President Trump Stumped for Sheldon Adelson to Japanese Prime Minister
When we have written about Las Vegas Sands Corp. founder and CEO Sheldon Adelson on this site, we have often used the term “crony capitalism” to describe his dealings with United States lawmakers. The term fits perfectly. Adelson has used his limitless wealth to donate millions upon millions of dollars to Republican political campaigns and, in exchange, he has either gotten a seat at the most important of tables or has been able to direct legislation from his suite at the Venetian. On Wednesday, Justin Elliott of ProPublica published a lengthy article describing how Adelson has a direct line to President Donald Trump, a connection which may have put his company in the driver’s seat for a casino license in Japan.
Trump and Japan’s Casino Bill
There is a ton going on in Elliott’s piece, but we’ll focus on the Japan casino issue. In December 2016, after a decade and a half of political battles, Japan legalized casinos, authorizing three licenses. Needless to say, those licenses are coveted – Japan is a massive untapped market – and more than a dozen gaming companies are competing for one of the prizes.
Just a month before the casino bill passed, Trump won the US presidential election. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe was the first foreign head of state to meet with Trump after the election, visiting him at Trump Tower. Nobody knows what they talked about, but it was not considered a coincidence that Abe’s administration got the casino bill pushed through.
In late January 2017, just a few days after Trump was inaugurated, Adelson said on an earnings call that Abe had visited the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore and was “very impressed”.
Adelson Met With Trump, Trump Met With Abe
And now for the direct Adelson-Trump influence. In February 2017, not long after that conference call, Prime Minister Abe visited President Trump. That same day, just a little earlier, Adelson had dinner at the White House with Trump, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. If I donated $20 million to Trump’s campaign and $5 million to his inauguration (but Trump’s a billionaire, right?), I probably would get to have dinner with him, too (McDonald’s).
The next morning, Adelson and a “small group of American CEOs, including two others from the casino industry,” had breakfast with Prime Minister Abe and brought up the casino issue.
After that, Abe had a meal with Trump, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and South African golfer Ernie Els, followed by, what else, a round of golf. Trump and Abe then jetted off to Mar-a-Lago and, according two of Elliott’s sources, Trump actually brought up Adelson and his effort to win a casino license.
“It was totally brought up out of the blue,” according to one of the people briefed on the exchange. “They were a little incredulous that he would be so brazen.” After Trump told Abe he should strongly consider Las Vegas Sands for a license, “Abe didn’t really respond, and said thank you for the information,” this person said.
As has happened throughout Trump’s presidency, advocating with another head of state for someone’s business interests violates all sorts of norms. It’s just not something that it appropriate to do. And, of course, Adelson is very confident that his company is in prime position to secure one of Japan’s three casino licenses.
Adelson Has Pulled the Strings for Years
As readers of this site very well know by now, this is far from the first time that Sheldon Adelson has used his role as a billionaire Republican financier to advance his personal interests on Capitol Hill, though getting the President to go to bat for him takes things to another level.
Adelson is staunchly against online gambling and online poker and has said he will do whatever it takes to not just stop its expansion in the U.S., but to eliminate the pastimes altogether. At the very end of 2011, the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) clarified the long-misinterpreted Wire Act, saying that it only applied to sports betting. Prior to that, the DoJ had interpreted it as making all online gambling illegal. This incensed Adelson, leading him and his legal team to craft the Restoration of America’s Wire Act (RAWA), which aims to rollback the OLC’s clarification, effectively making the incorrect reading of the Wire Act the law of the land.
Adelson claims he wants to protect children and the vulnerable from the evils of online gambling, but we all know his quest to eliminate online gambling is because he is afraid – wrongly – that it will hurt his brick-and-mortar gambling empire. Because of his influence among Republican lawmakers, he was able to get former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R – Utah) to introduce RAWA in the House and Senator Lindsey Graham (R – S.C.) in the Senate. Chaffetz even held two hearings in the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, which he chaired. The first hearing was seen by people from both sides of the aisle as a complete farce, as Chaffetz stacked the witness panel with gaming opponents. To quell the criticisms, he put some neutral or pro-gaming witnesses on the panel the next time, and because these people were actually knowledgeable about online gambling, it went very badly for Chaffetz.
Graham never advanced RAWA to any hearings or votes, but he did try to insert RAWA-like language into an appropriations bill. That effort was found out and nixed by his colleagues.