US Officials Lobbied Vietnam to Help Philip Falcone Casino
ProPublica claimed that US President Donald Trump spoke with the Vietnamese prime minister on behalf of Philip Falcone’s Grand Ho Tram Casino Resort in Vietnam. The Internet news site noted that one of Trump’s lawyers also works as Philip Falcone’s lawyer — and that legal representative was at the White House the day Prime Minister Phuc talked with Donald Trump.
According to the report, the president may have spoken with the Vietnamese prime minister to help Grand-Ho Tram Casino’s business prospects.
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit investigative journalism organization based in New York City. ProPublica’s Justin Elliott reported that Marc Kasowitz, one of President Trump’s personal lawyers, represents Philip Falcone to the Vietnamese government.
According to Elliott, it was Marc Kasowitz — not the US State Department — who arranged the first phone call between the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and then president-elect Donald Trump. In a story titled “The Hidden Hand of a Casino Company in Trump’s Contact with Vietnam“, Elliott claims that Kasowitz later convinced the president to lobby on behalf of Philip Falcone’s casino business.”
Vietnamese Casino Laws
For the past couple of years, Vietnam has been liberalizing its casino laws. Vietnamese casinos have operated for decades, but they have always banned Vietnam’s residents from playing. The casino-resorts were designed to draw foreign tourists, often from China or Australia.
Recently, Vietnamese lawmakers passed laws which would allow some Vietnamese residents to play in domestic casinos. For those who can prove they make at least $400 a month are allowed to gamble. In Vietnam, the average worker makes $150 a month, while residents in high-paying jobs make $500 a month.
Philip Falcone Casino Barred from List
The problem for Grand Ho Tram Casino and Philip Falcone is the new law did not apply to every single casino. Vietnam’s lawmakers decided to try the new law in selected casinos for 2 years, then determine whether the policy was a good one. Grand Ho Tram Casino, located on the Vietnamese seacoast about 2 hours drive from Ho Chi Mihn City, was not one of the casinos included in the program.
That is where the Trump Administration comes into the story. The phone call was to convince Vietnamese officials to include Philip Falcone’s casino in the list among those allowed to host Vietnamese real money gamblers.
Trump’s Call about Grand Ho Tram Casino
Justin Elliott wrote in ProPublica, “Kasowitz had another client with a keen interest in Vietnam: Philip Falcone, an American investor with a major casino outside Ho Chi Minh City. After the Trump call, Kasowitz traveled to Vietnam with Falcone. They met with government officials as part of an effort to persuade Vietnam to lift a ban on gambling for its citizens. Such a shift would deliver vastly more gamblers to Falcone’s casino.”
When asked about the phone call to high-ranking Vietnamese officials, Philip Falcone described it as “lending a hand”. An anonymous third party told the ProPublica reporter, “‘Phil asked if Marc could arrange a phone call between the president and prime minister of Vietnam,’ said a person familiar with the call. ‘Marc did that.'”
“In an interview, Falcone denied he requested the call. He added there was nothing improper about arranging such a call. ‘It’s just lending a hand when people ask you.’ he said. A spokesman for Kasowitz acknowledged the lawyer provided a ‘telephone contact’ to the Vietnamese government to call Trump.”
Forbes Perspective on Trump Diplomacy
Forbes’ Muhammad Cohen took note of the story this week, but had a different perspective on the president’s support of the Grand Ho Tram Casino. Mr. Cohen did not dispute the facts of the ProPublica report, but said that the Trump Administration’s vocal support of an American casino in Vietnam is well within the traditional scope of US diplomacy.
Cohen said in his article “Team Trump Aided Harbinger Founder Falcone’s Vietnam Casino — And That’s Normal” that it is well-established that American officials take a pro-American stance in international diplomacy. He cited several cases, including ones where the morality of US support was more dubious.
Trump Visit with Prime Minister Phuc
In his version of events, Muhammad Cohen wrote, “The article says that in December 2016 Kasowitz, not the U.S. State Department, arranged a coveted telephone conversation between President-elect Trump and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. After that, Team Trump tried to help Falcone; I know because I gave Vietnam advice on how to respond.”
Later, the gaming consultant added, “Ahead of Prime Minister Phuc’s visit to Washington in May last year, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi reportedly pressed Vietnam about why Ho Tram, the largest foreign investment in Vietnam’s tourism sector to date, wasn’t earmarked for local play. Approached for help, I suggested taking a page from the Trump playbook: President Trump talks about ‘America first,’ and Vietnam is doing the same thing, allowing casino owned by Vietnamese to host locals first. I don’t know if that idea made it into Prime Minister Phuc’s talking points for his White House meeting.”
“ProPublica reports that after Trump and Phuc met, they ran into Kasowitz, who claims he was visiting 1600 Pennsylvania Ave for other reasons.”
Previous Examples of US Support of Business Practices
Muhammed Cohen said that the case of the Trump Administration helping Philip Falcone’s casino venture in Vietnam is nothing extraordinary. As a former US State Department employee, Cohen said it falls far short of other instances where US officials have intervened to help US business interests — even if the personal intervention of a US president might raise eyebrows.
The global affairs expert wrote, “There are legitimate questions about the Trump administration blurring lines between public affairs and private business, but Ho Tram is hardly a compelling example. The U.S. government traditionally stands up for American business overseas. As a junior diplomat in Tanzania in 1981, I briefed the Health Ministry on U.S. opposition to a World Health Organization edict prohibiting giving free samples of baby formula to new mothers, a practice causing infant deaths in poor countries by discouraging breast feeding. Uncle Sam cared more about dairy exports.”
“The U.S. fights to open markets for exports, including cigarettes, not encouraging smoking, but seeking a free marketplace. That argument becomes less compelling with a protectionist administration, but don’t expect hypocrisy to get in the way of a talking point.”
One of the reasons countries open foreign consulates is to help their business people in the far-flung parts of a nation, away from the capital. The US Chamber of Commerce, while a private organization, maintains a close association with the US government and works hard to help US business interests abroad. While such practices can go too far, foreign countries lobby US officials on behalf of their countries’ business interests. While it is best to go through proper channels to assure that ethics are maintained, Muhammed Cohen points out that it would be somewhat strange if US officials did not support an American business abroad like the Grand – Ho Tram Casino.