(Written by Nicholas Confessore, Karen Yourish, Steve Eder, Ben Protess, Maggie Haberman, Grace Ashford, Michael LaForgia, Kenneth P. Vogel, Michael Rothfeld and Larry Buchanan)
It was springtime at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, and the favor-seekers were swarming.
In a gold-adorned ballroom filled with Republican donors, an Indian-born industrialist from Illinois pressed Trump to tweet about easing immigration rules for highly skilled workers and their children.
“He gave a million dollars,” the president told his guests approvingly, according to a recording of the April 2018 event.(Follow US Election LIVE UPDATES here)
Later that month, in the club’s dining room, the president wandered over to one of its newer members, an Australian cardboard magnate who had brought along a reporter to flaunt his access. Trump thanked him for taking out a newspaper ad hailing his role in the construction of an Ohio paper mill and box factory, whose grand opening the president would attend.
And in early March, a Tennessee real estate developer who had donated lavishly to the inauguration and wanted billions in loans from the new administration met the president at the club and asked him for help.
Trump waved over his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. “Get it done,” the president said, describing the developer as “a very important guy,” Cohen recalled in an interview.
Campaigning for president as a Washington outsider, Trump electrified rallies with his vows to “drain the swamp.” But he did not merely fail to end Washington’s insider culture of lobbying and favor-seeking. He reinvented it, turning his own hotels and resorts into the Beltway’s new backrooms, where public and private business mix and special interests reign.
As president-elect, he had pledged to step back from the Trump Organization and recuse himself from his private company’s operation. As president, he built a system of direct presidential influence-peddling unrivaled in modern U.S. politics.
Federal tax return data for Trump and his business empire, which was disclosed by The New York Times last month, showed that even as he leveraged his image as a successful businessman to win the presidency, large swaths of his real estate holdings were under financial stress, racking up losses over the preceding decades.
But once Trump was in the White House, his family business discovered a lucrative new revenue stream: people who wanted something from the president. An investigation by the Times found more than 200 companies, special-interest groups and foreign governments that patronized Trump’s properties while reaping benefits from him and his administration. Nearly a quarter of those patrons have not been previously reported.
The tax records — along with membership rosters for Mar-a-Lago and the president’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, as well as other sources — reveal how much money this new line of business was worth.
Just 60 customers with interests at stake before the Trump administration brought his family business nearly $12 million during the first two years of his presidency, the Times found. Almost all saw their interests advanced, in some fashion, by Trump or his government.
It has long been known that Trump conducted official business at his properties, and those seeking help from his administration were not shy about advertising their access to the president’s realm. The Times’ compilation reflects a review of hundreds of social media posts by his patrons, many of whom enthusiastically documented their visits to Trump’s properties, as well as an array of published news articles.
But interviews with nearly 250 business executives, club members, lobbyists, Trump property employees and current or former administration officials provide a comprehensive account of how well Trump’s customers fared with his government — and how the president profited from his reinvented swamp.
In response to detailed questions about this article, a White House spokesperson, Judd Deere, issued a brief statement saying that Trump had “turned over the day-to-day responsibilities of the very successful business he built” to his two adult sons. “The president has kept his promise every day to the American people to fight for them, drain the swamp and always put America first,” he added.
Patrons at the properties ranged widely: foreign politicians and Florida sugar barons, a Chinese billionaire and a Serbian prince, clean-energy enthusiasts and their adversaries in the petroleum industry, avowed small-government activists and contractors seeking billions from ever-fattening federal budgets. Trump’s administration delivered them funding and laws and land. He handed them appointments to task forces and ambassadorships, victories as weighty as a presidential directive and as ephemeral as a presidential tweet.
Some of Trump’s patrons lost out to better-favored interests, to the chaos of his White House or to the president’s own fleeting attention span. Others are still pushing for last-minute victories. Many said in interviews that any favorable outcome from the administration was incidental to their patronage.
But whether they won or lost, Trump benefited financially. They paid his family business for golf outings and steak dinners, for huge corporate retreats and black-tie galas.
