Editor's note: Real estate’s ultimate

Sep.September 01, 2017 11:00 AM

Stuart Elliott

You can say one thing about the investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Moscow during the 2016 election — we’ve never gotten such an inside play-by-play look at the mechanics of international real estate dealmaking.

The probe by special counsel Robert Mueller (whatever it finds), in addition to other inquiries and leaks, has shone a light on the vast web of industry players in Trump’s orbit and their efforts to line up shady money and connections around the globe in pursuit of property deals.

In one of our biggest stories in the issue, we profile Brad Zackson, a figure in Trump’s world who has largely escaped scrutiny to date. He has been the real estate fixer for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, an active investor himself and a central character in Mueller’s probe into the Trump campaign. Zackson, a protégé of Donald’s father, Fred Trump, also served five years in prison following an attempted murder charge in the 1980s.

In recent months, Zackson has been assisting Manafort in his lobbying efforts. Among other things, that’s entailed helping China’s largest privately owned builder get infrastructure contracts in the U.S., including one to build a school for the Navy in Guantánamo — which could raise national security concerns due to its sensitive nature.

In 2008, Manafort and Zackson made an unsuccessful run at the Drake Hotel site (now home to 432 Park Avenue), backed by equity investments from two Eastern European oligarchs who are now both suspected of criminal activity. That deal triggered a federal investigation, which is now being handled by Mueller.

It’s a great investigative piece by reporters Will Parker and Kathy Clarke. And it raises some broader issues — namely, that the flow of money around the world has become so fluid and the connection of players so tight that “I know a guy who can help you on this development deal” could eventually become “I know a guy who can help you win an election.” In other words, has the erasure of borders when it comes to money and dealmaking indirectly led to the weakening of our political system and sovereignty?

Much of the 24/7 Trump news cycle in recent weeks has also been devoted to the president’s controversial reaction to the white nationalist rally and counterprotest in Charlottesville. We sat down with billionaire developer Richard LeFrak, who has been described as one of Trump’s closest friends, and heard about his complicated relationship with the president. He distanced himself from Trump’s response by saying it was “inappropriate” and out of line with his own beliefs — something many in the industry have shied away from. We’ve also gotten plenty of feedback from readers on our Trump coverage in general, both pro and con.

After dealmaking takes a hiatus during the summer, the fall is always the time of the year when the market shows its true colors, and this year is no exception. And not everyone is cheering for a strong showing.

Starwood chief Barry Sternlicht, for one, sees an upside to what he perceives as a significantly weak market in places like Billionaires’ Row, and says it will create opportunities for investors. “I think we kind of want a train wreck,” he said. “We like capital getting scarce.”

Speaking of contrarian takes, we’ve got the ultimate contrarian, Sam Zell, on the cover this month. The billionaire has been called “The Grave Dancer” for his ability to pick up distressed real estate, and he recently published a memoir titled “Am I Being Too Subtle?” As a Trump supporter, he’s been actively appearing on cable news shows of late, talking about how the administration’s proposed tax plan will boost the economy.

Elsewhere in this giant fall issue, we take a look at some of the recent lobbying successes of REBNY, examine inflated rents in the retail market and check in with the city’s real estate dynasties. We also track how New York City real estate stacks up to other global cities (pages 42 and 46).

Finally, for those who want to make their own (aboveboard) connections around the world, keep an eye out for our big events this fall: We’ve got our first-ever Los Angeles Showcase and Forum on Sept. 14, our big Miami show on Oct. 26 and our third-annual event in Shanghai from Nov. 2-4. Check out TheRealDeal.com/events for more info.

Enjoy the issue!

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