Investors looking to buy a condo at Trump Tower in the Philippines would have found, until this week, some high-powered video testimonials on the project’s official website.
There was Donald Trump, in a message filmed several years before he was elected president of the United States, declaring that the skyscraper bearing his name near the Philippine capital would be “something very, very special, like nobody’s seen before”. Then there was his daughter Ivanka Trump, now a senior White House adviser, lavishing praise on the project as a “milestone in Philippine real estate history”.
Four months into President Trump’s tenure, his business relationship with a developer who is one of the Philippines’ richest and most powerful men has emerged as a prime example of the collision between the private interests of a businessman in the White House and his public responsibility to shape US foreign policy.
The potential conflict first came into focus shortly before Trump was elected, when the Philippines’ iron-fisted president, Rodrigo Duterte, named the Trump Organisation’s partner on the Manila real estate venture his top trade envoy.
The connection burst back into public view this week, after Trump stunned human rights advocates by extending a White House invitation to Duterte, known for endorsing hundreds of extrajudicial killings of drug users, following what aides described as a “very friendly” phone call. Trump aides have said the outreach to Duterte is part of a broader effort to isolate North Korea.
Although the promotional videos were posted online in 2013, the continued presence of Trump and his daughter in marketing materials for the Manila tower reflects the extent to which they remain key selling points even as they have vowed to distance themselves from their global real estate and branding businesses.
After The Washington Post inquired Monday about the use of the Trumps in promoting the Manila project, the links and videos on the corporate website could no longer be accessed. Nonetheless, their lingering connection to the property’s sales pitch shows how difficult it is to separate the president from Trump-branded projects, particularly in foreign markets where there is less oversight of how his image is used.
Amanda Miller, Vice President of marketing for the Trump Organisation, said the material was “historical clips” that were not related to ongoing sales and marketing activity. Ivanka Trump was not aware that she was still featured in materials touting the Manila project, according to someone familiar with her views. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Trump’s company does not own or invest in the Manila project, a luxurious 57-story tower nearing completion in Makati, a bustling financial centre that is part of metropolitan Manila.
In a long-term licensing deal, the project’s development company agreed to pay royalties for use of the Trump brand. Trump reported receiving $1 million to $6 million in payments from the project between 2014 and mid-2016, according to his financial disclosures.
Jose E. B. Antonio, chairman of the development company, has retained his leadership of the firm even as he functions now in his official capacity as a Duterte appointee. Kris Cole, a spokeswoman for the developer, said that Antonio’s envoy role is an unpaid, nongovernmental position promoting Philippine business interests in the United States.
Antonio, who Cole said was travelling and could not comment, told Bloomberg News in November that his role is to “enlarge the relationship between the two countries,” adding of his business relationship with Trump: “I guess it would be an asset.”
Trump company executives directed their international business associates to pull any promotional materials featuring Trump’s presidency or Ivanka Trump, officials said. A Trump lawyer circulated documents in January pledging that no company communications or social-media accounts “will reference or otherwise be tied” to Trump’s high office or public power.
Trump left the management of his company to his two adult sons, but he retained his ownership stake and can still withdraw money from his business interests at any time.
Now, to ethics experts who have warned for months that Trump’s refusal to divest from his business created the potential for his personal financial interests to compete with his public role, Trump’s recent interactions with Duterte serve as a worrisome sign.
“It does look like the way he is handling US policy to the Philippines is consistent with Donald Trump’s business interests,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who is an expert on government ethics. “It is inconsistent with how the US has been relating to Duterte since he came to power. But it is consistent with what is important to Donald Trump.”
The $150 million Manila tower, which was originally slated to open last year, is set to be finished in the coming months, with 95 percent of the units sold, according to the Trump Organisation.
The Trump family has been a key part of marketing the project since it began in 2012 with promises of becoming one of the Asian nation’s tallest towers.
An early billboard inviting potential buyers to “live exquisitely” in the tower featured a large portrait of Ivanka Trump wearing a black sheath dress and diamond pendant earrings. Miller said the sign was removed several years ago.
