A businessman-president transplanted favour-seeking in Washington to his family's hotels and resorts — and earned millions as a gatekeeper to his own administration.
It was springtime at President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, and the favour-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.
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 favour-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 Organisation and recuse himself from his private company's operation. As president, he built a system of direct presidential influence-peddling unrivaled in modern US 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 patronised 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 US$12 million ($18 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-favoured 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 favourable 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 organisations 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 Organisation, now led by his sons Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. When he stopped by the Washington hotel, the president 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 US$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 the president surveyed his business empire from the White House, he occasionally familiarised himself with details from club membership lists, according to two people with knowledge of the activity.
The Trump Organisation 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.
Midway through the president's term, Mar-a-Lago added a notable new member: Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist whose long association with the Trump Organisation had helped turn his upstart Washington office into one of the fastest-growing on K Street. As a presidential confidant, Ballard was a frequent guest at Mar-a-Lago. But he had never joined, a fact that drew notice in the president's circle.
In an interview, Ballard said that he had become a member "because it's simply the best club in the world." Both he and a White House spokesperson said Trump had played no role in his decision to join Mar-a-Lago. The only person who might have influenced him, Ballard said, "is my 85-year-old mother, who loves it when I take her to dinner there."
But according to two people Ballard later told of his decision, there was another explanation: The president's wishes had been made clear to him — and he needed to ante up.
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 Organisation, 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, Trump 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, he 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.
There were financial institutions like Morgan Stanley, which paid at least $156,882 to hold a conference at the Washington hotel in 2017, the tax records show, and large government contractors like Deloitte, which spent at least US$347,529 for a conference there that June. A Washington trade group, the Food Marketing Institute, paid Doral US$1.2 million for conferences in 2018 and 2019. All three organisations told the Times that the events had been booked long in advance.
Trump benefited even when events fell through. In 2017, when the American Association of Nurse Practitioners backed out of a planned conference at Doral — a spokesperson cited budgetary reasons — it owed a cancellation fee of nearly US$100,000.
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 US$3.3 million on events held at Mar-a-Lago from 2017 to the present.
Just belonging to one of Trump's clubs could give members an inside track on administration policy. Trump consulted them on US-Chinese relations and veterans' health care. He offered five members ambassadorships and appointed others to advisory roles in his administration. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick — who a spokesperson said was a nonpaying honorary member at Mar-a-Lago — joined the President's Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition.
And Trump was not one to forget a deal, a club member or a business partner.
When he summoned restaurant executives to the White House in May to discuss the pandemic, they included Tilman Fertitta, a billionaire who had once operated a Rainforest Cafe in a Trump casino. Fertitta complained that bad publicity had forced him to return millions of dollars in federal aid intended to help strapped small businesses, according to a White House transcript. He asked that the administration create a second fund "for the larger private restaurateur."
No such fund would materialise, but Trump turned to his treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin. "Steve, what do you think about that?" he asked.
When Mnuchin was noncommittal, Trump praised Fertitta. "You've paid me rent for a long time," he said, adding that Fertitta had never missed a payment.
"Steve," he said, "it's an interesting case. OK? Do the best you can."
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 US$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 favourite 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 US$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 favourably.
In an interview and statement, Storch, now AAR's chair, acknowledged that his company had booked Trump properties. Like most companies and executives contacted by the Times, he said the selections had been based on price, amenities and availability.
"We have never felt pressured to do any one specific thing to separate ourselves from our competitors," Storch said. 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 US$1.35 billion.
His golf game, Storch said, was purely social. "I was not aware that President-elect Trump would be at the club, nor was I expecting the president-elect to join our group on the course."
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."
In spring 2017, two former Colombian presidents arrived as a member's guests, a diplomatic coup that humiliated the country's incumbent president. When news of the meeting leaked, White House aides had to pull security footage to verify that it had taken place, according to Cutz. Another time, a member approached Cutz with a one-page plan for Middle Eastern peace.
"You have these — to put it bluntly — these randoms walking among you," said Cutz, who also worked under the Obama administration and left in spring 2018.
There were "randoms" and others everywhere when the president visited, including chief executives, Republican lawmakers and lobbyists seeking entry into his inner circle.