More than 70 advocacy groups, businesses and foreign governments threw events at the president’s properties that were previously held elsewhere or created new events that drove dollars into Trump’s business. Religious organizations did both, booking more than two dozen prayer meetings, banquets and tours, capitalizing on the president’s popularity with white evangelicals to bolster their own fundraising and clout. Until the pandemic, one well-connected lawyer hosted a monthly mixer, known as Trump First Tuesdays, attended by the president’s acolytes.
“These are sophisticated people, and they adapt to where the president is,” said Bryan Lanza, a Washington lobbyist who is close to the administration. He himself did not visit the properties often, Lanza said, but many others did — and for good reason.
“You are in the president’s comfort zone,” he said. “Mar-a-Lago, Bedminster. That’s where he goes to relax and recharge.”
Donors even paid for the privilege of giving money to his campaign and super political action committee. Trump attended 34 fundraisers held at his hotels and resorts, events that brought his properties another $3 million in revenue. Sometimes, he lined up his donors to ask what they needed from the government.
Others could catch him at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, where he liked to dine at the steakhouse — often served by a restaurant manager — or on weekends at Mar-a-Lago, where he liked to make an appearance at the day’s big event.
Chances were good he’d be around. The president has visited his resorts and hotels on nearly 400 days since his inauguration, according to a tally kept by the Times.
And Trump, both businessman and president, kept an eye on the properties run by the Trump Organization, now led by his sons Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. When the president stopped by the Washington hotel, he sometimes let managers know he was being briefed on their performance. “Eric tells me you’re doing a great job,” he would say, according to current and former administration officials. At Mar-a-Lago, he told longtime members that he ought to raise prices on the new crowd angling to join. Then he did — at least twice — bringing the initiation fee to $250,000, according to a membership application.
Eric Trump sometimes told his father about specific groups that had booked events at Mar-a-Lago, a former administration official said. And as Trump surveyed his business empire from the White House, he occasionally familiarized himself with details from club membership lists, according to two people with knowledge of the activity.
The Trump Organization did not respond to repeated requests for comment over the past week, nor did it respond to a detailed description of facts included in this article.
Instant Conflict of Interest
Before he took office, Trump made a pivotal decision about his sprawling business empire.
In January 2017, he rebuffed calls to divest his assets. Instead, he placed them in a trust with himself as beneficiary, claiming it would insulate him from conflicts, and put his eldest sons at the helm of the Trump Organization, promising they would not discuss business with him.
Those promises were quickly broken. Within weeks, Eric Trump backtracked, telling reporters that he would give his father quarterly updates. Later that year, he informed the president about an offer for the Trump SoHo hotel in Manhattan, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
At Mar-a-Lago, the president sometimes pressed workers on whether the club was doing well. “Are we full on the outside patio?” he would ask, according to current and former officials and company employees who observed some of his interactions. At his Washington hotel, which opened shortly before he took up residence at the White House, he would quiz managers on the banquet business.
He let his family know when he was displeased. At a Trump National Doral resort event this year, Trump complained that the club looked awful. He told Eric Trump to have a manager fired, according to a person familiar with the exchange.
Trump’s refusal to divest his properties created an instant conflict of interest on the day he was sworn in. At least two dozen customers who had already reserved events for 2017 and 2018 would have business before the administration, the Times found.
The tax records do not include every payment made to Trump’s properties. But a measure of additional revenue at Mar-a-Lago can be found in data kept by the town of Palm Beach, where charities must disclose the expected cost of their events. Groups with business before the administration have reported spending another $3.3 million on events held at Mar-a-Lago from 2017 to the present.
Business on the Fairway
Shortly after Trump’s upset 2016 win, David Storch, an Illinois aviation executive, became one of the first to step into Trump’s private world of politics and business.
A Mar-a-Lago member and mutual Trump friend had invited Storch to a round of golf the day before Thanksgiving at the nearby Trump International. They ran into Trump in the golf club’s dining room, one thing led to another, and soon they were off on the links — a sumptuous collage of fairways and water hazards abutting the Palm Beach County jail.
