, it’s very unlikely any prosecutor would pick this up, it’s a very tricky case, you’d have to convince your bosses to fly you to Azerbaijan, you would probably have to convince the FBI to go to Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani government wouldn’t have any interest in helping you so…and, you know, the FBI doesn’t have subpoena power in Azerbaijan. It would be an extremely difficult case to prove and an extremely hard case.

Udensiva-Brenner: So in a sense it’s not really all that difficult to get away with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act?

Davidson: Well look, in the U.S. there’s something like fifty Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prosecutions a year. Most of those are what they call self-reports, so a big company discovers that some subsidiary somewhere had paid a bribe and the large company reports it and then settles fairly quickly. I’m willing to bet that there’s a lot more than fifty cases a year of American companies bribing foreign officials. The vast majority of cases aren’t prosecuted, and that’s because these are really hard cases to prosecute. You know, you have to prove the trail of money, you have to prove knowledge all in a foreign country, and often a foreign country that has zero interest in helping.

[MUSIC]

Udensiva-Brenner: About two months after Davidson published his article on Azerbaijan, Robert Mueller was appointed Special Counsel of the Russia investigation. The ongoing probe inspired Davidson to look into another Trump Organization deal in the post-Soviet region.

Davidson: I was very interested in the idea that in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, their intelligence services will keep very careful tabs on business dealings of elites. You know, this is something Alexander Cooley and many others have written about, and I wanted to understand that better. You know, the possibility that that might be a factor in this overall Trump Russia story. Is there a possibility that the Russians know something and are using that to blackmail Trump?

[MUSIC]

Udensiva-Brenner: As Davidson searched for another deal, two young journalists at Columbia University happened to be investigating a very strange one in Batumi Georgia under the guidance of their professor, the investigative journalist Giannina Segnini.

Davidson: There’s an ongoing project at the Columbia University Journalism School to basically look at every Trump deal ever, and try to understand who was involved, what are the trends, etc. Giannina believes, and with good evidence, that she’ll have the single biggest database of Trump business ever.

Udensiva-Brenner: According to Davidson’s reporting, the Trump Organization itself does not actually have a complete registry of all of its deals and what goes on in each one.

Davidson: The Trump Organization, it’s an interesting fact, that they know remarkably little about what the Trump Organization has done. 

Udensiva-Brenner: As you’ll know if you listened to our previous episode, Segnini invited Davidson to speak to her class about his investigation in Baku.

Davidson: I remember Giannina’s first words the day we met, we had titled my Trump Azerbaijan story, Trump’s Worst Deal. And she said, the only thing wrong with that story is its title. That was not his worst deal, and she started telling me about Georgia.

[MUSIC]

Udensiva-Brenner: Segnini introduced Davidson to Manuela Andreoni and Inti Pacheco

Davidson: These two great Columbia University Journalism School fellows who had done a lot of research and were really pitching the story to me. And basically saying, this is an amazing, amazing story, you gotta look at this deal.

[Music]

Udensiva-Brenner: Davidson decided to join their investigation in June 2017.

Davidson: What Manuela and Inti had done is just painstakingly gone through an unbelievable amount of documents around the partner that Trump had on the deal, this was a huge project involving thousands of pages of documents in multiple languages, to understand the various shell companies behind the entities that were paying Trump. To understand who they were, who really owned them, etc. 

Udensiva-Brenner: To understand what they went through, here’s a flashback to Manuela and Inti from the previous episode, telling us about the quest to find the owner of the company Trump was working with:

Udensiva-Brenner: When Manuela and Inti started to examine the financing of the deal, they encountered a web of offshore and limited liability companies that belonged to a bigger structure composed of several layers.

Inti Pacheco: Companies that owned companies that owned companies.

Manuela Andreoni: The main company was incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, which is one of the least transparent jurisdictions, a very common presence when someone’s trying to hide something. So when Genina asked us, who owns the Silk Road Group? And we were like, well we think Georgi Ramashvili, who’s the chairman of the company owns the Silk Road Group. And that information’s on their website, he’s the founder of the company, and so on and so forth. And she was like: No, but who really owns it? Do you actually have the document that says he’s the owner? And I was like, no.