"Once he became president, everyone wanted to be around him," said Jeff Greene, a Florida real estate developer who remained a member even after a public spat with Trump. It wasn't influence-peddling, Greene said. "People like to be where presidents are."
Mar-a-Lago was unlike other Palm Beach clubs. Members paid Trump to spend time at what was, ultimately, his home. During meals, people would line up at his table. Guests, even paying members, had a habit of thanking Trump for having them over.
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 US$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 US$200,000, an increase the club's manager characterised 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.
Dr. Jeffrey P. Feingold, a leading Trump donor, joined in 2017, according to the records obtained by the Times. That same year, his dental benefits firm MCNA would hire a Trump-linked lobbyist to pitch a deal to federal Medicare and Medicaid officials. (It never materialised, according to an executive.) Trump later appointed Feingold, who is active in Jewish causes, a trustee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
When Parnas sought entree into the president's orbit, he asked an official at Trump's super PAC, America First, how to join the Florida club. The official, Joseph Ahearn, told Parnas he might receive a call from Feingold, "who wants to meet you for lunch at mar a lago to discuss membership," a text message shows.
Parnas got an application from the club's general manager, he said, though his interest dimmed and he never met with Feingold. He said that other Trump associates continued to raise the idea of joining, hinting that the president's family would help expedite his application.
By then, the initiation fee was up to US$250,000. Parnas could not actually afford it, he said.
The cardboard king
Anthony Pratt could afford it.
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 US$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 US 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. His spouse, Claudine Revere, an American whose company runs catering at the Trump-operated skating rink in New York, donated US$1 million to the inauguration, which Pratt attended.
In spring 2017, Pratt joined Mar-a-Lago. Around that time, he announced plans to invest US$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.
Pratt seemed to enjoy showing off his proximity to the president. Trump was at Mar-a-Lago when Pratt had dinner there with a reporter from The Australian Financial Review, waxing about the president's 2017 corporate tax cut. The legislation had accelerated write-offs for capital expenditures and helped boost Pratt's personal wealth by about US$2 billion, according to the publication's estimate.
To push for expanded food production and exports, Pratt ingratiated himself with Sonny Perdue, Trump's agriculture secretary. Mar-a-Lago provided one means of doing so, according to correspondence obtained by the liberal watchdog group American Oversight. After spending the holidays there in late 2017, Pratt emailed the agriculture secretary a video of Trump extolling Pratt at a New Year's Eve party.
At Mar-a-Lago the next day, Pratt convened a roundtable that he characterised on Twitter as part of the Global Food Forum, an annual Wall Street Journal conference that he has co-sponsored. The event included Lou Dobbs from Fox Business and William Lewis, then the chief executive of Dow Jones, which publishes the newspaper.
A Journal spokesperson said it was not part of the forum but a private event created by Dow Jones' branded-content agency. A spokesperson for Perdue said that the two men had been friends before the Trump presidency and that it was "bizarre" to suggest anything improper.
When contacted in July, Pratt grew uncharacteristically tight-lipped. After requesting written questions from the Times, an executive representing Pratt declined to discuss his relationship with the president or make Pratt available for an interview.
But he was forthright last October.
"The key thing about being a member," Pratt told an Australian audience, according to The Australian Jewish News, "is that I see President Trump two or three times a year, and each time I would tell him about our manufacturing business."
He added, "My early support resonated with Trump, who takes things very personally, and he remembers it."
As a businessman, Trump had also spoken openly about the advantages of supporting influential politicians and his appreciation of the transactional nature of the relationships. "I give to everybody," he explained at a Republican primary debate in 2015. "When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them; they are there for me."
A silent partner
When Trump went to Washington, so did his company's lobbyist.
A longtime Florida power broker and GOP fundraiser, 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 US 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 US$200,000, according to documents and interviews, and had also offered to represent the government of Ukraine in Washington, though that business never materialised.
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.
Once, when the president of the Dominican Republic needed to reach US policymakers, Ballard called the Mar-a-Lago member Trump was preparing to install as US ambassador there. Another time, the ambassador of Kosovo wanted to remind Trump of a summit request, and Ballard was able to buttonhole Trump at his club.
