Behind the lobbyists who drew Trump to Vietnam

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US President Donald Trump stands before a Vietnamese flag during an arrival ceremony in Hanoi, November 12, 2017. 
Photo: AFP/Jim Watson

The Washington-based lobbying firm hired by a major Vietnamese military-run company to promote its defense-related interests is at the center of legal proceedings brought against a close associate of US President Donald Trump.

Stephen Ryan, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, a law firm that lobbied on behalf of a Vietnamese military-run company between September 2017 and February 2018, also serves as the personal lawyer of Michael Cohen, Trump’s now embattled personal attorney.

Cohen is accused of various financial crimes, including allegations of bank fraud, as well as association with allegations of Russia’s involvement in Trump’s winning presidential campaign in 2016.

Jeff Miller, another associate at McDermott Will & Emery who has lobbied on behalf of the Vietnamese military, is widely tipped to be named as Trump’s next Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, a government agency that provides healthcare services to Vietnam War and other military veterans.

The lobbyist ties have come to light amid increased scrutiny of Trump’s connections with foreign governments. They also come against the backdrop of new evidence revealed last month that show Trump’s close associates were behind efforts to forge strong relations between Trump and the Vietnamese government during his presidential transition period.

FILE PHOTO: Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's personal attorney, looks on as his attorney (not pictured) delivers a statement to reporters after meeting with Senate Intelligence Committee staff on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein/File Photo

Michael Cohen, US President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Aaron P Bernstein

In September 2017, Viettel Group, Vietnam’s largest telecoms provider which is wholly owned and operated by Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense, retained two Washington-based law firms to lobby for improved defense ties between the two former battlefield adversaries.

McDermott Will & Emery was paid $40,000 per month between September 2017 and February 2018 for its lobbying services. Dowell Pham Harrison, another Washington-based law firm, was paid US$10,000 per month between September 2017 and January 2018. It remains unclear if these contracts were renewed when they expired earlier this year.

Both firms worked “in coordination” and were tasked with advocating on behalf of the Vietnamese military-run firm with “members of Congress and their staffs regarding Vietnamese defense-related interests,” according to files released under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) reviewed by Asia Times.

The lobbying contracts also specified meetings with members of the executive branch. In particular, the law firms “provided advice and analysis” to Viettel Group ahead of Trump’s visit to Vietnam last November, when he attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit. Records show the lobbyists also spoke to members of the media.

It is not completely clear whether this lobbying has influenced Trump’s relationship with Vietnam, which has been on a notable upward trend since he became president in January 2017. Last May, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc became the first Southeast Asian leader to visit Trump’s White House.

President Donald Trump welcomed Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam, at the West Wing Portico (North Lawn) of the White House, On Wednesday, May 31, 2017. (Photo by Cheriss May) (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto)

President Donald Trump welcomes Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to the White House, May 31, 2017. Photo: NurPhoto/Cheriss May

In fact, Phuc was one of the first world leaders Trump spoke to after his election victory. Phuc and then president-elect Trump had a telephone call in December 2016, which allegedly went against the normal conventions of incoming US presidents.

The call was partly arranged by another of Trump’s long-time attorneys, Marc Kasowitz, according to a recently published article by ProPublica, an investigative journalism organization.

Kasowitz is also the representative of Philip Falcone, an American investor who owns a US$450 million casino complex outside Ho Chi Minh City. The report said that Kasowitz traveled to Vietnam with Falcone after Trump’s phone conversation with Phuc in December. The pair met with government officials to lobby for gambling law reform, the ProPublica report said.

Falcone’s resort, the Grand Ho Tram Strip, which includes hotels, a golf course and gargantuan casino, is reportedly struggling to turn profits as Vietnamese citizens are currently banned from gambling within their country. At present, the casino is only allowed to cater to foreigners.

Although Hanoi is currently piloting a three-year program where wealthy Vietnamese can gamble in select domestic casinos, the Grand Ho Tram Strip is not known to be among the trial casinos, despite reported lobbying efforts by its owners.

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Promotional photo of Grand Ho Tram casino-hotel complex in Vietnam. Photo: Facebook

Months before the US presidential election in 2016, Falcone appointed two new associates onto the board of his casino company. The first was Tony Podesta, the veteran lobbyist and brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager.

Between 2016 and 2017, Podesta Group, a firm he operated until last year, lobbied American lawmakers on behalf of the Vietnamese government in contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Before that, it had been paid to lobby in Washington lawmakers by the Vietnamese embassy in the US.

The other was Loretta Pickus, the former vice president of legal affairs at Trump Entertainment Resorts, Trump’s now-defunct gaming and hospitality firm.

Michael Kelly, the chairman and chief executive officer of Asian Coast Development Limited, Grand Ho Tram Strip’s parent company, reportedly managed a joint partnership project with Trump Entertainment Resorts between 1996 and 2004.

In January, Kelly was elected the new chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Hanoi, a business lobbying group.

However, lobbying contracts reviewed by Asia Times raise the possibility of even closer relationships between Trump’s close associates and military-run Viettel Group.

