by Eli Clifton
Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has, by multiple accounts, gotten much of what he wanted when he backed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign with a $35 million investment and emerged, alongside his wife Miriam, as the biggest donors to House and Senate Republicans in the 2016 election (and the upcoming midterms as well). Trump largely delivered on Adelson’s wish list: moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, reneging on U.S. commitments to the Iran nuclear deal, and appointing uber-hawk John Bolton as his national security advisor.
Indeed, most of Adelson’s publicly stated positions on U.S. policy mirror the wish list of Israel’s right wing Likud Party and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But, according to one recent report, Adelson’s influence over the Trump administration’s foreign policy might be put to a new test by a different country, China.
A U.S. trade war with China—which Trump instigated with a 25% tariff on Chinese goods worth $34 billion followed by another set of tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports after China retaliated in kind—could put U.S. casinos in Macau on a “geopolitical fault line.” That’s according to Steve Vickers, an 18-year veteran of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force’s criminal intelligence bureau who now runs a corporate risk consultancy in Hong Kong.
Vickers, who previously conducted risk analysis research for Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands, warned that:
The gaming sector in Macau is highly exposed. Any significant slowdown or fall in the yuan’s value may lead to Beijing’s further curbing of capital outflows, so dampening casino revenues. Moreover, three of Macau’s six gaming concessionaires are US companies, Las Vegas Sands (“LVS”), MGM, and Wynn Resorts; and LVS founder Sheldon Adelson boasts close ties to US President Trump. These companies now sit on a geopolitical fault line. Their Macau concessions can therefore be on the line.
Adelson’s track record of influencing Trump’s foreign-policy decisions, combined with his status as Trump and the GOP’s biggest donor, make him a likely target for Chinese efforts to find economic pressure points on the White House.
And Adelson has already shown a willingness to influence U.S. foreign policy in order to curry favor with Beijing to secure his business interests in Macau, the only place in China that permits casino gambling.
A 2004 lawsuit filed by Richard Suen, a Hong-Kong-based businessman, provided evidence that Adelson went to extraordinary lengths to kill congressional opposition to Beijing’s Olympic bid in order to secure his company’s casino license in Macau. Adelson, visiting Beijing in July 2001, allegedly made a call to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), then the House majority whip and a recipient of Adelson’s campaign contributions, during a meeting with the mayor of Beijing. The New Yorker’s Connie Bruck reported on the deposition given by Sands executive William Weidner. She wrote:
Weidner, in his deposition, described the relationship between DeLay—“a very religious guy”—and Adelson. “The link between Sheldon Adelson and right-wing religious Christians is the commonality of a strong Israel,” he said. “So it just happens to be Sheldon has taken Tom DeLay to Israel and he’s a friend.” DeLay told Adelson that he supported the resolution because of his concern about China’s record on human rights but added that he would be discussing the legislative agenda shortly. “Sheldon folds his cell phone up and says to the mayor of Beijing, ‘I’m going to do my best,’” Weidner said. “About three hours later DeLay calls and he tells Sheldon, ‘You’re in luck,’ ” he continued, “ ‘because we’ve got a military-spending bill….We’re not going to be able to move the bill, so you tell your mayor that he can be assured that this bill will never see the light of day.’ So Sheldon goes and he goes to the mayor and he says, ‘The bill will never see the light of day, Mr. Mayor. Don’t worry about it.’” Weidner also instructed the Sands’s lobbyists in Washington, Patton Boggs, to suggest to the Chinese Embassy that Adelson and Las Vegas Sands were involved in the process that stalled the bill.
A lot has changed since 2001, and Adelson’s dependence on good relations with Beijing has only increased. Las Vegas Sands’s operations in Macau posted $2.16 billion in net revenues in the first quarter of 2019.
Sands is open about its dependence on Mainland Chinese gamblers at its Macau properties. Sands’s COO, Robert G. Goldstein, told an April 23 earnings call:
Macao has become a full-blown destination, has worked for China far beyond Guangdong and far beyond Hong Kong. The penetration into China is growing and growing and finding younger and more affluent customers who find Macao a compelling destination.
As Adelson’s business empire shifts its focus to Asia with the 2007 opening of its largest casino in Macau, The Venetian, and the 2010 opening of the Singapore Marina Bay casino in 2010, the GOP megadonor’s financial success is increasingly tied to a steady flow of gamblers and money out of China.
If Trump’s trade war with China continues, it’s increasingly worth asking, as Vickers has done, how Adelson might be targeted and pressured to bring the president he helped elect to heel.