In an interview, Ballard dismissed the idea that his Mar-a-Lago membership or patronage of the president's properties had played a role in making him "the most powerful lobbyist in Trump's Washington," as Politico called him in 2018.
Mar-a-Lago was "a wonderful place," Ballard said. "I'd enjoyed going there over the past few decades. I've never thought of it in some strategic way. Frankly, it's almost ridiculous."
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 patronised Trump's properties.
One of them was the GEO Group, a private prison operator based in Boca Raton, Florida, that was eager to expand its federal contracting. GEO donated generously to a super PAC backing Trump and gave US$250,000 to his inauguration. It also hired Ballard in early 2017, as GEO was seeking to have the administration overturn a policy limiting the use of commercial prison beds. That fall, GEO moved its annual leadership conference to Doral.
GEO's connections to Trump's properties went even deeper. The tax return data obtained by the Times shows that the company paid at least US$32,100 to Mar-a-Lago during the first two years of the administration as GEO came under fire for operating migrant family detention centers under a federal contract.
The company's founder, George C. Zoley, also frequented the Trump hotel in Washington, according to a person who met with him there.
During one meeting in 2018, Zoley told the business associate that he viewed the administration as "transactional." Gesturing at the hotel lobby, he said it helped to be seen there, according to the associate, who requested anonymity because the conversation was private.
A GEO spokesperson did not respond to questions from the Times.
Soon after GEO hired Ballard, the Justice Department rescinded the limit on private prisons. Indeed, the company's business with the federal government has soared: It received about US$900 million from contracts in the most recent fiscal year, compared with about US$500 million in the last year of the Obama administration, according to USASpending.gov.
In April 2018, Ballard traveled to Mar-a-Lago for a high-dollar event with Trump: a pair of roundtables with the RNC and the congressional Republicans' campaign arm.
Ballard was there in his capacity as an RNC finance official, but his lobbying business was also well represented: Of the 11 guests, more than half had connections to him or his firm. Three were clients: a pair of Syrian American activists who pushed Trump — successfully — to take a harder line against Syria's brutal dictator, and the top government affairs official of US Sugar, a major Florida producer with a stake in Mexican trade negotiations.
Another guest at the event, Indian-born industrialist Shalabh Kumar, said Trump was a welcoming host. During Trump's run for office, Kumar and his family had donated more than US$1 million and organised a group to turn out Hindu voters.
Kumar was not a Ballard client, but he also wanted something: for Trump to extend permanent residency to the adult children of highly skilled workers with long-term visas, who have had difficulties because of a green card backlog for their parents.
"You could request whatever topic you wanted to talk about — taxes, foreign policy," Kumar recalled.
He had come prepared. Kumar pulled out a notebook and showed the president the draft of a proposed tweet about addressing the adult children problem.
"Pretty good," Trump said. He tore out the page and put it in his pocket, Kumar said. That precise tweet never came, but a different one arrived that winter, which Kumar welcomed as support for the cause, though the administration's policies remain unchanged.
"Mr. President, we all loved your tweet," Kumar later said to cheers at a rally he led outside the White House. "Our hearts were filled with joy."
A donor seizes the moment
There were other guests at Mar-a-Lago that day. One of them, Franklin Haney, needed billions of dollars from the Trump administration.
In the waning days of the Obama presidency, Haney, who had made a fortune leasing office space to the federal government, had struck a deal to buy an unfinished nuclear plant in Alabama. To complete it, he was seeking close to US$5 billion in loans from the Energy Department. After Trump was elected, he contributed US$1 million to his inauguration, and to help the project along, he hired Cohen, the president's fixer.
The two men had met in March 2018 during a previous fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago. Cohen was then the RNC's deputy finance chair, and Haney was expected to make a generous donation to a joint committee operated by the RNC and the Trump campaign.
Cohen at the time was caught in an unfolding crisis: He was under investigation by the special counsel in the Russia inquiry and under scrutiny for facilitating a hush-money payment to a pornographic film actress who claimed to have been a paramour of Trump. A month earlier, he told the Times that he had personally paid the actress US$130,000 and strongly implied that Trump was not involved.
When Trump entered the room that March, he gave his embattled lawyer a shout-out, thanking him for being there.
Soon, Haney found an opening with the president. He told him that his project was stalled at the Energy Department and that approving it would create thousands of jobs.
