How did Trump and Abe end up discussing a major GOP donor’s next casino?

Adelson is one of the world’s richest men.
Adelson is one of the world’s richest men.
Image: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has donated tens of millions of dollars to Donald Trump and the Republican party in recent years. He’s also reportedly eager to get one of a handful of gaming licenses up for grabs in Japan, which recently legalized casinos.

Those two things seemed to intertwine over three days in Feb. 2017, when Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe visited Washington. According to reporting by ProPublica and WNYC, Adelson may have put a bug in Trump’s ear to lobby on his behalf.

Here’s a timeline, per ProPublica’s reporting:

  • Thursday evening, Feb. 9
    Adelson has dinner in the White House with Trump, his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, and then-secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
  • Friday morning, Feb. 10 
    Adelson and a small group of CEOs, including two other casino magnates, have breakfast with Abe. They discuss casino licenses, according to one of ProPublica’s sources.
  • Later on Friday
    Trump and Abe meet in Washington and fly together to Mar-a-Lago on Air Force One.
  • That weekend, Feb. 11-12
    During a meeting, Trump raises Adelson’s casino bid and one other (either MGM, or Wynn Resorts, run by another Trump donor Steve Wynn).

No decision has yet been made on the casinos, but Adelson told investors on a recent earnings call that good news awaits, ProPublica reports. “The estimates by people who know, say they know, whom we believe they know, say that we’re in the No. 1 pole position,” he reportedly said.

ProPublica bases its reporting on two sources “briefed on the exchange.” Japanese newspaper Nikkei has separately reported (paywall, link in Japanese) that Trump mentioned Adelson’s bid and other casino, with Abe telling an aide to write the names of the companies down. When asked about the exchange in Japan’s parliament, Abe didn’t deny that the subject had come up, but said Trump had not transmitted specific requests, ProPublica reports.

The US Supreme Court has ruled that donating to a politician in order to get access to him or her doesn’t violate bribery statutes. In this case, it would only be illegal if Adelson directly offered Trump campaign donations in exchange for raising the casino issue with Abe, says Richard Painter, former White House ethics counsel under George W. Bush. There is no evidence that Adelson ever offered Trump money on such a condition.

Transactional relationships aren’t always clear-cut, however. “[Donors] give all the money, they wine you and dine you, and they ask for what they want,” Painter said, speaking generally. “There’s no, ‘If you do A, I do B.’ But it’s pretty implicit.”

Trade protectionism is ripe for corruption

Such exchanges are worth scrutiny because small favors could end up influencing larger negotiations, like US-Japan trade. If at any point Abe thought giving Adelson a casino license would please Trump, he might expect Japan to get a more favorable deal elsewhere in return, like on automobile exports, says Painter.

Trade protectionism can create opportunities for this kind of conduct—especially when combined with the US’s lax campaign finance laws, Painter says. The Trump administration has begun renegotiating swaths of US trade deals and placing tariffs on imports from various industries; in theory, this reshuffling could give the president leeway to negotiate better conditions for US industries that back him and less favorable conditions for industries that support political opponents.

The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on this story. Ron Reese, a spokesman for Adelson’s company Las Vegas Sands, told ProPublica: “If our company has any advantage it would be because of our significant Asian operating experience and our unique convention-based business model. Any suggestion we are favored for some other reason is not based on the reality of the process in Japan or the integrity of the officials involved in it.”