US President Donald Trump (L) and Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang (R) attend a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi in Hanoi on November 12, 2017.Trump told his Vietnamese counterpart on November 12 he is ready to help resolve the dispute in the resource-rich South China Sea, which Beijing claims most of. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / KHAM

US President Donald Trump at an honor guard welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, November 12, 2017. Photo: AFP/Kham

In January, Viettel Group was renamed Viettel Military Industry and Telecoms Group by Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party. The restructuring acted to expand the business group’s focus on defense programs.

Viettel Group’s telecoms unit is active in Asia, Africa and the Americas, where it holds considerable market share in almost a dozen countries’ telecoms sectors. The company reportedly turned a US$18.4 billion profit in 2016.

At the same time, Viettel Group has been accused of abetting surveillance of human rights defenders in autocratic nations where it operates. Vietnamese human rights activists who requested anonymity said their communications over Viettel-owned networks have been interfered with and, they alleged, handed over to government agencies.

“Viettel is precisely the sort of company that raises a red flag when it comes to protecting freedom of expression and media freedom in Southeast Asia,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

“No military should be involved in owning a cellular phone network because it creates unlimited opportunities for surveillance and interception of phone and SMS communications,” he added.

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A Viettel office front in Vietnam. Photo: Twitter

Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense is now driving to improve defense trade relations with the US after Washington lifted its ban on the sale of lethal arms sale to Vietnam in 2016. The ministry-owned Viettel’s US lobbyists were commissioned specifically to promote “Vietnamese defense-related interests.”

Arms experts say that Vietnam is keen to reduce its reliance on Russia, its long-time arms supplier, by procuring more US weaponry. Vietnam is believed to be in the market for better quality American-made arms and technology, especially for maritime surveillance.

Vietnam recently purchased Boeing-Insitu ScanEagle drones from the US, according to a report by Defense News, an industry publication

While Viettel Group has a US-based subsidiary, VTA Telecom Corp, official documents filed by the two lobbying firms name both VTA Telecom Corp and Viettel Group as the “foreign principal,” listing both the American and Vietnamese addresses of the companies.

Documents released under FARA in March name attorney Ryan as the representative who met with several US Department of Commerce staff members on behalf of Viettel Group.

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American attorney Stephen Ryan, a partner at Washington’s McDermott Will & Emery law firm. Photo: Facebook

These included three separate meetings with Douglas Hassebrock, director of the department’s Office of Export Enforcement, which is tasked with investigating sales of weapons and arms to foreign nations, among other responsibilities.

In June 2017, months before starting his lobbying work for Viettel Group, Ryan was hired as a lawyer by Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney.

This stemmed from Cohen’s inclusion in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian connections to Trump’s presidential campaign.

Cohen’s close relations with Trump date back to the mid-2000s; he has held several positions within Trump’s numerous organizations and has acted as Trump’s attorney for several years.

Cohen is also being investigated over reportedly paying US$130,000 in “hush” money to adult entertainment actress Stormy Daniels, with whom Trump is alleged to have had an affair before the presidential election. There are allegations that Cohen paid this money on behalf of Trump. Ryan has represented Cohen in both of these legal matters.

Adult-film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, speaks as she departs federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERSLucas Jackson

Adult-film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, speaks to media in New York City, April 16, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

Last week, it was reported that the Trump campaign contributed roughly US$228,000 towards Cohen’s legal expenses, which allegedly included three payments made between October 2017 and January 2018 for “legal consulting” to McDermott Will & Emery.

If true, this would mean that Trump’s campaign team had paid Ryan’s firm at the same time as he was lobbying lawmakers and department officials on behalf of the Vietnamese military-run company.

“It is not particularly unusual for a corporation or organization to hire a lobbyist who has ties to those in power,” said Thomas Holyoke, a professor of political science at California State University, Fresno, and author of the book “The Ethical Lobbyist.”

However, Holyoke added, if Ryan was working on legal matters for Trump’s attorney and lobbying the president’s administration at the same time, then “this sounds like a possible conflict of interest.”

“Can Mr Ryan ethically work with Mr Cohen, who may be trying to put distance between himself and the president, while at the same time try to cultivate a relationship with the [Trump] administration on behalf of the Viettel Group?” Holyoke questioned.

Ryan did not respond to Asia Times’ requests for comment. There is no evidence that Ryan has ever personally met Trump, nor of any public business dealings between Viettel Group and the Russian government.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense, which wholly owns and controls Viettel Group, does have relations with the Russian military, dating back to their close Cold War era ties. In April, Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich visited Russia to reaffirm the still strong relationship.

US President Donald Trump participates in a veterans meet and greet on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 10, 2017.World leaders and senior business figures are gathering in the Vietnamese city of Danang this week for the annual 21-member APEC summit. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON

Donald Trump meets with American war veterans at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit in Danang, November 10, 2017. Photo: AFP/Jim Watson

Trump’s connections to McDermott Will & Emery run even deeper. In April 2017, former Republican congressman Jeff Miller joined the law firm; he officially registered as a lobbyist working on behalf of Viettel Group in September last year.

He is prohibited from lobbying congressman and senators until early 2018, given his previous position in Congress, though he is allowed to lobby executive branch officials.

At the time of his appointment, Ryan publicly said that Miller’s familiarity with the Trump administration “will be of great value to clients.” Miller reportedly spent considerable time with Trump during his transition period.

Now, it is likely that Trump will soon name Miller as the next Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the government’s second largest department, after Miller met with White House officials on May 2.

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