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ILYA MARRITZ: Uh, just a note before we get started. Producing investigations on a regular schedule is tricky, which is one reason you haven't heard from us in a while. This summer, we're working on more stories and you will hear from us every now and then, including an episode later this week following Robert Mueller's testimony.
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MARRITZ: Hello, and welcome to this Trump, Inc. podcast extra. I'm Ilya Marritz. Trump, Inc. is an open investigation into the business of Trump from ProPublica and WNYC.
Here's a story about how someone with no particular technical background or subject matter expertise managed to put himself in the middle of a vital national security issue — and we don't know what impact he might've had. It's a window into the way power and influence work in Trump's Washington.
ProPublica reporter Jake Pearson found a good friend of Donald Trump Jr. was able to meet with high-level government officials, again and again, on the future of wireless broadband technology also known as 5G.
JAKE PEARSON: 5G and mobile broadband is a resource that is going to touch — and does touch — everything we do. The future — not just of communication — but of war fighting. It's a driverless cars. It's machine learning. It's how devices talk to each other.
MARRITZ: It’s also a major national security concern.
PEARSON: Another way to think about 5G is a rivalry between the United States and China. The two biggest economies in the world are increasingly developing and trying to promote their own sort of plans to implement the technology faster than the other.
MARRITZ: And as this was happening, Don Jr.’s friend found a seat for himself at the policymaker’s table. And then, Jake learned, he found another seat for a friend of his — a guy with financial incentives to take a hard line on China.
MARRITZ: So, Jake. The government is trying to figure out how to deal with 5G this major point of tension with China. And you discovered that someone with not much qualification to be there managed to get into the room with policymakers discussing this stuff. He got access. How did you get interested in Tommy Hicks Jr.?
PEARSON: So I started this project in part because I'd been looking at Donald Trump Jr. and friends of his, and the ways in which his newfound prominence on the national stage was being interpreted by people close to him — people who had business interests.
And one of those people is this guy, Tommy Hicks Jr.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: [OVER APPLAUSE] And another one who's fantastic.
PEARSON: Tommy Hicks Jr. is a longtime friend of Donald Trump Jr.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: [OVER APPLAUSE] Tommy Hicks. Thank you, Tommy. Thank you. Thank you, Tommy. Great job.
PEARSON: Tommy Hicks is from Texas. He's the son of a very wealthy investor and former private equity maven of his time. And he is also —
MARRITZ: He’s also a “Jr.”
PEARSON: That's right. He's also a “Jr.,” and he's also a big hunter, as Donald Trump Jr. is, and the two have hunted together all over the world for years. Tommy Hicks Jr. has also been a prominent campaign fundraiser during the 2016 campaign and has sort of leveraged that prominence into a number of high-profile positions within sort of the Trump campaign world without being an official campaign employee.
MARRITZ: So this trail led you from Donald Trump Jr. to Tommy Hicks Jr., his hunting buddy, and then to another Texan, Kyle Bass. Who is he?
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PEARSON: Kyle Bass is a hedge fund manager in Dallas, and he makes big-dollar bets on world events and macro trends. Bass is most well-known for being among those who correctly predicted the housing crisis and bet against subprime mortgages.
MARRITZ: And made a lot of money doing it?
PEARSON: He made a lot of money doing it. In recent years, Bass has bet that China is going to face some serious economic problems and he's bet that its banking and credit system are gonna face real problems. Bass goes on TV all the time to talk about this.
KYLE BASS: Europe is definitely our ally, and China is definitely our enemy.
KYLE BASS: [ON THE PHONE, IN A DIFFERENT INTERVIEW] They’ve done so many things to the United States because we basically been a pacifist nation over many different administrations. And we're finally standing up and saying, “Listen, this has to change.”
PEARSON: And he's a long-time friend of Tommy Hicks Jr.
MARRITZ: So Donald Trump is sworn in in the beginning of 2017 as President, and that same year, Hicks is called upon to offer some help to his friend, Kyle Bass, the Texas hedge fund guy. What does he do?
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PEARSON: Tommy Hicks helps arrange a meeting at the Department of Treasury for Kyle Bass to present his views on China and its banking system to a high-level group of top-level officials from a bunch of different federal agencies.
There’s a top-level official from the Securities and Exchange Commission. There are career officials from Treasury. There's a top National Security Council official there, and others.
MARRITZ: Do you think that people in the room understood who they were hearing from, and that this person, Kyle Bass had a very significant financial stake in the stuff that he was looking at?
PEARSON: Yeah. Folks I have talked to were all generally aware that Kyle Bass had a bet on China, and the government has described it as what they're calling sort of a “listening-only session,” that they didn't divulge anything to him, and he wasn't told anything about coming actions or what have you.
The question — and we've talked to an ethics expert about it — is: was someone like Kyle Bass given sort of an opportunity that others were or not to try and influence policy-makers with respect to China, and how did the government handle it? What did they do to process the information?
And that's the ethical question in part.
MARRITZ: I can kind of see why a manufacturer or somebody who sells products to consumers — why the government would want to hear from someone like that. What is the reason that the government would want to hear from somebody who is essentially placing a bet on an economic trend?
PEARSON: You know, we quote a former NSC official in the story who was at the meeting saying essentially that “we” — meaning the government — needs to hear from those who are experts. You know, the point he makes also is that it's hard for them to sort of untie themselves, untangle themselves from their financial holdings, but that managers like Kyle Bass, with a bet on China, are the experts, and the government needs to hear from them.
