The story about the Boundary Waters reversal in the New York Times appears to be causing a stir. Hours after its online debut on Tuesday, the article had attracted hundreds of comments and was all over social media; yesterday, it appeared above the fold on the front page of the print edition. What struck me first about public reaction was that Times readers — a civic-minded and educated lot, on the whole — seem to have been unfamiliar with the basic elements of this story until now.
Most of the commenters’ heat appears to be focused on the Kalorama rental arrangement, which finds the daughter and son-in-law of the president renting a mansion from billionaire Chilean mining magnate Adronico Luksic Craig. It’s the most lurid part the story, and hints at some darker deal, or explicit quid pro quo: a mansion for a mine. I still think caution on that point is warranted.
Luksic was easily able to dismiss earlier reporting in Newsweek, HuffPo, and elsewhere on the rental, because it was based on the laziest form of reporting: writing up a (typically colorful) tweet by law professor and Bush administration ethics official Richard Painter about Luksic using “the Boundary Waters as his toilet”.
He stuck with this denial after the Times story appeared.
Luksic’s denial almost always turns on the issue whether he has ever “met” or “knows” the Trumps and Kushners. In the Times story, however, Luksic’s purchase of the Kalorama mansion is characterized in another way: as a soft opening bid, bringing Jared and Ivanka into an inappropriate, ethically compromised relationship from the moment they arrive in Washington. They are senior White House officials living under Luksic’s roof:
…several ethics experts said they would have cautioned Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump against renting the home, given the Luksic family’s business before the administration.
“There may be nothing wrong,” said Arthur Andrew Lopez, a federal government ethics official for two decades who is now a professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “But it doesn’t look good.”
It doesn’t really make the arrangement look any better to say they “decided to lease the home before knowing the landlord’s identity,”as Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for Kushner lawyer Abbe Lowell tells the Times; and it’s worth noting that Mirijanian “did not directly respond to questions about whether they learned of that identity before signing the lease,” which would presumably have given Kushner and Trump an opportunity to review the matter with ethics officials. Besides, Rodrigo Terré, a Luksic agent, “said both sides were aware of each others’ identities before the rental deal was finalized. ‘We disclosed our name and the name of my boss,’ he said in a telephone interview.” That’s pretty unambiguous.
After asking out loud — again — whether there had been any formal ethics review of the leasing arrangement, I received this reply from one of the Times reporters:
There is additional new reporting here about the rental arrangement and other matters.
We learn, for example, that Charles and Seryl Kushner accompanied Jared and Ivanka on their tour of the Kalorama mansion. That family picture raises other questions, mainly about Charles Kushner’s longtime business associate George Gellert — who along with his son Andrew Gellert has extensive business connections in Chile. This angle seems worth exploring, especially since the White House nominated Andrew Gellert to be ambassador to Chile. (The nomination was quietly withdrawn, without explanation, in August of 2018. For more, see this post.)
Times reporting also appears to confirm that Antofagasta did, indeed, meet with the White House in May of 2017. The emails I had obtained through FOIA only hinted at the possibility of a meeting: “this same group [from Antofagasta] may also have a meeting at the White House,” wrote Interior’s Karen Hawbecker on April 28th.
A key meeting occurred in early May, when Antofagasta’s chief executive, along with other executives and lobbyists, discussed the issue with the White House’s top adviser on domestic energy and the environment, Michael Catanzaro. The company said it wanted to reverse the Obama-era decisions, which it said were illegal and inflicted “undue damage.”
That meeting now appears in an update to the Twin Metals at Interior timeline. As I’ve pointed out in another post, Catanzaro is especially close to the current Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt. While at the White House, Catanzaro had a regular weekly call with Bernhardt. The two oil and gas lobbyists often had lunch together as well. This would be yet more evidence, if more were required, that the Chilean mining conglomerate owned by the Luksic family had unbridled access to the highest reaches of the administration, and these public officials were working on the mining company’s behalf.
The message from an early meeting, according to an attendee who spoke on condition of anonymity, was that officials should prepare for a change in direction.
Parse that carefully. It’s one of the most intriguing paragraphs of the entire story, and it calls into question the administration’s claim — which it is currently defending in the US District Court for the District of Columbia — that the Boundary Waters reversal was made merely to correct an error in Solicitor Tompkins’ 2016 M-Opinion.
Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.