According to Cohen, Trump brought him over to the conversation and told Haney to speak to him, adding, "He's my guy." (Cohen spoke to the Times in a brief interview about his book, "Disloyal: A Memoir.")
In early April, Haney signed Cohen to a US$150,000-per-month contract.
Although the contract said Cohen would not engage in lobbying, he was free to check on Haney's loan application. Cohen was highly motivated to do so because the contract — a copy of which the Times obtained — promised him not only a US$10 million success fee but also a share of the project's future profits if Haney secured full financing. Cohen's monthly fee and potential profit share have not been previously reported.
Cohen contacted Brian McCormack, the energy secretary's chief of staff, several times in subsequent months. He specifically stated that the president wanted the project to move forward. But McCormack was unresponsive to the entreaties, according to a person familiar with the discussions, because of financing concerns and questions about who would buy the plant's electricity.
By the time Haney returned to Mar-a-Lago during the April roundtable, Cohen's star was dimming. Federal agents had raided his office on a referral from the special counsel. That summer, when Cohen signaled he would cooperate with investigators, Trump lashed out at him on Twitter. The following month, the Journal reported on the existence of Haney's contract with Cohen and the promised US$10 million reward.
Haney and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment. Last year, Haney told a Memphis newspaper that Trump had played no role in his hiring of Cohen and said he had severed the contract after Cohen's legal troubles mounted.
He did not give up, however. He merely switched horses, hiring Texas-based lobbyist Roy Bailey, who had served as a top fundraising official for the president's inauguration and later America First, the Trump super PAC.
Last year, federal regulators approved Haney's transfer of construction permits from the nuclear plant's previous owner. A spokesperson for the Energy Department declined to comment on Bailey's discussions with officials there or on the status of Haney's loan application.
In a March letter to regulators, Haney's company said it was "confident that the remaining items can be resolved and a conditional commitment secured in the near future."
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 US$80,000 while using the hotel as a base for meetings with policymakers, according to the tax records obtained by the Times. (The organisation 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 US$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 US$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."
A similar explanation was offered by Star Parker, founder of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, a think tank that promotes conservative solutions to problems affecting poor communities. For years, Parker's group booked its summit for Black pastors at other Washington hotels. And for just as long, her group was largely ignored by presidents from both parties.
But Trump was different. His team invited Parker to the White House and later sought her input on urban policymaking initiatives, she said. Not long after, Parker decided to move the summit to the Trump hotel over the objection of some of the pastors, who worried about political blowback.
"The Trump hotel opened and had incredible pricing," Parker said. The pricing was still good last year, and the pastors more enthusiastic, when the annual summit returned. This time, the event included a briefing at the White House.
"To be able to see people in leading positions and decision-makers actually handing out their cellphone numbers to the clergy?" Parker said. "It was a time of great unity and appreciation."
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 US$30,000 on those and other nights.
Some scandal-wracked Trump associates were among the hotel's regular visitors. Over the 16 months he led the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt and his staff went there for quick meetings, for coffee at Starbucks and for dinners, often with the people he was charged with regulating, according to emails released as part of a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club.
One evening in March 2017, lobbyist Dave Bockorny bumped into Pruitt's executive assistant. The assistant soon helped arrange a meeting between Pruitt and one of Bockorny's clients, a firm called POET that is one of the country's leading biofuels producers and whose executives wanted to discuss a federal rule dictating gasoline composition.
The energy industry as a whole has been handed victory after victory by the Trump administration, especially fossil fuel interests. The industry also sponsored at least a dozen events at the Washington hotel, the Times found, more than almost any other group.
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 organisations like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, now run by Franklin Graham. It paid Trump's hotel US$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.
When the new Museum of the Bible was preparing to open in Washington that fall, Mike Ingram, a wealthy Arizona developer and Trump donor, invited a selection of "conservative Christian couples" to a tour and dinner at the institution, with attendees overnighting at the hotel, according to an email. The museum threw a fundraiser at the hotel and held its grand opening gala there, too, spending US$278,290 in all. The gala drew administration officials, Eric Trump and prominent evangelicals with close ties to his father, including Jerry Falwell Jr.
