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Donald Trump Jr.'s India visit raised ethical questions. It also helped him sell a lot of million-dollar apartments

Donald Trump Jr.'s India visit raised ethical questions. It also helped him sell a lot of million-dollar apartments
Donald Trump Jr. attends an event Feb. 22 at the Trump Tower in Mumbai, India. (Associated Press)

Dharmendra Rao, owner of a successful business that manufactures oil pumps, lives with his family in a 6,000-square-foot apartment in one of the many monolithic towers that have sprung up on pastureland in this booming satellite city south of New Delhi.

Thinking that his address lacked a certain panache, Rao came to a luxury hotel this week to hear a half-hour sales pitch for luxury condos bearing a far more recognizable brand: the Trump Towers.

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"The Trump name means exclusivity," Rao said after leaving the sales office in Gurgaon, clutching a black tote bag filled with floor plans for apartments that cost up to $1.5 million.

"So I would say, yes — I'm planning to book one."

While Rao was ensconced on a couch in the sales office hearing about private swimming pools and 270-degree views, Donald Trump Jr. was crisscrossing India on a four-day, four-city tour to promote his family's real estate interests here — a trip that raised serious ethics questions in Washington, but also helped him sell quite a few million-dollar apartments.

Trump Jr. — who has run the Trump Organization with his brother, Eric, since their father became U.S. president — wrapped up his visit Friday by attending a dinner with buyers of the Gurgaon apartments, which are scheduled to be ready in 2023. Tribeca, the Trumps' Indian business partners, ran full-page newspaper ads last week promising invitations to anyone who plunked down upwards of $38,000 as a deposit.

Indian newspaper ads herald the arrival of Donald Trump Jr.
Indian newspaper ads herald the arrival of Donald Trump Jr. (Manish Swarup / Associated Press)

U.S. ethics watchdogs accused the Trump Organization of selling access to a member of the president's family who holds no government position. Trump Jr. called the allegations "nonsense" and insisted he had not used government resources for the trip — with the exception of the Secret Service officers providing his security.

But Trump Jr.'s tour clearly brought in revenue for the Trump Organization, which has not invested money in the Indian developments but licensed its name for an undisclosed sum — and probably stands to earn royalties from every apartment sold.

Tribeca founder Kalpesh Mehta — who is developing five Trump-branded properties in India, the most in any country outside the United States — told reporters that the company had made more than $100 million in sales in the Gurgaon complex, where plans call for a pair of 600-foot glass towers containing 258 apartments. On Monday alone, the day before Trump Jr. landed in India, Mehta said the company took in $15 million.

These are giant sums in a country where most of the 1.3 billion people survive on mere dollars a day — but India's economic growth and culture of corruption have also created a sizable number of super-rich. Recent estimates suggest that India's top 1% earn more than 21% of the country's income, and real estate is a favorite place for the wealthy to stash their money.

The result is apparent in the southern part of Gurgaon, where the occasional wandering cow and slow-moving tractor offer fleeting reminders of what the flat expanse used to be. Now gleaming towers shoot up from the earth bearing the names of multinational companies such as American Express. Vast construction sites promise ultra-modern residential developments with names like Picasso Center and Emerald Estate.

Seven miles from where the Trump Towers are due to rise, the Trump sales office occupies a cool, lavender-scented shopping arcade on the ground floor of Gurgaon's plush Oberoi hotel. A small crowd milled outside the office Thursday, the last day for buyers to earn an invitation to the dinner with Trump Jr.

Black-clad sales representatives brought trays of tea to prospective buyers as they waited for their appointments. Sitting on red velvet chairs, they watched a hotel employee wearing rubber boots use a net to sweep debris out of the hotel's giant reflecting pool.

Once inside, they were led past photos of Trump properties worldwide to a 4-foot-high model of the planned towers, each featuring giant glass balconies and a golden stripe down the center.

Rao and his real estate broker pronounced themselves impressed by the development, which is part of a complex being built by the Indian company M3M that includes a nine-hole golf course and multiple members' clubs. The broker, Sudhir Gupta, said he would bring two more buyers to the sales office over the weekend.

