National / Politics

Japan’s top government spokesman denies Trump asked Abe to ‘strongly consider’ giving casino license to one of his benefactors

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

The top government spokesman Thursday denied a report that U.S. President Donald Trump asked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2017 to “strongly consider” affording one of his biggest sponsors a license to operate a casino in Japan.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga responded tersely to the investigative report by U.S. nonprofit organization ProPublica during a regular press briefing, referring to Abe’s past denial in the Diet of the allegation.

“The prime minister responded to the matter before. That’s all I have to say,” Suga said.

According to the independent outlet, Trump, upon meeting Abe at his private Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in February 2017, surprised Japanese officials by abruptly mentioning a bid by his major benefactor and casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson — who runs Las Vegas Sands Corp. — to make a foray into the Japanese market.

In December 2016, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its pro-casino allies, amid fierce wrangling with the opposition, passed a broad bill to legalize casinos.

Abe “didn’t really respond” to Trump’s pitch and said “thank you for the information,” ProPublica quoted an unnamed source with knowledge of the meeting as saying.

If true, Trump’s push for Adelson, who is said to have contributed $20 million to his victorious election campaign in 2016, is “blatant” and “incompatible with the traditional norm of diplomacy,” said U.S. politics expert Kazuhiro Maeshima, a professor of international relations at Sophia University in Tokyo.

“That meeting with Abe in February 2017 also coincided with a deepening sense of urgency over the North Korea situation, meaning Japan was in a very vulnerable position security-wise and couldn’t really say ‘no’ to the U.S.,” he added.

“Taking advantage of Japan at difficult times like this and trying to negotiate the interest of a specific company deviates from America’s traditional attitude.”

At the same time, the professor said he wouldn’t be surprised if Trump — then just a month into his presidency — had the gall to comment on Adelson’s plans during his meeting with Abe.

“That would’ve been so Trump,” he said.

Meanwhile, a senior Japanese official close to Abe, speaking on condition of anonymity, took a dim view of the ProPublica report.

“There is no way (Trump) would have named a specific company in a summit meeting” with the prime minister, said the official, who was not present at the meeting.

This is not the first time Trump’s alleged backing of Las Vegas Sands during the 2017 meeting with Abe has come under scrutiny.

The influential Nikkei business daily reported in June 2017 that a smiling Trump congratulated Abe on the passage of the bill and said: “Hey Shinzo, do you know these companies?”

Trump, according to the daily, then went on to identify Las Vegas Sands and MGM Resorts International, another major casino operator, leaving Abe’s aides scrambling to take note of the names.

But Abe, when asked about this communication in a July session of an Upper House committee, flatly denied the Nikkei report, saying “such an exchange never took place between President Trump and me.”

Separately, Adelson himself “raised the casino issue” during a breakfast meeting between Abe and a small circle of American CEOs and business executives in Washington in February 2017, according to the ProPublica article, titled “Trump’s Patron-in-Chief.”

Abe, reflecting on this exchange, told the same Diet session that, although the American business community “welcomed” the legislative step Japan had taken toward casino legalization in December the previous year, they “never made what can be described as a petition to me.”

At least 13 companies, including giants like MGM and Genting, are reportedly vying for a casino license in Japan.

“Even though Sands is already a strong contender because of its size and its successful resort in Singapore, some observers in Japan believe Adelson’s relationship with Trump has helped move Las Vegas Sands closer to the multibillion-dollar prize,” the ProPublica article said.