Twitter briefly went wild on Nov. 21, with a story alleging that president-elect Donald Trump had pressured Argentinian president Mauricio Macri to push through a stalled project for a Trump Tower in Buenos Aires in a phone call a week earlier.
The story—soon denied by Macri’s office—was poorly sourced, and soon left behind by the news cycle, in favor of Macri’s announcement that Trump’s daughter Ivanka had also been on the call. The story came from Argentinian daily La Nación, which was writing up an appearance by a well-known TV journalist who ambiguously started his story by saying he was “half joking, half serious” and didn’t give a source.
However, news and reports surrounding the phone call leave a lot of questions, particularly given the widespread concerns around Trump’s conflicts of interest.
Three days after the phone call between Trump and Macri on Nov.14, Trump’s associates at Buenos Aires firm YY Development Group announced that the construction project would go ahead, in an interview with La Nación (link in Spanish). The tower’s construction had reportedly been held up for years, for various reasons, with YY Development actively restarting construction permit requests when pro-business Macri took over from statist former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Jan. 2016.
There’s nothing substantive to confirm that the phone call and construction announcement are linked, but local news media have reported that the call itself was arranged in very unusual fashion. Macri, who is son of one of Latin America’s richest men and has reportedly known Trump since beating him at golf in the 1980s, had backed the wrong horse at the election, openly supporting Hillary Clinton. Accordingly, a crisis meeting was called to work out how to put relations on the right track (Spanish language) with Trump’s administration.
La Nación reports that foreign minister Susana Malcorra eventually made contact with Trump’s son Eric, with the assistance of close Trump business associate Felipe Yaryura. A Buenos Aires-based businessman and a co-owner of YY Development, Yaryura was with the Trump team and family at the post-election celebrations in the Hilton hotel in New York. Malcorra and Eric Trump reportedly had a “nice and cordial” conversation, with Eric telling Malcorra that his father would talk with Macri when his timetable allows. He then put her in touch with Trump’s foreign affairs team.
A spokesman for Malcorra confirmed that the phone call between Malcorra and Eric Trump had taken place and sent us a clip from a news conference in which a Reuters reporter asked about the phone call and whether Yaryura had helped put them in contact. Malcorra first asked, “Who?” After the reporter explained he was a Trump business associate, she gave a tight grin and didn’t answer that part of the question—instead detailing the call she received from Eric Trump. In an interview with news portal Segundo Enfoque, Yaryura himself also didn’t deny being the conduit, avoiding the question altogether. A YY Development spokeswoman said she could not comment on whether Yaryura had been involved in the process, but might be able to arrange a phone interview. She did not reply to follow-up emails, but after this article was first published a different spokeswoman contacted Quartz saying the developers would have no comment for the time being because “they have already had too much media exposure.”
Under normal circumstances, the State department would be in charge of arranging contact between the president-elect and foreign leaders, rather than having the president-elect’s family speak to senior foreign officials. But Trump’s team has so far eschewed using the government’s services for this, and a State department spokeswoman refused to comment on the phone call, referring us to Trump’s transition team. Trump representatives have not responded to emailed requests for comment. We will update with their comments if they do.
Whether or not the convoluted web of phone calls is related to the sudden spurt in developments surrounding the Trump Tower Buenos Aires, the case underlines anti-corruption campaigners’ arguments that Trump needs to put his assets in a real blind trust, not one run by his family, and fully disclose his business interests. Otherwise, as Transparency International vice-president Shruti Shah says, all his actions can be derailed even by the very perception of corruption.
“There’s so many stories circulating and people are speculating about every phone call and every meeting that he has, and they will continue to do so unless there’s more transparency,” Shah said. “He has been elected on the basis of ending the cronyism that exists in Washington, so he has to set a very high standard for himself—so that everybody, including the American people, feels that neither he, nor his businesses, nor his family are getting any preferential treatment.”
Correction: Due to an editing error an earlier version of this story carried a headline that stated the Buenos Aires project had received a permit to proceed. The developers have announced their intent to start construction in 2017, but no announcement of a permit has yet been made.