"It's the brand name Trump which attracts people," Gupta said. Motioning to Rao, he added: "He already has a 6,000-square-foot house. What he is looking for now is the address. This is an address where you don't need to describe to people where you are — you just tell them you're at the Trump Tower."

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Ashwin Jain, the 46-year-old scion of a family-owned real estate company, sold so many Trump apartments in Gurgaon that he received an award — a T-shaped golden trophy — from Trump Jr. at a champagne lunch this week. Business was so good, in fact, that Jain on Thursday decided to buy an apartment for himself, putting down a deposit on a four-bedroom place overlooking the golf course.

Jain described the purchase as a "trophy home" — it was far smaller than his capacious farmhouse outside New Delhi — and a chance to own a piece of the Trump name.

"Donald Trump is one of the most powerful men in the world today, and no other Trump residential building is going to come in northern India," Jain said, adding that the questions of ethical impropriety didn't faze him.

"He didn't start his real estate company after he became president; it was already there. That is his core business. So I don't find anything alarming in his son coming here to promote the business that he is running or getting a lot of attention in the media. It shows his popularity."

Trump Jr. visited four other projects either completed or in progress in India: twin apartment towers in the western city of Pune, a golden-encrusted high-rise under construction in the financial capital Mumbai and a residential skyscraper in the eastern city of Kolkata. A fifth, a commercial project in Gurgaon, was just announced.

An Indian security official stands at the entrance to the Trump Tower construction site in Kolkata, India.
An Indian security official stands at the entrance to the Trump Tower construction site in Kolkata, India. (Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump Organization says it has not violated President Trump's pledge to avoid new deals overseas while in office because the licensing arrangement with Tribeca was struck before he won the 2016 election. Tribeca representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Even as Trump's approval ratings have touched historic lows for a first-term president, he remains a figure of fascination — and admiration — for many in India, where family-owned companies dominate the economy and business and politics regularly mix in murky ways.

"We prize money, we prize political office and he's a combination of both," said Mohan Guruswamy, founder of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a New Delhi think tank.

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Trump has also won support among conservative Indians for his tough talk against Pakistan, the country's archrival, Guruswamy said.

"Obama was much too cerebral for the Indian elite to understand," Guruswamy said. "The Indian upper classes, the old money is mostly all gone, and the only thing today's elite respect is wealth. Trump would be very comfortable in this crowd. His crassness appeals to them."

Real estate is a notoriously corrupt sector in India — Trump's first attempt to build a tower in Mumbai collapsed due to violations by a former partner — and some of Trump's current projects have also raised questions about improprieties.

Authorities are investigating the Pune project after a local activist alleged the land was acquired with fraudulent documents — a charge the developer has denied. Trump's partner in Mumbai, the Lodha Group, belongs to Mangal Prabhat Lodha, a state lawmaker in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.

In a recent report, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, said that by regularly promoting his private businesses, President Trump and his inner circle have turned them into centers of political power and influence — creating "a clear picture of a presidency being used to turn a profit."

While Trump Jr. insisted his India trip was exclusively about business, he raised more questions by giving a speech Friday evening at a conference for local business leaders headlined by Modi.

Trump Jr.'s remarks were originally titled, "Reshaping Indo-Pacific Ties: The New Era of Cooperation," which suggested he was going to touch on politics. After Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) raised concerns that Trump Jr. could be seen to be speaking on behalf of the U.S. government, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi clarified that it knew nothing about the speech and had not helped in drafting it.

Hours before Trump Jr. took the stage, the conference organizers renamed his session a "Fireside Chat."

Trump's Indian backers believed the trip was a success. Standing outside the Oberoi with a client, 38-year-old broker Rishu Chopra, who had already sold one apartment in the Trump tower in Mumbai, said the aggressive advertising had drummed up interest in the Gurgaon development.

There was one thing that could have helped sales rise even further, he said.

"Everyone wants to know how Donald Trump himself is involved, what his stake is," he said. "Had Trump been more involved, all of it would have been sold by now."

Shashank Bengali is South Asia correspondent for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @SBengali

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