Udensiva-Brenner: Segnini kept pushing them to find the document. But the thing about the British Virgin Islands is that you don’t have to disclose any of your records to the public—that’s why so many people register companies there. Finding the ownership paper seemed like a completely impossible task to Inti and Manuela. But Segnini didn’t think so, she told them that if they couldn’t find the records online the regular way, then they should comb through the subsidiaries for clues. 

Andreoni: But there were like a hundred of them…

Udensiva-Brenner: So, they turned to an information database called Orbis, which was available to them through the Columbia Journalism School.

Andreoni: Orbis is an amazing database that has information about like all the companies in the world.

Udensiva-Brenner: After searching for the main holding company, Silk Road Group SA, they were able to gather enough information to connect it to another company incorporated in Georgia.

Andreoni: I think it was Caucasian Railway, or something.

Udensiva-Brenner: The clue prompted them to search the Georgian business registry.

Andreoni: Which was in Georgian. Georgian has its own alphabet, which is not like anything else. It’s completely incomprehensible. But thankfully we had a thing called Google Translator plug in. And then, so we started exploring the Georgian business registry. And it was amazing because they had so many documents there.

Pacheco: These company records would even have loan agreements and passports and ID numbers and pictures of the people involved.

Andreoni: All public documents. You can just download them. In the end, we had downloaded like thousands of documents.

Udensiva-Brenner: And the longer they sifted through them, the more companies they discovered.

Andreoni: Oh there are companies in Georgia, there are companies in Malta, there are companies in the Netherlands, there’s a company in the Bahamas, there are more companies in the British Virgin Islands, are companies in the U.S., there’s a company in Canada and then I was like, “Oh my god, why?”

[MUSIC]

Udensiva-Brenner: By the time Davidson teamed up with Inti and Manuela, they already had a pretty good idea of what was going on with the deal.

Davidson: That work was fundamental, that set the stage for what I was able to do. What I would say I was able to add is the interviews, developing sources, finding the people who could really help us understand the deals. It’s hard to do major investigative reporting projects on documents alone or on interviews alone, you really want the combination of the two.

Udensiva-Brenner: From everything you’ve said, it sounds like the Batumi deal was much more difficult to track than the Baku deal had been…

Davidson: Yeah, much more difficult to track, the Georgia deal. I mean, what they say is that they created a network of shell companies for purposes of tax efficiency, and that any tax lawyer would tell me that what they did was not illegal or designed to obfuscate, but I found the exact opposite. That every tax lawyer I consulted, except for the one tax lawyer that they asked me to consult, told me that they could think of no good reason other than trying to hide their ownership for this. I mean there certainly are tax reasons why you might want to register your company in another country, but nobody has yet explained to me why you’d want to register the same underlying company in three or four different countries and at each hop going through extraordinary lengths to hide who’s the real owner, and etc. So anyway, that was a lot more work. That was much harder to do.

Udensiva-Brenner: But, even though Batumi was more difficult to track, the Baku deal seems to pose higher risks for the Trump Organization if there ever is any official scrutiny into these deals. Not only is there strong evidence that Trump’s partners on the deal were involved with money laundering for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, but the Trumps were also much more hands on in the construction of the Baku tower than they had been with the tower in Batumi, and they received a lot more money for it. When they came into the Baku project, the building had already been constructed, but the Trumps insisted on gutting and rebuilding its interior, they also added more elevators.

Ivanka even traveled to Baku in order to approve everything personally—there’s a photo of her standing in the tower, wearing a white hardhat, and staring thoughtfully through the window. Given that this was a licensing deal, and that the tower has not been used to this day. Have I mentioned that, by the way? That the Baku tower was built, perfected, but still remains vacant? Anyway, given all that, I wondered why the Trumps had gotten so involved in the construction efforts.

Davidson: So the Trump Organization had many ways of making money from these deals. Umm, one way was simply selling their name, so in these Georgia case they just sold their name and, you know, they had some kind of very soft rights to just make sure the building wasn’t a total disaster, and met the Trump view of what luxury should be, but they weren’t offering ongoing services, they weren’t part of designing the building, or anything like that. In the Baku deal it was more like the full package that the Trump Organization would try and get partners to sign. The money came from licensing the name but also from providing what they call technical services during the construction phase. So they were being paid millions of dollars to advise the company how to build the building. And in theory, if the building was ever completed, they would be paid millions of dollars for many years to come. My hunch is that the Mammadovs did want there to be a standing structure that was a Trump building on that site. So it wasn’t…there were other projects that the Trump Organization was involved with where really the evidence strongly suggests that nobody every planned for the building to work. There are projects where the developers never even applied for building permits, or, didn’t do the most basic stuff you would do to get a project off the ground.

