Donald Trump and his surrogates get a lot of flak for constructing their own reality, but maybe they’re on to something. The Trump campaign has addressed the many reports about his foundation’s unscrupulous and potentially illegal actions by attacking the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold for getting the story wrong, refusing to provide any facts, and suggesting that Hillary Clinton is the real culprit. That strategy may catch up to Trump some day — it has helped spark a criminal investigation — but the Trump Foundation hasn’t had a huge impact on the presidential race, so why change tactics?
It seems that’s the Trump team’s thinking when it comes to a new report that the candidate violated U.S. law by doing business in Cuba. According to Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald, in 1998 Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts spent $68,000 on a “foray” into Cuba. Due to the U.S. trade embargo, it was illegal at the time for an American company to spend any money in Cuba without government approval — but Trump wanted to have a foothold in the country if the embargo was lifted. So, according to a former Trump executive, a consulting firm called Seven Arrows Investment and Development was hired to meet with Cuban government officials and business leaders about potential opportunities for the casino company — and Trump was aware of the trip from the start.
This document shows a Seven Arrows executive requesting reimbursement from Trump’s company for the Cuba trip, and suggesting that the trip was taken on behalf of a Catholic charity (though they got the name wrong — it should be Caritas Cuba).
Funneling the money through another company would not erase Trump’s liability for violating the embargo, but that’s irrelevant now because the statute of limitations has run out. The news could, however, cause problems for Trump among Cuban-Americans in the crucial swing state of Florida — but there are already signs that this is just another Trump controversy that his supporters will shrug off.
Though the Trump camp knew the Newsweek cover story was coming for days, when it was finally published on Thursday they had no coherent strategy for addressing it. Thursday on The View, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway inadvertently suggested that Trump had in fact violated the embargo.
“Read the entire story,” she said. “It starts out with a screaming headline, as it usually does, that he did business in Cuba. And it turns out that he decided not to invest there. I think they paid money, as I understand from the story, in 1998 — and we’re not supposed to talk about years ago when it comes to the Clintons.”
Apparently Conway was unaware that spending any money in Cuba, even if Trump decided not to invest any money there, was a violation of U.S. law. Later she told the Washington Post that she “did not say he broke the law or violated the embargo.”
Then in an NH1 interview that aired Thursday night, Trump attacked Eichenwald and offered a hazy denial. “I never did business in Cuba. There’s this guy who has very bad reputation as a reporter. You see what his record is, he wrote something about me in Cuba,” Trump said. “No, I never did anything in Cuba. I never did a deal in Cuba.”
Trump hasn’t answered questions about the document that appears to show Seven Arrows asking for reimbursement for the Cuba trip. Anyone who’s observed the Trump campaign knows he probably never will — which is why a number of Republican politicians from Florida said they’ll need to hear a good explanation from the Trump campaign before they withdraw their support for the candidate.
Thursday on the ESPN “Capital Games” podcast, Florida Senator Marco Rubio acknowledged that what the Newsweek piece describes is “a violation of American law.” Then he said he would withhold judgement until the Trump campaign gave more detailed answers.
“I hope the Trump campaign is going to come forward and answer some questions about this, because if what the article says is true — and I’m not saying that it is, we don’t know with a hundred percent certainty — I’d be deeply concerned about it. I would,” he said.
U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami said he’ll give Trump the benefit of the doubt for now. “What we have so far are unnamed sources,” he said. “It’s important to see what the facts are.”
According to leaked talking points, after discrediting Eichenwald, surrogates were supposed to shift the blame to Clinton.
Both Rick Scott and Rudy Giuliani followed those instructions. The Florida governor claimed he hadn’t read the story, but said, “I assume this is more of what Hillary Clinton keeps doing.”
Similarly, when asked about the report on Thursday night, the former New York mayor initially said, “The Clinton campaign will throw every charge at him that they can possibly muster up.” When informed that the story came from a journalist, not the Clinton, Giuliani said he only trusts legal documents, “not something written by journalists. I know journalists have a lot of bias.”
The real question is how voters will respond in Florida, where Clinton and Trump are virtually tied (the Real Clear Politics polling average has her up by just .6 percent). There’s speculation that the story could hurt Trump’s support with older Cuban-Americans, who are very pro-embargo and usually vote Republican. Among Cuban-Americans, Trump isn’t as popular as previous GOP nominees, but a recent poll still had him leading among that group in Florida with 43 percent to Clinton’s 36 percent.
The Newsweek story is getting a lot of attention in the state, but so far there’s no evidence that Cuban-Americans are turning against Trump in droves. Some are even defending Trump’s business dealings in Cuba. Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, wrote on his website that the candidate may deserve “kudos” for deciding not to illegally invest in Cuba. He said:
However, it’s fascinating to watch those who are currently working to hand the Castro regime billions of dollars — beginning with the Obama administration, Clinton campaign, and its talking heads — now attacking Trump for this $68,000 consulting expenditure.
Ana Navarro, a Republican consultant and “Never Trumper,” told the Huffington Post that despite the report, “I think a lot [of Cuban-Americans] will still vote for Trump.” However, she believes that “some will peel off. Trump can’t afford to lose even a fraction of Cuban-American voters.” There is a chance that failing to seriously address the Cuba allegations could cost Trump Florida, and even the presidency. On the other hand, explaining why you broke U.S. laws isn’t a great plan either.