The museum spent another US$252,334 on rooms and event space in 2018, in part to avert a potential public relations fiasco. That fall, the museum canceled an event planned at its own building by a group that has railed against Trump's perceived enemies, including the "deep state" and the "fake news," according to Religion News Service. A spokesperson told the Times that the museum's leadership had deemed the event "too overtly partisan" and arranged to relocate it to Trump's hotel but also noted that the museum booked events at other Washington hotels.
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.
Some hotel guests, like author and Christian conference speaker Dutch Sheets, framed their patronage in religious terms. He urged followers to book rooms for a 2018 prayer gathering, calling it a "prophetic" choice because only Trump's hotel had affordable rooms available.
For others, like Wallnau, the hotel lobby offered untold opportunity.
"If there was ever a territory where there's an open heaven, and pregnant with divine appointments, it's the lobby of the Trump Hotel," Wallnau said in a video. "Every time I go there I have a divine appointment with somebody."
In an email to the Times, Wallnau explained that he had selected the hotel again in 2019 because "my team collects feedback at the end of each event, and the group requested we return to the Trump Hotel the following year."
Much like Trump's corporate customers, religious groups have also won access and an array of favourable policies from the administration, including appointments of anti-abortion judges and measures exempting religious groups from anti-discrimination laws. They are now keenly focused on Judge Amy Coney Barrett's appointment to succeed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Wallnau was welcomed at the White House, attended an official State Department event while in Taiwan and visited Mar-a-Lago for a conservative group's event, according to social media posts and videos. In 2019, after Graham and other evangelicals called on the Trump administration to reconsider withdrawing troops from Syria because of the suffering of Christians and other religious minorities there, the White House obliged with US$50 million in funding to help protect those groups. That same year, the Family Research Council sponsored a US$2,500-a-head "Christian heritage tour and summit" at the hotel. Some months later, in November, the administration proposed a rule that would allow federally funded adoption agencies to turn away LGBT families, a council priority.
The Christian Broadcasting Network said it had paid Mar-a-Lago about US$170,000 for events held in 2018 and 2019 to raise money for its charitable group, Orphan's Promise. Under Trump, the small Christian network has been accorded White House status on par with far larger outlets like Fox, conducting frequent exclusive interviews with the president, vice president and top aides. "The access has been phenomenal," CBN's chief political correspondent, David Brody, told the Times in 2018.
A spokesperson said that the network had landed interviews with Trump since 2011 and that it would be "misleading and inaccurate" to link any of them to the Mar-a-Lago events, which were paid for by its supporters.
Unlike businesses and trade groups, many religious conservatives explicitly link their support of Trump's business to his administration's socially conservative agenda. Some explained in interviews how Trump had delivered so much for evangelicals — on abortion, judges, Israel and more — that they wanted to show their gratitude.
"If we can support this president by having dinner or staying at the hotel, then we want to do that," said Sharon Bolan, an evangelist from Dallas who belongs to Trump's national faith leaders group and has patronised both Mar-a-Lago and the Washington hotel.
Statecraft and moneymaking
The week of Trump's inauguration, Romanian politician Liviu Dragnea stopped by the Trump hotel for dinner and a drink. Back home, Dragnea — head of the Social Democratic Party — had been banned from higher office and was about to stand trial on corruption charges. But in Washington, he would shake hands with the president-elect.
That evening, as Trump and his entourage passed through the hotel, Dragnea and his country's prime minister seized their chance. Dragnea secured what he later misleadingly portrayed as an intimate dinner, the kind of meeting that might take months or years to arrange, even for heads of state. Later, he posted photos taken with Trump to his Facebook page, suggesting he had extracted a promise of closer ties between their two countries.
For foreign politicians on the lower rungs of Washington's diplomatic ladder, even a chance meeting with the American president can be a significant propaganda victory. Representatives of at least 33 foreign countries have passed through the Washington hotel, according to journalist Zach Everson's newsletter 1100 Pennsylvania, which chronicles comings and goings there.
"The fact that they could get a meeting, have a handshake and take a picture that gets distributed far and wide back home — that is gold to them," said Alan M. Madison, who has represented foreign governments and political parties in Washington, including Dragnea's Social Democrats. "They'll almost do anything to achieve that."