MARRITZ: And what is Tommy Hicks Jr. an expert on?
PEARSON: I — I don’t know. I mean, he's a — he is a — a prominent person in Trump world politics. And I think that he obviously knows folks in that world. It's not a bureaucracy, but it is a world unto itself. And that has value.
MARRITZ: As far as we know, this is the only meeting that Kyle Bass gets, but the records you got through a Freedom of Information request show that Tommy Hicks Jr. — he continues to communicate with people in government.
PEARSON: For months in late ’17 and early ’18, the records show that Tommy is, uh, included on emails, attending meetings, organizing meetings, weighing in on policy about companies and technical capabilities with officials from the National Security Council, from different White House offices. And he sets up a meeting at the Commerce Department with Secretary Wilbur Ross.
MARRITZ: Are these meetings about China and broadband technology? Is that what it's about?
PEARSON: Yes, they are.
MARRITZ: And this is really where 5G matters. Why is that, exactly?
PEARSON: Kyle Bass has himself talked about 5G. He has said in a TV interview that it is a top priority, the, an important economic issue in U.S. and China relations.
So clearly he has an interest in the Chinese economy. We know this because of his bet. 5G is integral to economic outcomes, as well as national security ones. And in this way, there's sort of a confluence of interests.
MARRITZ: What do Tommy Hicks Jr. and Kyle Bass say?
PEARSON: Well, neither of them agreed to do an interview with me. In a statement, Tommy Hicks Jr. said that, yeah, he did take some meetings with government officials on issues that he believed in as a businessman, but that there was no thing untoward about it.
MARRITZ: And Kyle Bass?
PEARSON: Kyle Bass likewise declined to be interviewed about this and discuss specific answers. He did say that there was no corrupt intent behind his meeting with the Treasury officials.
MARRITZ: Have you talked with the Trump administration about these meetings?
PEARSON: Yeah, I have.
PEARSON: Well, uh, the administration has basically said that this was a listening-only session — this meeting at Treasury with Kyle Bass — that officials there didn't divulge anything, and that Kyle Bass didn't promote a particular policy position that he wanted them to take.
The government also says that they screen the officials who were there to make sure there were no conflict issues, but the administration has acknowledged that they didn't take a similar look at whether or not Hicks and Bass had a business relationship.
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MARRITZ: You write in your piece, quote, “Hicks is hardly the first private sector power broker to emerge in a presidential administration, but he may represent a new subspecies: the friend of the President's kid.”
PEARSON: Well, look, I think that he himself has made relationships. You know, his family was a — has been a big donor to Republican politics for years, and that he has sort of become a power broker in his own right. But certainly nobody disputes that his involvement in Trump world is a direct outgrowth of his long-time friendship with, uh, the President’s son.
MARRITZ: Earlier this year, Tommy Hicks Jr. got a new job —
REPORTER: We’re here with Tommy Hicks, who is the co-chair of the RNC —
MARRITZ: — working for Don Jr.’s father as co-chair of the Republican National Committee.
REPORTER: — and a close personal friend of the family.
TOMMY HICKS JR.: When he was inaugurated, I figured out that the fight had just started, and so I dropped everything once again, to …
PEARSON: He's the number two of the Republican party. And he appears to have only gained more access — or consistent access — within government and the Trump administration in a straight shot.
HICKS JR.: … and I've been incredibly impressed with the staff in the building and the campaign. It’s great to work with everybody.
PEARSON: You know, in April, he traveled to Taiwan with a delegation from the RNC and met with the president there. That is, in the context of China, significant, clearly because of Taiwan’s status, and he is involved on Twitter to promote the President's agenda, to gear up for the 2020 elections. And he, uh, by all accounts, is committed to four more years of President Trump.
MARRITZ: In your research, you learn some things about Tommy Hicks Jr that he probably would prefer people did not know. Uh, he was arrested when he was in high school for being part of a group that beat up a fellow student at a party. According to the victim of the attack, they were calling him “faggot.” The charge was eventually reduced to a misdemeanor. Hicks pleaded no contest. He went on to college — he went to the University of Texas, where his father is a major donor.
Jake, how did Tommy Hicks Jr. go from there to the top of the Republican party?
PEARSON: He, by all accounts, spent many years after high school and after college working for businesses run by his father, sports teams run by his father. He did a stint in a [PAUSE] investment banking firm that was a client of his father's. And he also — according to friends, and we talked to, I talked to dozens of folks — had a few incidents, many incidents, of acting sort of boring, actually, and acting inappropriately. People say now who know him that he's matured, that marriage and fatherhood has affected him, and that he is motivated to get into politics now out of a sense of patriotism. And that is what motivates them.
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MARRITZ: ProPublica’s Jake Pearson.
Trump, Inc. is an open investigation into the Trump family business. Send us your tips. It's tips@TrumpIncPodcast.org. We also have secure methods to communicate. Find out how at TrumpIncPodcast.org. And while you're there, sign up for our newsletter.
Meg Cramer is the Executive Producer of Trump, Inc. This episode was also produced by Alice Wilder. Bill Moss is the technical director. Thanks this episode also to Irene Trudel. The editors are Eric Umansky, Nick Varchaver, Andrea Bernstein, and Robin Fields. Schachter is the Vice President for News at WNYC. Steve Engelberg is the Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica. Original music by Hannis Brown.