Udensiva-Brenner: There wasn’t much done in the case of Batumi…

Davidson: Yeah, I mean I think they had the permit, but they did very little to make it actually happen.

I think in the case of Baku this was…something that you see in the former Soviet Union and other kind of oligarchic states, this was not a business deal, the idea was not a business deal. The idea was not let’s invest in this project and make more money than we’ve earned and profit for it, but it was meant to succeed. They wanted there to be a tower in the capital of Azerbaijan called the Trump tower that everyone would know was owned by the Mammadov family, and that would give them some perception credit. So they were willing to spend an absurd amount of money. I mean, they built and rebuilt the whole project three times, it’s unbelievably expensive. But I do think they wanted it built, that is my sense, that they really wanted to complete the building even if it was never going to be a viable commercial project. And the Trumps seemed perfectly happy with that, they’d make a lot of money.

Udensiva-Brenner: Not surprisingly, given how potentially incriminating these deals were, the Trump organization pulled out of both Baku and Batumi shortly after the election. But, I was curious about the mechanics of how that worked.

[MUSIC]

Udensiva-Brenner: Did Trump have to give the money back?

Davidson: No. No, he kept the money.

Udensiva-Brenner: And how did he get away with that?

Davidson:  He certainly claims in the Baku case that they were in breach of contract. And they by the way agree…I think…the Mammadov family has fallen on hard times, I mean, relative hard times, they’re still unbelievably rich, but, the kinda patriarch of the family, Ziya Mammadov, he lost his position. He’s no longer a minister and all the rumors are that things are not going very well for him, relatively speaking

I mean I’m sure his personal comforts are still quite nice, but he’s no longer a leading oligarch of Azerbaijan. And they seem to have been currying favor with the Trumps and were trying to use their connection to the Trumps to gain more power in Azerbaijan, although that doesn’t seem to have worked for them. So they agreed, yes, yes, you don’t owe us any money. In the Georgia case they were much more upset and you know, they do say things that suggest that Trump was in breach of contract, and they could sue him, but have chosen not to. I don’t know that they’ve said those exact words, but they certainly say the equivalent.

[MUSIC]

Udensiva-Brenner: Each of these two New Yorker articles by Adam Davidson received a lot of media attention—he’s appeared on TV to discuss the articles, and this is certainly not the first time he was asked to talk about his findings as a podcast guest. Given the public response, I found it odd that he never received any reaction from the Trump Administration. No justifications, no denials, not even an angry tweet.

Davidson: Look, I think it worked out great for them so far. You know, it’s a very crowded news environment. I’m incredibly proud to work at The New Yorker, and obviously The New Yorker is, in my view and not just my view, one of America’s great media properties, but, I’m sure they assume everybody who reads it is probably already a Trump skeptic and these are long complicated articles, these aren’t the sort of things that are gonna be…and, you know, I hate to say this, it’s an awful thing, but if I was Trump’s media adviser, I’d tell him, just ignore it, just let it go away. If you respond at all, that’ll force a level of attention that you know, that we don’t want this article to have.

Udensiva-Brenner: And what responses did you get from the characters in your articles? I know that you tried several times before the publication of the Batumi piece to contact Mikheil Saakashvili, who was president of Georgia at the time of the deal, and a major force behind it. He didn’t respond, only to lash at you over Twitter afterward. Can you talk about that? Was there any other backlash?

Davidson: His core concerns, not surprisingly, there were a few sentences about his administration that were less than favorable and he didn’t like that. He didn’t really have much to say about the deal itself. And then one of the developers, not surprisingly was really upset about the article. It’s fairly standard, obviously, for people who are the subject of not very flattering articles to be upset about those articles. But, other than that, I feel like I got a very positive response from readers and others, but, you know, I haven’t heard anything from prosecutors or anything like that.

Udensiva-Brenner: And is it frightening doing this sort of very detailed investigative reporting into our president’s finances?