In the closing months of the Obama administration, Storch’s company, AAR Corp., had wrested from a rival a $10 billion contract to service State Department aircraft. The contract was to be the linchpin of AAR’s move into expanded government work. But as Trump took office, the competitor, DynCorp, was fighting the award in federal court.
DynCorp had a potentially powerful ally in the new president. It was owned by Cerberus Capital Management, whose billionaire co-founder Stephen A. Feinberg had donated generously to Trump’s election effort. Feinberg was in talks to take a senior administration role, while DynCorp would soon begin lobbying the administration to rescind AAR’s contract.
On Inauguration Day, Storch took to the new president’s favorite social media platform and tweeted a picture of their game. “Wishing you well Mr. President, @realDonaldTrump!” he wrote.
Over the next year, AAR quadrupled its annual lobbying expenditures, hiring two firms with close Trump ties. But it also made a less traditional play for influence, according to a lobbyist involved in the efforts: In 2017, AAR held an executive retreat at the Doral golf resort. The company returned again in June 2018, during the hot and rainy slow season, paying $120,746, records show. The following year, AAR held an event at Trump’s Chicago hotel. All were intended, the lobbyist said, to encourage the president to view the company favorably.
AAR kept its State Department contract, and the firm’s government work has continued to grow: Since Trump took office, AAR has announced 10 new federal contracts worth a total of $1.35 billion.
In the President’s Circle
Hardly anybody went to Trump’s clubs just to play golf with the president, or to take pictures with him, or to corner him in the dining room — not officially, anyway, and certainly not when asked about those encounters by the Times. But it happened a lot, especially at Mar-a-Lago, an expansive private residence that Trump had converted into a private club in the 1990s.
Trump kept quarters upstairs in the club’s main building, a complex of interlocking dining and sitting rooms generously adorned with gold leaf and antique Spanish tile. When visiting, he often came downstairs for meals, mixing with members and guests.
“People know and expect him to be at Mar-a-Lago, so they’ll bring a guest or come with a specific idea,” said Fernando Cutz, a former national security aide who often visited the club with Trump. “With that access, you could pitch your ideas. With this president, he’d actually listen and direct his staff to follow up.”
Over Trump’s presidential run and in the months leading up to his inauguration, Mar-a-Lago’s in-house magazine announced nearly 100 new members, a number of whom had significant business interests in Washington. The tax records show that in 2016 alone, initiation fees delivered close to $6 million in revenue. The president-elect took notice. During a New Year’s Eve party there, just weeks before he was sworn in, he told the crowd that he ought to raise fees on all the “fake people” trying to join.
Among the guests that night was Lev Parnas, an obscure Florida businessman and would-be movie producer who would help run a campaign to pressure Ukraine into investigating Trump’s political rivals. Parnas, who later broke with the president, recalled that guests laughed at the remark on new members. The next day, Mar-a-Lago’s initiation fee jumped to $200,000, an increase the club’s manager characterized as long in the works.
One new member, Elliot Broidy, a California businessman with a checkered past who had raised millions for the Trump campaign, joined Mar-a-Lago after the election. He told an associate that he viewed it as a way to increase access to the president. Separately, a court filing revealed this past week that he had been charged with conspiring to improperly lobby administration officials on behalf of a foreign client.
The Cardboard King
Anthony Pratt was the face of Australia’s richest family, presiding over a global recycled-cardboard and packaging empire. Like many in the blue-chip business world, he would become a late Trump devotee.
Over the years, Pratt had cultivated the image of a center-left philanthropist. He rubbed shoulders with Ted Turner and appeared at the Clinton Global Initiative, pledging $1 billion to fight climate change. Late in the 2016 campaign, Pratt even poked fun at Trump’s slogan.
“America is great, has always been great and will always be great,” he said in October 2016 on Fox News.
Pratt had gone on Fox that day to promote expanding the U.S. food industry, a major buyer of Pratt Industries packaging. Behind the scenes, he was preparing to roll out a “green jobs” initiative aligned with a future Clinton administration, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
But Pratt quickly adapted to the new regime. He cast his plans as a pro-Trump job creation campaign and began showering Trump with praise on Twitter and elsewhere.
