Donald Trump Still Won't Tell the Truth About Cuba

Trump Miami
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at a Hispanic Town Hall with supporters in Miami, Florida, on September 27. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The response of Donald Trump and his staff on September 29 to the revelation that one of his companies illegally violated the Cuban trade embargo during Fidel Castro’s presidency has exposed a growing problem for the Republican nominee: His campaign operation is disorganized and shares Trump’s disdain for facts.

Both the Trump campaign staff and the Trump Organization had been told for days by Newsweek that it was about to publish an article disclosing that a Trump company had paid at least $68,000 to explore business opportunities in Communist Cuba. Federal law at the time imposed tough restrictions against spending even a penny in Cuba, with the intent of financially starving the country, which for decades been categorized as an American enemy. While there were some exemptions, such as engaging in humanitarian work approved by the government, the Trump venture did not qualify for any of them, and once the Cuba business trip was over, consultants and Trump executives discussed ways to make the trip appear to be a charitable effort.

Newsweek’s requests for comments, documents and even an interview with Trump were ignored, which was unusual. Traditionally, when campaigns, companies and other professional groups are told that a piece about them is in the works, they will contact a reporter to find out the scope of the story, even if there is no plan to give a comment. That way, they can have a planned response ready when the story breaks.

On September 28, the night before Newsweek’s story on the Trump-Cuba connection was posted, The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC revealed the findings of the article, and Maddow read several of the opening paragraphs on the air. About 15 minutes after that segment ended, a Trump lawyer emailed Newsweek, stating that someone in Trump’s camp had searched the company’s records and found no documents proving the Cuba trip had occurred. The Trump lawyer suggested the magazine rethink posting the story.

This email suggested that the Trump organization had done some preparation; no one could have searched all of the company files in the quarter-hour between the end of the Maddow segment and the arrival of the lawyer’s email.

There was one large problem with that letter: Trump’s staff had searched through the files of the wrong company. Because they had refused to speak with Newsweek, they had mistakenly concluded the story involved a trip sponsored by the Trump Organization, a private company. In fact, testing out business opportunities in Cuba had been a project of Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, a public company in which Trump was a controlling shareholder and chairman through 2009.

The next morning, Newsweek.com posted the article, which cited internal company documents, court filings and interviews with former Trump executives. By then, the Trump campaign had prepared talking points for its staff and surrogates that did not address the facts in the article and misrepresented them. Three of those talking points, which were disclosed by BuzzFeed, included name-calling (the story was “manufactured” and “pathetic,” and the reporter was “totally discredited); blaming the Hillary Clinton campaign for the piece; and saying it proved the Democrats and “their media allies” were getting desperate, in that they were discussing events that took place decades ago. The talking points and the surrogates left every fact raised by the piece unchallenged.

The first Trump representative to address the piece was Corey Lewandowski, the Republican nominee’s former campaign manager, who pretends to be a political analyst on CNN despite having been on the Trump payroll until this week, when, instead of continuing to receive monthly checks until the end of the year, he was paid off with one balloon payment. On a CNN morning show, Lewandowski said, “There’s absolutely no facts whatsoever that this took place,” although the article quoted internal company documents that discussed the Cuba trip. Lewandowski then compared the article to the dismissive reaction to a book by a former Secret Service agent that presented an alleged firsthand account about Hillary Clinton. (The Secret Service said the agent was too low down in hierarchy to know much.) As he spoke, CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota glanced at a piece of paper she was holding, laughed and said Lewandowski was reciting “talking point No. 18 here in the Donald Trump memo.”

2016_10_14_Trump_1800x2400 (1) Newsweek

Meanwhile, Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who is running for re-election in Florida and has endorsed Trump for president, said he was “deeply concerned” about the allegations. Florida has a large Cuban-American population, and, for many of them, maintaining the embargo of the Communist country was one of the most important political issues in their lives. Rubio urged the Trump campaign to address the allegations. “This is something they’re going to have to give a response to. I mean, it was a violation of American law, if that’s how it happened,” he said on the ESPN/ABC Capital Games podcast. “I hope the Trump campaign is going to come forward and answer some questions about this.”

The first attempt by the Trump campaign to directly address the allegations came when Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway appeared on ABC’s morning talk show The View. But Conway gave an account that did not challenge the allegations; instead, she confirmed them. “Read the entire story. It starts out with a screaming headline, as it usually does, that he did business in Cuba. And then it turns out he decided not to invest there,” she said. When pressed further, she added, “I think they paid money, as I understand from the story, they paid money in 1998.” Then she shifted to complaining that the press has condemned the Trump campaign for raising years-old issues about Clinton, “but with Trump, there is no statute of limitations ever.”

Reporters jumped on Conway’s statement: Whether Trump did a deal in Cuba is irrelevant; under the law, his company violated the trade embargo by paying that money in 1998.

That afternoon, Trump was asked about the article by a reporter in New Hampshire. “No, I never did business in Cuba,” Trump said. “I never did a deal in Cuba. I heard about it last night for the first time.” Then, using talking point No. 1, he accused the Newsweek reporter—me—of being “this guy who has a very bad reputation as a reporter.”    

In that response, Trump tried to skirt the damning point: The article doesn’t claim he did a deal in Cuba; it shows that consultants for his company were sent to make connections in both the Castro government and business communities while scouting out possible opportunities, all while running up $68,000 in expenses. Spending that money in Cuba violated the embargo.

TrumpHotelsCubaBill On February 8, 1999, Seven Arrows billed Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, Inc. for the $68,551.88 it had incurred prior to and including a trip to Cuba on behalf of Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts Inc. Newsweek

Given the repeated misrepresentations by Trump’s people, Newsweek decided to release one document obtained in the reporting of the Trump company’s Cuba effort: an invoice showing the amount charged by the consultant, the clear designation that it was for business dealings in Cuba, and references to how Trump employees might disguise the purpose of the trip to make it appear that it was connected to a charity.

Newsweek continues to wait for comment from the Trump campaign on those facts.