Davidson: It is frightening. It was…oddly enough, it was less frightening reporting in Azerbaijan, umm, but, you know I was told to assume that my phone calls would be tapped and I scrubbed my computer and did not use my regular email address, because I was told to assume there was a good chance they would hack into my computer and be able to read about sources and other things and I did not see any evidence of this but people said it was safe to assume that people from the intelligence agencies were following me around in my travels around Azerbaijan. I mean the government certainly knew I was there, one government representative of the government kept offering me women to sleep with, which is very common tactic in the former Soviet Union…

Udensiva-Brenner: In order to then film you and have some kompromat?

Davidson: Yeah, to have kompromat, exactly. If they don’t like what I like they send a picture to my wife or my boss or something, obviously I didn’t take them up on the offer, although they were quite persistent, I must say.

Udensiva-Brenner: And can you tell me a little bit more about that? How did they go about doing this?

Davidson: My main government contact, he sent me pictures of a remarkably attractive woman and said that previous guests had very much enjoyed her companionship or something like that.

And I asked some people in Azerbaijan, and said, you know, is this what I think it is? And they said, yes, that is exactly what you think it is. That is him offering you a chance to sleep with this very attractive woman.

Udensiva-Brenner: So they’re not being subtle about this at all?

Davidson: No, not being subtle at all. And he offered a couple of times, I said, no, no, not interested. And then one day I got to my hotel and two women walked across the hotel lobby and then got in the elevator with e as I was going up to my room and one of them lifted her shirt and said, “do you want sex?” And, you know, it is possible that they were just prostitutes looking for a client, but this was a fairly high-end hotel, and in my experience those kinds of hotels don’t allow prostitutes to just freely approach someone, so that made me suspicious that it was the government that was intervening and asking them to let these women approach me, although that, in that case I don’t know for sure.

In any case, that’s fairly standard. I mean I think as a journalist you’d almost be offended not to be offered such things, just because you’d think, “Oh I’m not that important a journalist.” But I was never threatened. But in my experience, I used to be a Middle East correspondent, I traveled a lot in prewar Syria, in Iraq, Iraq after the war, etc., I think most journalists would tell you that authoritarian dictatorships and totalitarian sates as Azerbaijan is are actually the safest places to work for an American journalist obviously not for a local journalist, because the government does not want anything to happen to you. You know, it would have been in their interest to have an American journalist arrested or beat up or anything like that…

So I felt quite safe in Azerbaijan, even if I felt monitored and just kind of a general a creepy vibe. And, you know, nobody on the Georgia story ever threatened me, nobody ever said anything, but it is…you know, when you’re reporting on powerful, wealthy people with enormous means, and you believe that there’s a chance that they’re known to be breaking the law and that you might be reporting stories that could. make them less rich or make them go to jail, I mean, it is scary. I do find myself scared. I will be honest. I don’t know if I’m being realistic or not. I had a friend this morning write me, and worried about me, and I felt like I didn’t know how to answer, is it realistic or not? I feel like it would be foolhardy not to at least consider it, but…I’m not aware of umm…any journalists recently in America, anyway, getting hurt for doing this kind of reporting and I’m far from the only one doing it and far from the only one doing it or far from the one doing it in the most aggressive way, so I don’t know. I’m choosing now not to be that nervous.

[MUSIC]

Udensiva-Brenner: That’s The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson, talking about his investigations into the Trump Organization’s real estate deals. This episode wraps up our three-part series on offshore finance, money laundering, and the Trump Organization’s deals in the post-Soviet region. If you missed the previous two installments in the series, you can find them on Eurasianet.org or wherever you get your podcasts.

[MUSIC]

Udensiva-Brenner: I’m Masha Udensiva-Brenner. This episode was written and produced by me, with audio editing and production assistance from Rebeka Foley. I’d also like to thank Maria Mammina, Nathan Schiller, and Kelly Francis for their editorial guidance. We’d love to hear your feedback, please review us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also write to me on Twitter @MashaUBrenner. Thank you, as always, for tuning in.

Masha Udensiva-Brenner is Communications Coordinator at the Harriman Institute. Any opinions expressed in this podcast do not reflect the positions of the Harriman Institute or Eurasianet

Expert Opinions: The Trump Organization in the Caucasus

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