Exclusive: FBI counterintel investigating Ivanka Trump business deal

US counterintelligence officials are scrutinizing one of Ivanka Trump's international business deals, according to tw...

Posted: Mar 2, 2018 9:07 AM
Updated: Mar 2, 2018 9:07 AM

US counterintelligence officials are scrutinizing one of Ivanka Trump's international business deals, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

The FBI has been looking into the negotiations and financing surrounding Trump International Hotel and Tower in Vancouver, according to a US official and a former US official. The scrutiny could be a hurdle for the first daughter as she tries to obtain a full security clearance in her role as adviser to President Donald Trump.

It's standard procedure to probe foreign contacts and international business deals as part of a background check investigation. But the complexity of the Trump Organization's business deals, which often rely on international financing and buyers, presents a challenge.

The FBI has been looking closely at the international business entanglements of both Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, to determine whether any of those deals could leave them vulnerable to pressure from foreign agents, including China, according to a US official.

The development -- a 616-foot beacon dotting the Vancouver skyline and featuring a trademarked Ivanka Trump spa -- opened in February 2017, just after Trump took office.

The Trump Organization does not own the building. Instead, like other Trump projects, it receives licensing and marketing fees from the developer, Joo Kim Tiah. A scion of one of Malaysia's wealthiest families, Tiah runs his family's Canada-based development company Holborn Group. President Trump's June financial disclosure form said the Trump Organization made more than $5 million in royalties and $21,500 in management fees from the Vancouver property.

The $360 million project, which features 147 guest rooms and 217 luxury residences, quickly became a magnet for foreign buyers.

In the case of Vancouver, it's not clear why investigators are examining this particular deal. The timing of the deal -- as one of the few Trump-branded properties to open since Trump took office -- could be of interest. The flow of foreign money, either from the developer or international condo buyers, could also be sparking scrutiny.

Since Kushner took on his role as senior adviser to President Trump, officials in countries including China have discussed ways to use Kushner's web of business deals to manipulate him, according to The Washington Post.

"CNN is wrong that any hurdle, obstacle, concern, red flag or problem has been raised with respect to Ms. Trump or her clearance application," said Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for Ivanka Trump's ethics counsel. "Nothing in the new White House policy has changed Ms. Trump's ability to do the same work she has been doing since she joined the Administration."

Alan Garten, executive vice president and chief legal officer for the Trump Organization, said, "the company's role was and is limited to licensing its brand and managing the hotel. Accordingly, the company would have had no involvement in the financing of the project or the sale of units."

White House spokesman Raj Shah declined to comment on Ivanka Trump's security clearance. The FBI declined to comment. The Holborn Group did not respond to requests for comment.

Ivanka Trump, the Vancouver dealmaker

For the Trumps, deal-making is a family affair. The developer in Vancouver, Tiah, bonded with Donald Trump Jr. But Ivanka Trump played a key role in getting the deal off the ground in 2013, two years before Trump officially launched his presidential bid.

Tiah flew to New York for a meeting at Trump Tower. In the board room featured on The Apprentice, they hammered out the contours of the deal.

"One of the senior vice-presidents pulled me aside and said: 'Joo Kim, it's really important in your presentation that you connect with Ivanka. In other words: no one else is in the room, you have to understand that," Tiah recalled at the October 2015 launch of a "Trump Luxe" VIP service for condo residents. "In that meeting, it was clearly just me and Ivanka talking about the project," he recalled.

After an agreement was reached, Ivanka Trump recalled at the same event that she worked closely with Tiah: "We were working on a lot on the design elements and really forming the vision."

"Ivanka and myself approved everything, everything in this project," Tiah added.

Holborn is backed financially by Tony Tiah Thee Kian, chairman of TA Enterprise, which controls several other businesses. The elder Tiah has a checkered business history, including securities laws violations and false statements to the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange, according to the Malaysia's Securities Commission. Joo Kim is the face of Holborn.

As with other Trump properties, the Vancouver tower easily attracted foreign buyers. The Vancouver Sun reported last year that one of the buyers in the project has links to the Chinese government.

What does this mean for Mueller?

While it is not known whether Ivanka Trump's business deals are of interest to the special counsel's investigation, Mueller has been examining her husband's interactions with foreign investors.

Kushner has been unable to obtain a full security clearance amid Mueller's investigation into his contacts with Russians and financial dealings with foreigners. His interim security clearance was downgraded this week from top secret to secret.

Because Ivanka Trump and Kushner are married, concerns that arise during one partner's security clearance investigation could stall or block both of them from receiving a full clearance, according to a US official.

Any information that arises during the FBI's security clearance checks that could be relevant to the special counsel's investigation would be automatically shared, according to a US official.

So far, the first daughter -- one of the President's closest confidants -- has largely managed to escape the glare of the Russia investigation. She has not been called to testify on Capitol Hill. She told NBC she has not met with Mueller for an interview.

"Consistently we have said there was no collusion. There was no collusion," Ivanka Trump said in an interview this week with NBC News. "And we believe that Mueller will do his work and reach that same conclusion."

But her low profile, particularly when it comes to Mueller's investigation, is baffling to some legal experts.

"Why is he not interviewing Ivanka? The answer is, beats me," said Michael Zeldin, a CNN legal analyst and former prosecutor who previously worked for Mueller at the Justice Department.

"Either he's just biding his time," Zeldin said, "or he has obtained this evidence elsewhere and he doesn't need her, or he appreciates the possibility of a major eruption were he to do that."

Ivanka Trump accompanied the President as two key events unfolded that Mueller is looking into as part of an obstruction of justice investigation: the firing of then-FBI Director James Comey and the misleading statement about the Trump team's meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer in Trump Tower in June 2016.

While it's unclear what role she played in either of those instances, she may have been privy the President's thinking at the time.

Trump's first-born daughter has long served as a trusted adviser, and she and her father often speak several times a day. She worked closely with her father and siblings in the family real estate business and counseled Trump throughout the presidential campaign and transition. She resigned from the Trump Organization in January 2017 and officially joined the White House staff in March.

For the most part, congressional investigators have also shown little interest in speaking with Ivanka, although some have pressed for her testimony.

Last month, Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he'd like to speak with Ivanka Trump. But GOP members of the committee haven't backed his request to interview her.

"I think it would be valuable for her to testify and come before the committee," Schiff said.

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