Happy New Year

Many years ago I lived in Central America . It was a time of civil war. People literally fought and died to win rights Americans took for granted. Fair elections. A functioning and impartial judicial system. Leaders that put the interests of their people above personal avarice. Freedom of expression without fear of government reprisal.

Today, as we bid farewell to an annus horribilis, I want to thank Donald Trump for reminding us of the value of those rights we have squandered for so many years. We neglectfully let them slip – long before Trump launched his campaign. Now, Trump’s assaults on the press, the justice system and our democratic norms have been so blatant, it is arousing the populace from its slumber.

One of the few bright spots of 2017 was the extraordinary level of civic engagement we witnessed. It began with the remarkable million-woman march on Washington. It has continued through sit-ins in the halls of Congress, mobilizations in special elections and an incredible outpouring of first-time candidates for political office. Americans have rediscovered that true democracy is more than a system of elections, it’s an ideal of civic participation.

Thank you, Donald, for the gift of revelation. May it spread far and wide.

Trump and his congressional majorities have shown all Americans – those who voted for them and those who did not – their true nature. Yes, some continue to discount what lies before their eyes. Yet every day the consequences become manifest and the blinders weigh more heavily. Actions speak louder than words.

The price of this gift is indeed dear. Anything of real value usually is. We can reckon the pain and suffering the rest of the year. Not today.

At the end of 2017, my thoughts go to Molly Ivins, my former boss and friend. Though she left us more than a decade ago, Molly has been on my mind often of late. We need her spirit more than ever.

For me, she gets the final word.

So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.

Trump Ocean Club Buyers

The flurry of emails began in the spring of 2008. On one side was Marie Williams, representing the Trump Ocean Club International Sales Group. On the other was Mossack Fonseca, the law firm known as Mossfon, whose leaked data became the Panama Papers.

Construction on the 70-story tower in downtown Panama City was not yet complete at the time. Announced in April 2006, Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower Panama would not launch until 2011, when the Trump family came down for a triumphant ribbon cutting alongside President Ricardo Martinelli and developer Roger Khafif.

Ivanka Trump was also there. When Trump first committed to the deal, he told Khafif he was sending Ivanka to Panama. The project would be her baby.

In 2007, Trump Ocean achieved a significant milestone. It pre-sold enough condos to convince Wall Street to back $220 million in construction financing. A significant portion of those early sales went to Russian buyers hiding behind anonymous shell companies. Few were seeking a home in which to live. Some were simply parking cash they had spirited out of Russia. Others, it now appears, were Russian mafia laundering money. They joined money launderers from South American drug cartels who were also buying property at Trump Ocean Club.

In September 2008, Donald Trump, Jr. said at a real estate conference that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets… We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Fast forward to last week. The Associated Press broke the news that condo owners in the Trump Ocean Club want to remove President Donald Trump’s name from the development. They also hope to fire his company’s management of the Ocean Club’s hotel.

Occupancy in the hotel has shriveled, according to reports. Condos aren’t selling either. Last August, 202 still-unsold condos were part of a sales package that included the Ocean Club’s restaurants and conference center. Khafif’s firm, Newland International Properties, filed for bankruptcy in 2013. Martinelli is living in Miami, fighting extradition back to Panama, where he faces criminal charges. The development shaped like a sail, or perhaps, as Ivanka Trump said, “a giant D,” is fast becoming an international symbol for money laundering.

How did it all go so wrong? The emails from the Panama Papers help tell the story.

Trump Ocean contacted Mossfon for translation services in June 2008. Khafif wanted the firm to translate the condo sales agreement from Spanish into Russian. It cost $15 a page. The total came to $600. The payment was late.

Trump’s own company was not directly involved in selling the units but it helped with the marketing. Trump reaped millions of dollars from the naming rights and management contract. Estimates are he took in well over $75 million from the development.

During those initial years, hot money was pouring into Panama. Some joked that those who complained about the traffic and parking from the new buildings filling the skyline had nothing to worry about – nobody actually lived in the apartments. The benign view was that these empty properties were awaiting Americans or Canadian snowbirds who would someday quit working and claim their retirement homes. Others suspected the bulk were being used for money laundering or as investments for wealthy elites from places like China and Russia. These buyers were unreliable. They would soon flip their properties, particularly at the first sign of trouble.

Trump and Khafif were not interested in asking too many questions about who purchased the Ocean Club units. They didn’t care that their building was built on a shaky foundation of flighty capital and money laundering. For Trump, it has always been about the quick score, consequences be damned. As long as he could maintain plausible deniability, the origins of the cash handed to him didn’t matter.

In one of her emails sent to Mossfon in 2008, Williams, the Trump sales executive, had another question:

Additionally, we are working with an Iranian broker who has individuals residing in Iran or who are residents in the UK with Iranian passports desiring to purchase in Panama.  Does your firm have experience with Iranians?  Would the visa requirements be any different from someone from Russia or Europe?  You were so helpful with the information your forwarded before pertaining to Russians. I would like to create this same experience for this broker who has connections with the wealthy Iranian nationals.

On the campaign trail and as president, Trump savagely attacked Iran in speeches. He described the country as a “fanatical regime” that “raided the wealth of one of the world’s oldest and most vibrant nations, and spread death, destruction, and chaos all around the globe.”

Yet in private business, Trump grabbed that wealth with both hands.