WASHINGTON — President Trump proclaimed Tuesday “Religious Freedom Day,” but he spent the afternoon meeting with an authoritarian leader who has been accused of conducting a brutal campaign of repression against religious minorities and political opponents in his country.
Trump’s visit with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev on Tuesday included a working lunch and a sit-down in the Oval Office. According to the White House, Trump and Nazarbayev pledged to “strengthen cooperation on political and security issues, trade and investment” during their meetings. However, the White House would not say whether Trump urged him to adopt reforms or address human rights issues during the meeting.
After Nazarbayev arrived at the White House, the pair headed to the Oval Office where they praised each other. Trump called Nazarbayev “highly respected” and said he has “done a great, great job.” Through a translator, Nazarbayev said Trump’s first year in office has been “very productive” and that Trump “achieved a lot.”
Nazarbayev’s regime has been accused of abuses by a number of international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, which has said the country “heavily restricts freedom of assembly, speech and religion.” Kazakhstan has detained journalists, human rights activists, opposition politicians and one Teymur Akhmedov, a Jehovah’s Witness, who was accused of “incitement of religious hatred” and arrested last January. A 2016 U.S. State Department report said Nazarbayev’s government has “continued to arrest, detain and imprison members of religious groups.” The country is majority Muslim.
The White House also did not respond to questions about whether Trump would bring up Akhmedov’s case or allegations that detainees in Kazakhstan are tortured.
Trump’s meeting with Nazarbayev and his promise of increased ties between the U.S. and Kazakhstan also provoked questions about the president’s personal finances and alleged links to Kazakhstan.
When they finished speaking in the Oval Office, reporters in the room shouted questions, and one asked about allegations that illicit money from Kazakhstan made its way to a Trump property in New York City.
Last month, Bloomberg published a report noting family members of a former executive accused of laundering billions from a Kazakh bank bought condos in the former Trump SoHo, a hotel and residential high-rise in downtown Manhattan from which Trump’s name was removed in December. The piece also noted an ongoing civil lawsuit that alleged a Kazakh oligarch sent millions of dollars to a company that helped Trump develop the hotel.
“Mr. President, is there any Kazakh money in Trump SoHo?” a reporter asked.
“No idea. Really no idea,” Trump said.
Trump maintains ownership of the real estate company he ran before taking office, although after his election he handed off control to his two eldest sons. The Trump Organization has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the Kazakh money-laundering case.
Trump SoHo isn’t the only potential financial link between Trump and Kazakhstan. Last August, the New Yorker’s Adam Davidson wrote about a 2011 plan for a real estate development in the country of Georgia bearing Trump’s name. The project was partially funded by a Kazakh oligarch and Trump was reportedly paid $1 million for his involvement.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News about whether Trump has financial ties to anyone in Kazakhstan and whether his personal business dealings influenced his desire to strengthen relations with that country.
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