Adam Davidson is an American journalist focusing on business and economics issues for National Public Radio. He was a co-founder of NPR's Planet Money program.
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The construction of a Trump hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, appears to have been outlandishly corrupt. Bribes were paid, contractors were given piles of cash, and the Trumps' partners are linked to Iranian sponsors of terrorism.
Signing off now. Thanks for the questions!
Has Trump, Ivanka, or anyone from the administration responded to this story?
Nobody has. I wish they would.
Were you worried as to how the accused would respond? Not just Trump.
We are always very concerned when reporting stories in which we suggest that somebody or several somebodies may have broken the law. Even more so, of course, when it involves the President.
We worked extremely hard to test every fact and hypothesis. We gave everybody involved ample opportunity to respond and correct the record. Many took us up on that and we did make changes when appropriate information was provided.
I like to practice what a mentor called no-surprises journalism. Nobody who is mentioned in an article should be surprised by what it says about them. They should be given every chance to rebut every single fact. Now, there's nothing we can do when subjects decline that offer. I made very clear to the White House and Ivanka Trump's personal staff that I would happily walk them through everything in the article and give them a chance to correct, amend, comment. They did not take me up on it. Neither did Ziya or Anar Mammadov. Though Elton Mammadov did meet with our translator in Azerbaijan and went through many questions and gave his responses.
Once we felt confident that our story is solid, we weren't worried about a legal attack on the piece. However, I will confess to being anxious that Trump might tweet about me. I have a family and I wondered if I was putting them at risk. This is a shocking thing to have to worry about. No journalist in American history, I think, has ever had to worry about the President putting his children's lives in jeopardy. And the President didn't put my family in jeopardy. He hasn't tweeted about it. But the very fact that he has done so about other journalists and could do it about me is terrifying.
Hi Adam. Thorough documentation, well-written and an interesting read, to say the least! I’ve realized I’m no longer surprised by his outright illegal behavior. What do you say to those that strongly oppose Trump but are no longer shocked by criminal allegations and offensive Twitter rants (among other things)? As we saw by the generally positive response to his first “very Presidential” address to join session of Congress, moments like that are more surprising than stories of illegal activity or backroom deals.
It is a very odd time. I have to assume that if I had written an article suggesting a one-degree separation from the President of the United States and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard about any other President, there would be enormous call for impeachment.
Imagine if we had discovered that Pres. Obama or either Bush or Clinton had possibly gotten paid millions by the IRGC. It's hard to imagine how extreme the response would be.
I expect it will take us decades to process this time and our overall numbness.
However, I have chosen not to let that dissuade me from doing my job. I need to keep plugging away, reporting, investigating, etc. What else can I do?
What will be the final straw for Congress to act on this administration's corruption? Do you think your article provides enough proof of criminal wrongdoing, or is this just corporate business-as-usual?
This is NOT corporate business as usual. The Trump Org's behavior was extreme and atypical. Most companies that do business overseas, especially in highly corrupt nations, conduct thorough due diligence and risk management.
I do think that, even if he were not President, he should be investigated for this. I also have to believe that a significant number of Republican congresspeople would be deeply troubled by any company that so blatantly disregards the law and engages in business with partners of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
I have seen polls that suggest Americans believe that this behavior is more typical. And it seems possible that voters who like Trump have already "priced in" his propensity to flout law. Some seem to like it in him.
How would you respond to the FCPAProfessor's article which says that your NYorker article might be slightly biased to prove a point? http://fcpaprofessor.com/new-yorker-trump-organization-azerbaijan-story/
By the way, great work on the article. We need more pieces of good investigative journalism.
I found that post quite frustrating. He misrepresents our conversation dramatically.
More importantly, he lays out the facts of the case and uses analogies that are totally irrelevant to the actual case, itself. For example, he likens this case to a coffee shop entering a building that, years before, was built using corrupt means. But that's not what happened here. The Trump Org was actively involved in getting the building built while corruption was happening.
