eyes on the U.S.

Trump Conflict Of Interest Questions Wash Up At His Caribbean Villa

The sale of property belonging to Mr Trump in the French Antilles could become a problem.

A view on the Château des Palmiers
A view on the Château des Palmiers
Nicolas Bourcier

The location and amenities are unbeatable: nearly five acres of quiet seafront property with 10 luxurious suites and perfectly-manicured lawn. The Château des Palmiers (Palm Tree Castle) is Donald Trump's "French" property, located on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. It is now going on sale at Sotheby's.

There is no sign, no advertisement, the price is given "on request." According to the specialized website Mansion Global, citing a local source, the price could reach $28 million. "A little less', according to Andy, the former kitchen chef, who currently serves as caretaker here with the help of two huge dogs. The young woman seems put off by this reporter's questions. "You can't believe everything," she says. "This is just an ordinary villa that's gone on sale."

The real estate sale, which began in April, has made a few quiet waves in Washington. If sold, the Château des Palmiers would be the first significant property transaction for Donald Trump since his move to the White House. It has prompted questions about possible conflicts of interest, echo a concern raised by one of Trump's own lawyers, Sheri Dillon, when justifying his decision not to sell his entire real estate company, the Trump Organization. A buyer, Dillon pointed out, could decide to pay more than market price to gain favor from the president.

A Russian investor?

If the Château des Palmiers were to find a buyer, the transaction would stay confidential. Using shell companies to hide the identity of the buyer is frequent in these types of sales. Moreover, the public registries in Saint Martin, under French administration, don't always provide details about transactions when it comes to private property. Trump would have to reveal the price of the sale, but could keep the name and nationality of the buyer a secret.

This is where the porosity comes into play

This is where the porosity between the business world, the personal life and the public role of the President comes into play. In 2016, before the property was put on the market, a Russian investor asked to see it. According to a real estate company on the Dutch side of the island, the man visited the residence, without any trace of follow-up. This has occurred amid the ongoing investigations into alleged collusion between Moscow and members of Trump's campaign.

The U.S. President no longer technically runs his real estate holding, since January in the hands of his sons Eric and Donald Jr, as well as a long-term associate, Alan Weisselberg. Trump Sr., however, remains the company's owner. Until now, Richard Nixon has been the only president to have sold property (his New York city apartment on 5th Avenue) only a few days after taking office.

The reasons for putting the Château des Palmiers on the market remain unknown. Trump does not use the villa and is believed to have never actually stepped foot in it. Trump's wife Melania stayed there a few times. "A great lady, very kind," Andy the caretaker recalls. The income generated by this luxurious resort was somewhere between $200,000 and $2 million for the period from 2014 to mid-2016, according to Trump's tax returns. Prices start as $6,000 a night.

The other troubling element of this tale goes all the way back to Trump's acquisition of the property. He bought the residence in 2013, through two companies : Excel Venture I LLC and Excel Ventures Corporation, both with addresses in Delaware, a state known as a domestic tax haven in the U.S. We know very little about the amount of the transaction, which will make it hard to determine whether Trump will turn a profit as president in its resale.

Before Trump owned it, the villa was the property of his friend of 20 years, Steve Hilbert. The businessman is 70 years old, and married to a former topless model around Melania's age. Since 2006, he owns the self-tanning cosmetic brand New Sunshine.

In 2013, Hilbert was facing bankruptcy. Lawsuits were piling up and his Château des Palmiers, which he had been trying to sell for $20 million for 3 years, couldn't find a buyer. His friend Donald Trump came to his rescue. An investigation was conducted, but ended without further action from the federal judge. Some sources whisper the transaction was made for less than $17 million.

A realtor at Sunshine Properties, on the Dutch side of the island, offers his own calculation: "If someone buys Trump's property for $28 million, they will be doing so for reasons other than the beautiful location."

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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