Some embassies moved their annual galas or independence commemorations to the hotel. "Since several other embassies have also held their national day celebrations at the Trump hotel, which were well attended," the Philippine ambassador explained in The Philippine Star, "I decided — why not do it there, too."
When the prime minister of the Serbian enclave in Bosnia, Zeljka Cvijanovic, stopped at the hotel and met Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, she issued a news release almost suggestive of a state function. "On the first day of her visit to Washington, Prime Minister Cvijanovic met with the closest associates of the US President," it proclaimed.
The Times identified more than 20 foreign officials, politicians and businesses or groups closely affiliated with governments abroad that held events at his properties or paid for rooms there.
Policy wins sometimes followed. The FLC Group, a Vietnamese conglomerate with a commercial airline subsidiary, hosted a conference at the Washington hotel in June 2018, promoting investment opportunities in Vietnam. Eight months later, the Federal Aviation Administration certified Vietnamese airlines to fly to the United States. Trump then attended a ceremony in Hanoi, Vietnam, celebrating an FLC deal to buy US$3 billion worth of Boeing aircraft.
Some patrons of Trump's properties used them to build relations with foreign leaders. Broidy, the California businessman and new Mar-a-Lago member, had been dining with Dragnea and arranged an impromptu introduction to Trump. He would later seek to win business from the Romanian government and others. In February 2017, Broidy wrote to the Angolan defense minister discussing plans for a visit to Mar-a-Lago while also seeking payments from the nation's government to his defense firm, Circinus.
That fall, Broidy organised a reception at the Washington hotel featuring cocktails, dinner and a "cigar social hour"— all honouring the Romanian defense minister and a top general who oversaw the kinds of programs Broidy was eyeing for business.
Broidy and his team invited US officials, including the ambassador to Romania and Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary. He also invited Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, and "many important VIPs," according to emails obtained through a public records request. Ross ultimately did not attend, but Zinke and the ambassador did.
About five months later, Broidy's company signed a cooperation agreement with Romania's state-owned defense firm, laying the groundwork for contracts worth as much as US$200 million. The contracts never were awarded, however. Dragnea was convicted of abuse of office and sent to prison, and Broidy's arrangements with foreign clients came under federal investigation.
Broidy did not respond to requests for comment. On Thursday, it was revealed that he had been charged with a single count of conspiring to violate foreign lobbying laws in a case unrelated to Romania. Prosecutors in that case, however, did draw a link to a Trump property, citing text messages in which Broidy sought to arrange a golf outing for a foreign politician with Trump at his Bedminster club or in the Washington area.
Even a minor politician from Eastern Europe could rub shoulders with the leader of the free world. At a gala thrown by local Republicans last spring at Mar-a-Lago, the head of Romania's sixth-largest political party made his way around the grounds, taking pictures.
Opportunity soon presented itself: In a blurry photo posted to his Facebook and Instagram pages, the politician, Eugen Tomac, can be seen shaking hands with Trump, whom he said he invited to Romania.
"We are doing the right thing for Romania and our Euro-Atlantic future," Tomac wrote. "Only in this way can we make Romania strong and great again!"
A birthday bash
To burnish his bona fides with the Trump crowd, Madhavan Padmakumar spent US$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 US$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 US$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.
The president was there, of course. So was Haney, the nuclear plant developer, seated with his wife and with his lobbyist. Nearby was Ingram, the Trump donor and Bible museum booster. There were other guests, many of them major Trump benefactors. Across the room sat Trump donor Dick Saulsbury and his son Bubba, both in the energy industry. Construction executive Ben Pogue and his wife, who had donated US$248,542 in cash and in-kind air travel to Trump's re-election effort, were also at the party. A few weeks before, the president had issued a pardon to Pogue's father, who had pleaded guilty to filing a fraudulent income tax statement.
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 US$400,000 to Mar-a-Lago.
Trump got paid.
Written by: Nicholas Confessore, Karen Yourish, Steve Eder, Ben Protess, Maggie Haberman, Grace Ashford, Michael LaForgia, Kenneth P. Vogel, Michael Rothfeld and Larry Buchanan
Photographs by: Anna Moneymaker, Saul Martinez, Doug Mills and Scott McIntyre
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES