Argentine president: No, Trump didn't ask me about a building permit during a diplomatic phone call

Lots of buzz about this story on social media today, but Mauricio Macri’s office says it’s garbage.

“Trump and President Macri only spoke about maintaining the institutional relationship between the two countries,” Ivan Pavlovsky, Macri’s spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News. “They then recalled their personal relationship. They never spoke of the tower.”

Where did people get the idea that Trump had brought up a building permit? From this story, in Spanish, in the Argentine newspaper La Nacion. Lefty news site TPM has an account in English of what it says. When the TPM version started blowing up on Twitter, I asked Spanish-speaking followers if (a) TPM’s account is a fair rendering of the La Nacion piece and (b) if La Nacion is a credible paper or a tabloid rag. Here’s a typical reply:

La Nacion is nearly 150 years old, has a big circulation, and has attracted some esteemed writers. Per TPM’s account:

For a number of years, Trump and his Argentine partners have been trying to build a major office building in Buenos Aires. The project has been held up by a series of complications tied to financing, importation of building materials and various permitting requirements.

According to a report out of Argentina, when Argentine President Mauricio Macri called President-Elect Trump to congratulate him on his election, Trump asked Macri to deal with the permitting issues that are currently holding up the project.

This comes from one of Argentina’s most prominent journalists, Jorge Lanata, in a recent TV appearance. Lanata is quoted here in La Nacion, one of Argentina’s most prestigious dailies. Said Lanata: “Macri called him. This still hasn’t emerged but Trump asked for them to authorize a building he’s constructing in Buenos Aires, it wasn’t just a geopolitical chat.”

Is Lanata a credible reporter? Again, I’m relying on what others who know the region are telling me, but apparently so:

On the other hand:

Here’s Lanata’s Wikipedia entry. You need to watch the video of him talking about this, on which the La Nacion story is based, even if you don’t speak Spanish just to get the tone. He’s delivering a monologue and getting some laughs. A Spanish-speaking Twitter pal notes that Lanata says of Trump bringing up the building permit that it was supposedly done “medio en joda, medio en serio,” i.e. half in jest and half-serious (although even half-serious would be bad as an ethical matter). Needless to say, it is … deeply weird that a reporter would waste a bombshell scoop about a massive ethical breach by the new president-elect by mentioning it as part of what seems to be a sort of, um, stand-up routine on his TV show. Was this guy just BSing his audience because he thought he thought they’d get a kick out of a lie about Trump?

As of this writing, Lanata’s not answering his phone. Either he’s going to make this accusation more formally today, citing sources, or he’s going to learn a very hard lesson about why light comedy and journalism don’t mix well. I’ll update once he either confirms or backs off.

Incidentally, I don’t think the main reason to disbelieve this story is the fact that Macri’s office denied it. Of course they’re going to deny it. Under what circumstances would they ever dare confirm it, even if it were true? There’s nothing to be gained for the president of Argentina by alienating the incoming president of the United States, especially if it involves a breach of confidence after what was supposed to be a private phone call. Nor is the reason to disbelieve it that Trump is above this sort of thing. He palpably doesn’t care about conflicts of interest or the appearance of impropriety. The reason to disbelieve it is that he’s smart enough not to raise this directly with the president of Argentina in a diplomatic call, not knowing whether the call might be recorded, whether it might leak, and so on. If Trump wants a favor from Macri for his building project, there are countless go-betweens who can arrange that for him while keeping his fingerprints off it. Frankly, I doubt he’d even need them: The Argentine government will grant him the permit unasked, for the same reason that diplomats in Washington are now booking reservations at the Trump International Hotel. If you want goodwill from President Trump, it makes sense to make life easier for businessman Trump. (That’s the entire reason why Trump should dump his assets.) Only a fool would need to have that explained to him, let alone by Trump himself.