The project, by Antonio’s development firm Century Properties Group, has continued to tout its connection to the Trumps, even in the months since Antonio assumed his post in the Duterte administration.
Jose Roberto “Robbie” Antonio, the developer’s son, who called himself a “good friend” of the Trumps in his online biography, said in one video, “We’re really privileged not just to partner with such a remarkable organisation, but with a fantastic family.” The elder Antonio describes the project as “a celebration of a partnership between two corporations, a partnership between two families, a partnership of two countries and a partnership of people who have the same passion – the passion to build the best real estate projects in the world”.
Cole, the development firm’s spokeswoman, said the younger Antonio was travelling and could not comment.
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The site also included promotions for Ivanka Trump’s jewellery collection, with blurbs describing her as a “scion of brand sophistication”. Other descriptions cited the “Trump lifestyle,” while the Trumps appeared in videos talking up the bona fides of their business partner and his work.
“You’re not going to see a better-appointed building than this one,” Ivanka Trump said in an eight-minute video she narrated, adding that the developer is “one of the most innovative real estate firms in Asia”.
“Manila represented a great opportunity for our brand,” Ivanka Trump says in a promotional reel. The video ends with a plug from Donald Trump, who says: “It’s really great working with Century Properties and the Antonio family. True professionals, they really know what they’re doing.”
On another page of the website touting media coverage of the project, the top story was a 2015 piece from a Philippine website headlined: “Donald Trump happy with strong sales of Trump Tower in Makati.”
Since founding his development company in the 1980s, Antonio has become one of the country’s wealthiest star developers, with a net worth that Forbes estimates at $195 million. His company’s share price climbed 20 percent on the Philippine Stock Exchange the day Trump won the election.
The relationship between the Antonios and the Trumps goes back at least a decade, when Jose Antonio dispatched his son, a company managing director, to Manhattan to oversee the development of a luxury condominium on West 56th Street near Trump Tower.
Robbie Antonio took the opportunity to get to know the Trumps, meeting first with Ivanka at her office, he told the Philippine network ANC in an interview. He said he hit it off with the Trump siblings.
“At the right juncture, I called them up to discuss a deal in Manila, and they were very excited by the project and the location, and they wanted something significant,” Antonio told the network.
“It’s always a great thing when you can take a friendship and then turn it into a great business relationship,” Donald Trump Jr. – the president’s oldest son, who now runs the family company – told ANC.
The Antonios’ development firm has built a reputation for signing deals with celebrities to help promote their brand. Antonio, who in November referred to himself as a “liaison to the stars,” signed Paris Hilton, a socialite heiress of the family that founded the Hilton hotel empire, to design the beach club at his nine-building Azure Urban Resort Residences, and Hilton appeared on a promotional billboard at Manila’s domestic airport.
Like Trump, Robbie Antonio is known for conspicuous consumption. For the walls of his $15 million Manila mansion, he paid millions of dollars to commission top artists to paint dozens of portraits of himself, according to a 2013 Vanity Fair article about the then-36-year-old multimillionaire. The median income for a Philippine family in 2015 was about $5,300 a year, national data show.
The Trump Tower in Manila is one of more than a dozen luxury residential projects around the world licensed by the Trump company, including projects in Seoul; Mumbai; Istanbul; Dubai; and Punta del Este, Uruguay.
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Although Trump pledged in January that his company would push for “no new foreign deals,” the company continues to pursue Trump-licensed projects that already were underway in Indonesia and other countries.
The Trumps and the Antonios also have discussed partnering on new Trump resorts and other projects in the Philippines, Jose Antonio said in interviews late last year.
In one promotional video predating his father’s presidency, Donald Trump Jr. promised that “this will not be our last project in the Philippines,” adding, “We’re really looking forward to rolling out a couple things”.
Miller, the Trump company spokeswoman, said this week that the company has no plans for additional projects in the Philippines.
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