In spring 2017, Pratt joined Mar-a-Lago. Around that time, he announced plans to invest $2 billion to create manufacturing jobs, mainly in the Midwest. He took out ads in The Wall Street Journal commending the president and appeared at least a half-dozen times on Fox channels, where hosts eagerly promoted his investment as proof of a Trump-driven economic rebirth.
The president gave his new ally privileged access. In fall 2019, the White House invited him to a state dinner for the Australian prime minister. Two days later, Trump appeared at the grand opening of Pratt’s plant in Ohio, a mingling of the men’s political and business interests. Speaking to The Australian this year, Pratt said he had told Trump he was building his next big plant in Pennsylvania.
“I know that is a big swing state, so we will see what happens,” Pratt said to the newspaper.
A Silent Partner
When Trump went to Washington, so did his company’s lobbyist.
A longtime Florida power broker and GOP fundraiser, Brian Ballard had gotten to know the president years earlier, pressing regulators and state officials on behalf of Trump’s Florida resorts. In early 2017, Ballard opened a Washington branch of his Tallahassee, Florida-based firm, hired new partners and began signing up corporate clients, oligarchs and foreign politicians looking to navigate the new administration.
Mar-a-Lago became something of a silent partner, yielding new clients and connections. One of the first — and most fraught — opportunities involved potential new business with Ukraine, a country that later landed at the center of the president’s impeachment trial.
The opportunity for Ballard arose soon after the election, when a senior Ukrainian government official dined at Mar-a-Lago with Parnas and briefly met Trump, video shows. That night, Parnas recalled, he and the Ukrainian discussed hiring Ballard.
The official, Roman Nasirov, soon hired Ballard through a law firm to “advocate” before the U.S. government, the contract shows. In a statement to the Times, Ballard said he had signed the contract with the understanding that he was also representing other investors and in the end was never asked to “do any work,” so he cut ties after two months. He still collected $200,000, according to documents and interviews, and had also offered to represent the government of Ukraine in Washington, though that business never materialized.
Last year, federal prosecutors in Manhattan subpoenaed Ballard’s firm for information about his relationship with Nasirov, who has been charged with corruption in Ukraine, and with Parnas, who is under federal indictment, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Ballard has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
When Trump raised money in Florida, it was usually at Doral or Mar-a-Lago, and Ballard was usually there, as a newly minted regional finance vice chair for the Republican National Committee. Trump’s club provided a salutary atmosphere for Ballard’s business.
At least two companies associated with Mar-a-Lago members have hired Ballard to help lobby the administration or for other work. About a half-dozen Ballard clients or entities closely connected with them also patronized Trump’s properties.
When Trump walked into his Washington hotel for dinner, word seemed to spread almost instantaneously.
While the president dined, fans might camp out at the hotel bar for hours, hoping for even a brief audience. Michel Rivera, who worked at the hotel until last year, was no fan of the president and recalled rowdy customers sometimes treating staff rudely. He let it go, Rivera said, because the money was so good.
“I was making $1,000 a night bartending,” he recalled.
Trump was making money, too. The National Automobile Dealers Association, for example, spent nearly $80,000 while using the hotel as a base for meetings with policymakers, according to the tax records obtained by the Times. (The organization said the site was “chosen after our meeting planners negotiated contracts that best met our needs.”)
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, an aviation school with campuses in Florida and Arizona, spent more than $75,000 as it was seeking approval of a bill that would remove a federal restriction on land owned by the university. It was signed by Trump in March 2019. Embry-Riddle declined requests to discuss its spending.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms trade group, paid the Trump hotel at least $62,000 in 2018. The following summer, the foundation co-hosted an annual conference there that was previously held at a nearby Grand Hyatt. This year, the president overturned a longtime federal ban on the overseas sale of silencers to private owners, a major win for gunmakers.
A foundation official, Lawrence G. Keane, said that the Hyatt, a four-star hotel, had been unable to accommodate the group’s conference and that the Trump hotel — a five-star establishment whose advertised room rates are often among the highest in Washington — offered the lowest prices.