He says I had no interest in what he was saying. But I found him to be incapable of hearing what I was saying. He kept interrupting me with irrelevant points.
I spoke to well over two dozen FCPA experts, all of whom (save him) agreed with my legal analysis and disagreed with his.
How long did it take you to get the story done from the first idea to the finished piece?
I decided to pick one Trump Org deal and focus on it in late November of last year. I spent a week or so looking at his Indonesia project and then decided to switch to Baku. It's pretty much all I've been doing since then. So, I guess, three full months of work. Lots of dead ends and time spent on leads that didn't pan out. But that's typical of this kind of project.
What sources did you use and how did you access them?
I had a lot of people who were sources: people who worked on the project, who worked at the Trump Org, who are expert on the law or on Azerbaijan. I also visited and saw the site.
I also used wikileaks and the Panama Papers extensively.
Much of the most damning information was freely available on the web. That was one of the surprises. Even if I had not had a single confidential source or the budget to fly to Baku and I only had access to google and the web, I could have done almost the whole story.
Is there any chance to make a podcast about this topic? Get some people together and discuss the whole thing and what it can lead to? I bet it's not just about this Baku hotel deal, it's just one link in the chain, do you agree?
If there is one thing I have learned in the last decade it is that creating a really good podcast takes a level of focus and attention that is comparable to creating a really good magazine story.
So, a thoroughly-reported Planet Money or This American Life style podcast is too much for me to take on.
I will be on the New Yorker Politics and More this weekend and I was on Slate's the Gist the other day.
But for me to do an ongoing podcast about this would mean making that a fulltime job and I already have a very demanding fulltime job.
Thanks for the response. That is indeed quite interesting. After reading his response, I thought that he seemed to have a bias towards proving his own point. The very fact that they chose Azerbaijan to do business is in itself a huge red flag, no matter how they try to spin it.
Quick follow up question: Can you shed some light on how you went about researching your sources and connecting the pieces, and what gave you the idea? I'm very interested in this sort of journalism and would like to know the process you followed.
I want to be clear about something: I am not in a position to prosecute the Trump Organization for an FCPA violation. Journalists are not prosecutors, obviously. I feel confident that this story raises serious concerns and I do hope the real prosecutors are exploring them.
Even if it is, eventually, decided that the Trump Org did not technically violate the law, it is still extremely disturbing that they were so comfortable dealing with such sketchy, risky people and so incurious into their partner's dealings.
As for your second question:
I wanted to dig into one deal because I felt like I had read a ton of articles that showed, in broad, general terms, that he had sketchy partners. But I wanted to understand exactly how things worked, intimately, day-by-day, in the Trump Organization.
I wanted to pick one deal that would be interesting and revealing. I started with Indonesia but ultimately chose Azerbaijan because it seemed the most blatantly corrupt. Although, I could have had a field day with the Brazil deal, which is deeply enmeshed in corruption, or the Georgia or Turkey or Uruguay deals or many other deals.
Once I picked the deal, it's a full frontal assault on the topic. I read every article, go to every website, I start calling every person I can think of. What happens is that there are different avenues of investigation that open up and it's a tough decision which ones to pursue and which ones to abandon.
I'm still not sure I made all the right choices. I couldn't report out everything and, for all I know, the most damning, fascinating information is still out there.
Toward the end of the piece, you say: "In dealing with the Mammadovs, the Trump Organization seems to have taken them entirely at their word."
Do you think the Trump Org is really so incompetent that they had no idea whom they were dealing with, or do you think they took them at their word because they didn't want the answer?
I have no idea, of course. But I have to assume it was the latter. Many Trump officials visited Azerbaijan. It is impossible to mention the name "Mammadov" in Azerbaijan and not have people snicker at their blatant corruption.
It would be fun to try an experiment: send someone to Baku, have them mention to people they are working with the Mammadovs and see how long it would take before someone told them they were nuts to work with the family.
Have you had any responses from authorities wanting to investigate the Trumps, after you story came out? Do you think it's going to lead to prosecution?
