Trump Jr.’s trip to India has sparked controversy – and $15 million in sales

Donald Trump Jr. thrusts his fist after speaking at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio U.S. July 19, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

NEW DELHI – In response to a query by a U.S. senator, the U.S. embassy in New Delhi said Thursday that its staff did not advise or assist Donald Trump Jr. on a foreign policy address he is set to give Friday while on a private business trip to India.

The embassy was responding to questions about a letter released Wednesday by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., to the U.S. ambassador in India raising concerns about the embassy’s engagement with Trump Jr., who is in India for the week to promote various Trump real estate projects around the country – a trip that has already netted $15 million in sales on Monday alone, according to one of his local partners.

The embassy only provided routine support to his Secret Service detail, it said.

The president’s eldest son is set to give a foreign policy speech at a global business summit in New Delhi on Friday titled “Reshaping Indo-Pacific Ties: The New Era of Cooperation” alongside India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, and other high-ranking Indian government officials.

“I am concerned that Mr. Trump’s speech will send the mistaken message that he is speaking on behalf of the president, the administration or the United States government, not as a private individual, or that he is communicating official American policy,” Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote.

“Given the potential to confuse Mr. Trump’s private business visit with having an official governmental purpose, I write to ensure that the U.S. Embassy presence in India will have no role in supporting Mr. Trump or the Trump Organization during his time in India, other than that necessary to provide any security support for the U.S. Secret Service,” Menendez wrote.

A spokesman for U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Juster said that Trump is visiting the country as a “private citizen” and that the embassy had only provided routine support for his Secret Service detail, such as booking hotel rooms.

Juster is in the process of replying to the letter from Menendez, who had asked a series of questions including whether embassy staff had briefed or assisted Trump, what steps the embassy had taken to make it clear that Trump is not speaking on behalf of the government and whether the State Department or Bureau of Diplomatic Security had spent any funds on Trump’s trip.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday that Trump was in India as a “private citizen” and that she was not familiar with what was going to be in the speech or how it was put together.

The president’s eldest son, 40, is executive vice president of the Trump Organization, the global family real estate business that President Donald Trump still controls. The company has licensed its name to five real estate projects in India, including residential towers in Pune, Mumbai, Gurgaon and Kolkata and a proposed office tower also in Gurgaon, a suburb of India’s capital also known as Gurugram. Some of the Trump Organization’s local business partners have ties to prominent politicians and have been involved in tax and other investigations.

Unlike his sister and brother-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump Jr. has no official role in the administration, although he attended a meeting with a group of Russians at Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential campaign that is the subject of law enforcement and congressional scrutiny.

He has been spending the week in a variety of private lunches and dinners with potential buyers and local business leaders as well as enticing buyers to purchase residences in the latest Trump Towers project in Gurgaon, where luxury flats sell for as much as $1.6 million. Full-page glossy advertisements urged buyers paying a booking fee of about $38,000 by Thursday to “join Mr. Donald Trump Jr. for a conversation and dinner” on Friday. Kalpesh Mehta, one of the local developers, told reporters that they had already sold more than $100 million worth of real estate in the towers – $15 million alone on Monday, after the Trump Jr. dinner offer appeared in newspapers.

The buyers’ dinner has raised conflict-of-interest concerns and charges by watchdog groups. Menendez asked whether the embassy will have any role in this event.

The Trump Organization did not immediately respond to emails and calls requesting comment, but Trump said in a televised interview at the CNBC affiliate in India that his family had not been given enough credit for the business they have lost because of self-imposed restrictions to avoid such perceptions of conflicts of interest.

“It’s sort of a shame. Because we put on all these impositions on ourselves and essentially got no credit for actually doing that,” Trump said in the interview. “For doing the right thing,” he added.

Critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere have pointed out that Secret Service agents assigned to protect the Trump sons accompany them on these private business trips to promote the family’s brand name, racking up costly hotel bills and draining the agency’s budget.

In 2017, for example, Eric Trump’s business trip to Uruguay cost taxpayers $97,830 for hotel stays for the Secret Service plus embassy staff that supported the agents during the “VIP visit,” according to purchasing orders reviewed by The Washington Post.

Catherine Milhoan, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said in an email: “As a matter of practice, the U.S. Secret Service does not comment on the specifics of protectees’ trips.”

Published U.S. government rates for hotel rooms in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Kolkata, the cities Trump is visiting, range from a maximum of $273 per night in Pune to $309 in Mumbai.