“There were no other considerations,” Keane said. “Any suggestion by The New York Times to the contrary, as your questions insinuate, would be false.”
Bargain hunting was not the only reason people so often found their way to the Trump hotel.
The establishment drew a reliable crowd of Trump staffers, Cabinet secretaries and donors, like a MAGA-themed “Cheers.” Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. would stop by. So many Fox personalities showed up, according to a former employee, that the lobby at times was practically a green room.
Washington’s influence class flocked to join them. In early 2018, according to Facebook posts, John Willding, a lawyer at Barnes & Thornburg with business before the government, began hosting a monthly mixer that came to be known as Trump First Tuesdays. Hotel staff would reserve a corner of the room with a velvet rope. Rivera, the former bartender, recalled that some guests would run up bills as high as $30,000 on those and other nights.
The Chosen Hotel
Author, futurist and life coach Lance Wallnau is a man of firm beliefs. Wallnau, an evangelical, rejects the separation of church and state. He believes Black Lives Matter is “in cahoots with China.” In a recent Facebook video, he told followers that Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for vice president, had been sent by the devil to “take Trump out.”
Wallnau was equally sure of where to hold his 2018 motivational conference: the Trump hotel in Washington. “There’s a reason God calls us to certain geography at certain times,” he wrote in promotional materials. “God is building GARDENS of Eden in the midst of the concrete jungles of Babylon. I see this in Washington.”
He turned to Trump’s “majestic” hotel again the next year. “Anyone who goes there who has a modicum of spiritual discerning will tell you that place is like an angelic Grand Central Station,” he said in a video promoting the event.
Almost from the outset of the Trump presidency, the Washington hotel had been a hub of religious gatherings, fundraisers and tours — events that converted Trump’s most loyal voters into some of his most reliable customers. Patrons ranged from small outfits like Summit Ministries, a Colorado religious education group that paid $180,834 to host a donor conference in 2018, to major organizations like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, now run by Franklin Graham. It paid Trump’s hotel $397,602 in 2017, the tax records show, holding a closing banquet there during its World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians to accommodate an overflow crowd.
Prominent evangelical ministers were given VIP status at the hotel, according to former employees, with their names and pictures distributed to staff alongside those of senior Republican lawmakers and Fox luminaries. And they spent big at the BLT Prime steakhouse.
“Every week there was some kind of evangelical minister or megachurch pastor,” said Shawn Matijevich, the restaurant’s former executive chef, who declined to discuss the hotel’s inner workings because he had signed a nondisclosure agreement.
A Birthday Bash
To burnish his bona fides with the Trump crowd, Madhavan Padmakumar spent $10,000 to help throw a Mar-a-Lago birthday party for someone he had never met.
In March, Padmakumar, a New York information technology executive, arrived in town along with hundreds of other Trump supporters for a donor retreat.
Although the president assured guests that his administration had the coronavirus under control, the virus was already creeping under the club’s terra cotta roof. Several attendees would later test positive. By the end of the month, Mar-a-Lago would be forced to shut down, as would the restaurant and bar at his Washington hotel.
But Padmakumar’s $10,000 went to a different event that weekend: a birthday party for Kimberly Guilfoyle, girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr. and the campaign official in charge of the retreat. The party cost $50,000, according to two people familiar with the planning. Padmakumar’s donation got him a last-minute invite to the bash and his name announced as a sponsor.
Guilfoyle’s party had nothing to do with the donor retreat, party officials and her spokesperson would later say. Some of the guests may have been contributors, but they were also her friends, even if they had only just met her. When Donald Trump Jr. toasted his girlfriend, he joked that he would be following up with a solicitation, calling their guests “the people who have been there every time we have made a call, every time we made a request.”
Donor, member, old friend, new friend. In the tangle of Trump’s swamp, it could be hard to tell the difference. From one perspective, it didn’t really matter. Between the donor retreat and Guilfoyle’s party, the weekend brought more than $400,000 to Mar-a-Lago.
Trump got paid.
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