I have heard a hint that there are folks who are looking into it, from second-hand sources. But I haven't heard anything directly. Man, I do hope they do an investigation.
It is a very tricky case. To actually prosecute the Trump Org, as a corporation, or any individual, they would need to find a lot of supporting material. I acknowledge that my case is circumstantial (though I think we brought an awful lot of circumstantial evidence to the table) and a prosecution would need to be specific: what money came from what bad source and went to which bad actor, etc.
That will take a lot of work to uncover and it will require the compliance of the Azerbaijani government. I can't imagine why they would want to anger President Trump by participating.
So, I would not expect a prosecution any time soon.
I would be interested to know what kind of risks were taken / what kind of background work was done on other major hotel deals (or other franchises) in Baku?
These were classically done with the first lady (now VP). Four Seasons, Hilton, Marriot. I think Kempinski was done with the only minister more corrupt than Mammadov - Kamaladdin Heydarov.
Were you able to get a sense as to how these were assessed, or why these franchising deals are sufficiently different from Trump's? (though I will admit, I don't know really how these intl hotel deals work)
I guess Kempinski doesn't have the world's highest standards (it's running a hotel in DPRK), and non-americanness can change what laws they are exposed to...and while the VP is corrupt, the money probably isn't the revolutionary guard's.
But would still be interested how they relate to Trump.
This was a topic I was deeply fascinated by. You are exactly right that the President's wife's family, the Pashayevs, have most (all?) of the other luxury hotel deals.
My sense--though I couldn't get this fully confirmed--is that the two big families in Azerbaijan--the Pashayevs and the Aliyevs--are so powerful they can keep their partners largely safe from FCPA violations.
They hire American or British law firms to structure the deals, they use one of the big 4 American accounting firms to monitor all of the money flowing through the deal, and so they are able to wall off the hotel project from their other corrupt activity. And, since they are so powerful, they don't have to do the things the Mammadovs may have had to do: paying off customs enforcers and tax officials and others. Everyone in Azerbaijan knows you don't mess with a Pashayev project.
The FCPA does not outlaw doing business with someone who is, in other deals, corrupt. Prosecution has to be rooted in specific corrupt behavior in the deal the American firm is engaged in.
I didn't know those acronyms, so here they are :
Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917
I just don't know enough. I'd be curious.
I have several questions.
What do you think the likelihood this will implicate Trump if there is to be an investigation? Do you think this is the end or the beginning of Trump's shady business ties? If there is an investigation what else do you surmise they will uncover?
Read the article and listened to the NPR interview. Great work Adam! I hope this continues to get more media coverage as this may be what cuts down Teflon Trump.
My strong sense is that the Trump Organization had wildly atypical risk management/due diligence procedures. In other words: they took on an unusually high degree of risk when they selected foreign partners. I would expect there are a lot of disturbing, problematic relationships to be uncovered in the dozens of deals.
It would be the most remarkable luck if the Trump Org dealt with corrupt people in corrupt nations, did minimal due diligence and ongoing risk management, and somehow didn't partner with people doing illegal things.
I really believe this needs to be central to any investigation. It's very important.
How do you feel about all the diaereses? I have to confess that while I love the NYer (and your work especially) I roll my eyes quite a bit whenever I run into a reëxamined or coöperated.
I feel a bit of both. It sometimes feels kind of stuffy and pretentious. And sometimes feels charming and part of what makes us unique.
I've always wondered when big investigative stories like this are published, how involved do you become in the next steps taken by those who have the power to act on the charges?
Do you just write something and then watch for other entities to pick it up and run with it, like the FBI or congress? Do they contact you? Are you ever surprised by the amount of response, either significant or insignificant?
It is not our job to help the investigation and we, generally, don't. I have some friends who did uncover crime and then worked with the police and prosecutors to get the wrong-doers arrested and prosecuted. But that is quite rare and many would argue is unethical.
