There was the contract with the president’s hotel to be reviewed. And there was also unfinished business with the White House — logistical issues posed by two guests from the administration, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and most important, the status of the video message and letter from President Donald Trump himself that the group wanted for the dinner.
“That is the gold standard,” said Kenda Bartlett, Concerned Women for America’s executive director. “If we can get that, the rest of this is just dressing.”
Staying at the Trump hotel or hosting an event in one of its ballrooms is hardly a guarantee of getting something in return from the Trump administration, or even getting on Trump’s personal radar. But many people like Bartlett have learned that it also does not hurt.
For a group like Concerned Women for America with its agenda of religious freedom and limiting abortion rights, for a lobbyist looking for a change in some federal regulation, or for a Republican candidate seeking donors, patronizing the hotel, the president’s Mar-a-Lago club or another of his properties has become a routine part of doing business in the Trump era. For some of the president’s supporters, it is even a way of giving thanks.
“President Trump has really been on the side of the evangelicals and we want to do everything we can to make him successful,” said Sharon Bolan Yerby, an evangelical minister from Dallas, who had dinner at the hotel last fall, and then headed over to the White House the next day for a “faith briefing” of religious leaders. “And if that means having dinner or staying in his hotel, we are going to do so.”
To ethics lawyers, the most extraordinary aspect about the daily merging of Trump’s official duties and his commercial interests both in Washington and around the world is that it has now become almost routine.
Since Trump became president, there have been thousands of visits to his properties, not only by Trump himself, but by foreign leaders, lobbyists, Republican candidates, members of Congress, Cabinet members and others with ties to the president. At least 90 members of Congress, 250 Trump administration officials and more than 110 foreign officials have been spotted at Trump properties since 2017, according to social media posts and counts by various watchdog groups.
“It reflects the normalization of corruption — this is just how business works in Trump’s Washington, D.C.,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit ethics group. “We have witnessed a stunning degradation of ethical norms.”
Federal Election Commission records, meanwhile, show that since January 2017, at least $5.6 million has been spent at Trump properties by political candidates or party organizations, including by Trump’s own political operation, according to an analysis by Public Citizen.
In the four years before Trump’s bid for president, these same hotels and other venues collected a total of only $119,000 in federally regulated payments from political groups.
The merging of interests became an issue this week when Pence, according to his chief of staff, spent two nights at the Trump International Golf Links and Hotel in Ireland at the suggestion of the president — even though he had a series of meetings on the other side of the country, a 181-mile car and helicopter ride away.
The episode took place only a matter of days after Trump, at the end of the Group of 7 meeting in southern France, suggested he might hold a summit of global leaders next year at the Trump National Doral Miami, one of his Florida resorts.
That prompted congressional Democrats to announce they would begin an investigation into the president’s promotion of his branded properties for government business and potential abuse of taxpayer funds to enrich the president.
“The committee does not believe that U.S. taxpayer funds should be used to personally enrich President Trump, his family and his companies,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, wrote in a letter to the White House.
Investigators are also examining the increased use by the Pentagon of an airport in Scotland for refueling stopovers, visits that might also have included stays by military crews at the nearby Trump Turnberry golf resort, as first reported by Politico.
But Trump has simply brushed off the criticism, noting that the business his hotels receive is simply a testament to the quality of the hospitality offered.
“People like my product, what can I tell you?” Trump said this week. “I can’t help it. But you know. And I guess they say, ‘We want to stay at a place that’s better than someplace else.’”
Omar Navarro, a Republican from California running for the House, has hosted fundraising events at the Trump National Golf Club in Los Angeles, and more recently set up a series of meetings with donors at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas. When he came to Washington this year for the Fourth of July, he stayed at the Trump International Hotel.
“When you have an event there or do something there, it signifies that you are supporting the president, and supporting what he is doing,” Navarro said. “It sends a clear message.”
Current and former White House officials insist they have never witnessed Trump making any explicit demand, or suggestion, that his Cabinet members or Republican allies stay at a Trump property or use one to host an event. But they have noted that a president who is extremely effective at communicating between the lines does not have to be explicit.
Trump, they said, spends more time talking about his properties in private than he does in public, and even as president, remains intimately involved with club minutiae, like knowing all the names on his Mar-a-Lago membership roll.
Anthony Scaramucci, for example, former White House communications director who lasted 11 days in the job, said that “no one pressured” him to stay for as much as $700 a night at the Trump hotel in Washington, where he lived during part of his short tenure.
But he said there do not need to be any marching orders from Trump or his inner circle for people to understand the potential benefits of being seen there.
“They’re conforming their behavior to what they think he would like,” Scaramucci said.
