Did Trump's company violate Cuba embargo in 1998?

Is this ancient history, new fiction, or will it matter much either way? According to Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald, Trump’s resort business violated the embargo on Cuba in 1998 by spending almost $70,000 on researching the possibilities of expansion there if the embargo ended. A memo warned a Trump executive to shield this expenditure through a charity, which apparently never happened:

A company controlled by Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, secretly conducted business in Communist Cuba during Fidel Castro’s presidency despite strict American trade bans that made such undertakings illegal, according to interviews with former Trump executives, internal company records and court filings.

Documents show that the Trump company spent a minimum of $68,000 for its 1998 foray into Cuba at a time when the corporate expenditure of even a penny in the Caribbean country was prohibited without U.S. government approval. But the company did not spend the money directly. Instead, with Trump’s knowledge, executives funneled the cash for the Cuba trip through an American consulting firm called Seven Arrows Investment and Development Corp. Once the business consultants traveled to the island and incurred the expenses for the venture, Seven Arrows instructed senior officers with Trump’s company—then called Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts—how to make it appear legal by linking it after the fact to a charitable effort.

The payment by Trump Hotels came just before the New York business mogul launched his first bid for the White House, seeking the nomination of the Reform Party. On his first day of the campaign, he traveled to Miami, where he spoke to a group of Cuban-Americans, a critical voting bloc in the swing state. Trump vowed to maintain the embargo and never spend his or his companies’ money in Cuba until Fidel Castro was removed from power.

He did not disclose that, seven months earlier, Trump Hotels already had reimbursed its consultants for the money they spent on their secret business trip to Havana.

The Trump campaign seemed to be taken off guard by the allegation, offering a contradictory mix of reactions. The Washington Post’s Jose DelReal also points out the sensitivity to the embargo in the key swing state of Florida:

Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway suggested in a television interview Wednesday that Trump had indeed spent money exploring business ventures in Cuba. But Conway later told The Washington Post that she “did not say he broke the law or violated the embargo.”

Trump himself denied the allegations during an interview in New Hampshire, where he campaigned Thursday, and sought to discredit the reporter who wrote the story.

“I never did business in Cuba. There’s this guy who has a very bad reputation as a reporter. You see what his record is. He wrote something about me in Cuba. No, I never did anything in Cuba. I never did a deal in Cuba,” he told NH1 News.  …

Susan MacManus, a nonpartisan Florida political analyst, said the issue could cause great concern among older Cuban Americans in the state, who are firmly pro-embargo. Those voters have expressed disdain for the Obama administration’s decision to open relations with Cuba.

“The hard-liners in the Cuban community are very high-turnout voters. And they’re shrinking in number,” she said. “Trump just went down there and had a special meeting with these people to try to shore up support with them. And, so, just when Trump was making inroads and assuring that community that he was on their side, then this story comes out.”

Let’s take first things first. If this memo is on the level, then Trump Resorts & Casinos did violate the embargo. It didn’t take much to create a violation; the federal government barred any American business (except telecoms in limited fashion) from the island, and the only cash that could go to Cuba either required a federal permit, a charity to control it, or in limited amounts from family members. Eichenwald checked to see whether they had a permit, but the records are incomplete from that period. As the official tells Eichenwald, however, it’s not terribly likely that the federal government would have issued a license to a resort company during that period.

Now to the political question: will it matter? Had the Obama administration kept the embargo in place, it might have. It’s been nearly two years since Obama began normalizing relations with Cuba, though, and so far he hasn’t paid a political price for doing so, and neither has Hillary Clinton, who’s campaigning for continuity on foreign policy. The reason? The vast majority of Cuban-Americans in Florida support the end of the embargo, according to a poll taken two weeks ago:

Nearly 70 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County support the U.S. decision to open diplomatic relations with Cuba and a strong majority (63 percent) oppose the U.S. embargo of the island nation.

The results of this year’s FIU Cuba Poll – the longest running research project measuring Cuban-American public opinion – reveal a major shift in Cuban-American attitudes toward U.S.-Cuba relations. Support for the embargo has steadily declined among Cuban-Americans in the Miami area – from an average of 84 percent in the 1990s to just 37 percent this year.

“This poll shows that members of the Cuban diaspora in Miami-Dade have diverse views about how they would like the U.S. government to deal with the Cuban state,’’ said Guillermo J. Grenier, one of the poll’s principal investigators, along with Hugh Gladwin, both professors in the Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs. “The majority support at least some elements of the new course now being charted.’’

Not even those who left Cuba before 1980 thought the embargo was effective, with 65% saying it didn’t work at all. A majority of those wanted it continued (55/45), but that number dropped off drastically among Cubans who came to the US after 1979. In fact, continuing the embargo was opposed by large majorities of Cuban-Americans in all age groups except those 75 and older.

With that it mind, it seems like a moot point now, and a violation in 1998 by a company run by a now-presidential candidate doesn’t look like a big deal in the context of today’s relationship with Cuba. Put it another way: wouldn’t a deal that gave Russia control of a large percentage of America’s uranium assets much more recently matter more? The Uranium One deal put at least $500,000 in Bill Clinton’s pockets while Hillary Clinton’s State Department signed off on that deal. That seems a little more significant than an embargo violation eighteen years ago that didn’t go any farther.

Still, we can expect to see more and more of this as the general election wears on. Team Hillary undoubtedly spent a lot of money on oppo research, and they’ll find ways to get the dirt that accumulates with tycoons into the press over the next several weeks. Old ladies who got evicted to close deals, business partners who got stiffed, rivals who got the hard end of bare-knuckled financial brawls — they will all come out of the woodwork. Many of us warned of exactly this outcome during the primaries, because this is what happens when a party nominates a business leader with no real political experience as its savior. Team Trump will need to get a rapid-response team ready to deal with these in better fashion than seen with the Cuba-embargo story if they hope to survive a death-from-a-thousand-cuts strategy.

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