The most help I could, in theory, give an investigator/prosecutor would be to reveal my confidential sources and information given to me off the record. But I would never, ever do that. That is unethical and would damage my ability--and others'--to do investigative work in the future. I think most or all good investigative journalists feel ready to go to prison, if need be, to protect their sources.
Now, it is very common for journalists to be in ongoing conversation with government investigators and prosecutors and to share information that doesn't violate ethics. More common is to share theories of the case--not specific facts but a general sense of how things worked.
I am ALWAYS surprised by the response to stories. Sometimes it's far more than I expect sometimes far less.
I did think this one had a shot at pushing the political/investigative conversation further. Maybe it still will.
What can be definitively proven to get illegitimate president, Donald J Trump impeached?
Or at least who do we call(best person or department) in government to get an independent investigation started?
I think that impeachment is, ultimately, a political act. Congress has broad authority to pursue it or ignore facts that might lead to prosecution elsewhere.
President Trump continues to be extremely popular in many Republican districts and until that changes it's hard to imagine a Republican-controlled house impeaching him.
Slightly off topic, but what is Baku like? It looks so futuristic and unexpectedly modern.
There is a tiny stretch of Baku--about two miles long by half a mile wide--along the Caspian that is hypermodern with amazing architecture. There are a bunch of similarly modern buildings along the Heydar Aliyev Prospekti. But the rest of the city is very much more typical post-Soviet. There's a middle class section that has some charms but is pretty boring. And then there are a lot of quite poor areas that are depressing and crumbling.
What obstacles did you have to overcome during your inveatigation if there were any? Have you ever had a feeling that the thing is like resisting you?
Sure. I felt the whole time that the thing was resisting me. I had enormous obstacles. The vast majority of people I contacted refused to talk to me. Many others lied to me.
Azerbaijan and Iran are not the most transparent countries in the world, so basic information about real estate and corporate ownership and the like are kept strictly hidden. It was a very hard story to do and I felt like it was resisting me the entire time. I still feel that way. There's a lot I want to know:
- What was the actual ownership of Baku XXI?
- Who introduced the Trumps to the Mammadovs?
- Where did the money the Mammadovs used in this deal come from?
- What is the precise nature of the relationship between Azarpassillo and the IRGC?
- Waht is the precise relationships between Azarpassillo and the Mammadovs generally and this project specifically?
What was most surprising to you during your investigation?
The Iran link was pretty shocking, as I learned more. That was bonkers. I almost still don't believe it.
But what I think the most surprising thing was how much had not been covered, how much information I was able to find--freely out there on the web--that had not previously been reported.
With all the millions of gallons of ink and hours of TV and radio spent on this guy, it was surprising just how much had not been covered.
I'm 24 with a Journalism degree and newspaper experience. All this fake news talk is honestly intimidating, how should I pursue a further career knowing that someone as big as the President would actively be against me? I understand the need for truth and media, but at what point is that less important than my own career?
It is a very weird and scary time. However, there is such desperate hunger for well-documented, well-researched stories and I expect that hunger will only increase.
It is easy to mock "the media" as some broad category. It is much harder to go against specific stories with specific details.
I wouldn't be a journalist just because I believe in truth and media. I do it, probably, mostly because I love it and it's a great job. I get to go around the world and solve puzzles and write about them. But I do think it is more important than ever and that makes me proud to be part of this crucial profession.
I have always wondered this, do reporters ever work with law enforcement when there is evidence of crimes being broken? If a prosecutor ever came to you, would you help them or point them in the right direction with research, sources, etc.?
As I answered elsewhere here, I have heard of that happening but only rarely. I think it's more common if there is evidence of a violent criminal who hasn't been apprehended.
Generally, I think, the output of our work--the article, documentary, whatever--should contain the core of the story and should be all we need to share with a prosecutor. We can never share confidential sources. Although I could imagine, in the right circumstances, asking sources if they would be OK with us lifting confidentiality to help put a criminal behind bars.
If there's a general rule, it would be that we don't work with law enforcement. And I never have. But I could imagine situations in which I would feel an obligation to do so.