The pattern was set the weekend in January 2017 that Trump was sworn in and his inauguration committee paid the Trump Organization, the collective name for the president’s businesses, for rooms, meals and event space at the company’s Washington hotel, racking up a bill of $1.5 million for that event alone. (In this case, corporations and friends and allies of the president covered the cost of the inauguration.)
Various outside groups have at least tried to keep a running tally of all the events since then.
At least 90 members of Congress — including at least 26 of the 53 Republicans in the Senate — have made 188 or more visits to a Trump property, according to a count by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a newsletter that tracks social media detailing such visits called 1100 Pennsylvania, which is the address of the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
Another 250 Trump administration officials have been seen during at least 630 visits to Trump properties since 2017. And more than 110 officials from nearly 60 different foreign governments have visited a Trump hotel, golf course or other property, according to the count by CREW, as the group is known.
These visits to Trump venues include 24 of the 32 people who have served in Trump’s Cabinet. And that in a way understates the pattern, as a number of these Cabinet members have been to Trump properties again and again, like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has been spotted at a Trump-owned venue at least 21 times.
Since he was sworn in, Trump himself has spent 293 days at one of his family businesses — that is nearly a third of his time in office. These visits have generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal government payments to cover the lodging expenses of the Secret Service and other personnel who accompany him.
Trump’s hotel in Washington — which attracts by far the bulk of the spending by political groups that support the president — is one of the better performing assets in Trump’s portfolio. Last year, it generated $40.8 million in revenue, a small increase compared with 2017, even while overall revenue at the company declined.
Some of the biggest chunks in political spending since 2017 are from events held at the Washington hotel and sponsored by the Republican National Committee, as well as Protect the House, a fundraising committee supporting House Republicans, and America First Action, a super PAC affiliated with Trump.
Dozens of Republican candidates have held events at other Trump venues in New Jersey, Nevada, California, Florida, Virginia, New York and Illinois.
“If you’re a Republican, it’s a friendly place to go to see a lot of similar-minded people,” said Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary, who has stayed at multiple Trump properties in Washington, New York City and Chicago.
And sometimes just being there could help.
Judy Shelton, a Trump economic adviser, did a series of interviews from the Trump hotel in Washington, including one in which she suggested holding an international conference of financial leaders at Trump’s club in Florida. Not long afterward the president announced he intended to nominate her to the Federal Reserve Board.
Kirstjen Nielsen, the former homeland security secretary who never clicked with Trump, was a regular at a see-and-be-seen table at BLT, the restaurant in the Trump hotel. But it did not stop Trump from eventually firing her.
Departing White House staff members often choose the Trump International Hotel for their goodbye parties. There is even a monthly happy hour, Trump First Tuesdays, which draws dozens of lobbyists, business executives and political operatives.
The big events drive equally large payments to the Trump family.
The Concerned Women for America’s gala next week, for example, is expected to draw about 500 people to a ballroom dinner. But it will also fill up more than 100 rooms at the hotel that night, and result in countless other dollars spent at the bar, as the group celebrates its Trump-era victories, like the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
The president’s son Eric Trump said in an interview that the business coming to the Washington hotel and other company properties was not about politics.
“We have the best property in Washington D.C.,” he said Saturday. “People like the brand.”
Ethics lawyers said that even if the White House and the president were not overtly pressuring individuals seeking help from the federal government to visit a Trump brand, the pattern was still troubling.
“The danger from the beginning was less that the president would press people to stay at his hotel,” said Noah Bookbinder, a former federal prosecutor who is now executive director of CREW. “But people in the administration, congressional allies, industry executives, foreign government leaders — they see that the president reacts favorably to people doing business with him. So they do it.”
The visits that have drawn perhaps the most scrutiny are those by officials of foreign governments. Their frequency has led to allegations that Trump is violating the so-called emoluments clause of the Constitution by accepting foreign government funds.
The single biggest known tab was paid by the government of Saudi Arabia, which disclosed that it spent $190,273 at the Trump hotel in early 2017, as well as an additional $78,204 on catering.
The hotel has on an almost daily basis drawn visits from foreign officials. This week it was Imran Ismail, governor of a Pakistani province who was in Washington to meet with the State Department and members of Congress to discuss human rights issues in Kashmir, among other topics. The visit was first noticed by Zach Everson, who runs the 1100 Pennsylvania newsletter.
Jose Manuel del Gallego Romualdez, Philippine ambassador to the United States, explained his own reasoning for scheduling an event at the hotel last year.
“The Trump hotel may have some political undertones because it is associated with the U.S. president,” Romualdez wrote in a column in a Philippine newspaper. “But since several other embassies have also held their national day celebrations at the Trump hotel, which were well attended — I decided — why not do it there, too.”
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