President Trump’s decision to continue to own and profit from his businesses while serving as president gave special interests groups an influence tactic they’d never had before: The ability to make sizable, and largely untraceable, payments to the president of the United States as they seek to influence public policy. While it’s long been routine for wealthy interests seeking to buy access and influence over a president to do so by making large political contributions to his campaign and allied groups, it’s unique to President Trump that these groups do so while personally enriching him in the process.
CREW estimates that special interests seeking to gain favor with the administration have likely spent more than $13 million at President Trump’s businesses since he took office.
These groups — many of which spend heavily to lobby the federal government for favorable policies — have learned that holding lavish events at Trump properties is part of the cost of doing business in Trump’s Washington. According to tracking by CREW, such groups have hosted or sponsored 137 events at Trump properties during his time in office. In most cases, it’s not known precisely how much these events cost, but the reports and documents that are available show that they can start in the high tens of thousands of dollars, with most ballooning well into six-figure territory. If we estimate that the average event costs $100,000 — likely far lower than the actual average — that would mean that based on a conservative estimate, the president’s properties have made at least $13.7 million off of these events.
“If we estimate that the average event costs $100,000 — likely far lower than the actual average — that would mean that based on a conservative estimate, the president’s properties have made at least $13.7 million off of these events. ”
All together, the millions spent at Trump properties by entities hoping to influence his administration represent only the events we know of. Neither President Trump nor his businesses are required to disclose this spending to the public, making it the perfect way for potential influencers to put money in his pocket.
A recent report in the New York Times — based in part on data CREW has collected for nearly four years — detailed some of this activity, giving several examples of groups spending five and six figures at Trump properties. In some of the examples detailed in the Times’ reporting, the influence was clear. For instance, a firearm interest group, a commercial airline, and a university all won favorable policy decisions from the Trump administration after spending at Trump properties.
Other groups have seen similar returns on their investments. According to research by CREW, around 30 additional groups, from industries ranging from private prison contractors to payday lenders, have hosted or sponsored an event at a Trump property and gotten a favorable policy outcome from the Trump administration. Some of the companies in question are among the largest in the country, with a long history of lobbying on a wide array of issues, making it difficult to tie an event at a Trump property to a specific change or policy enacted by the administration.
In other instances, however, the potential payoff is more clear cut. For example, the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) got a favorable decision from the Trump administration after their annual meeting at Trump National Doral in November 2017. As CREW reported earlier this year, the group spent $700,650 at the property, a massive payment that coincides closely with increased spending on lobbying the federal government, and particularly the White House.
The items the trade group lobbied on entailed a host of “environmental issues,” including support for the ratification of the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an Obama-era regulation meant to phase out the use of greenhouse gasses used in refrigeration. The AHRI has publicly declared support for the amendment and lobbied in favor of it for years. While Trump is typically hostile to environmental regulations, the State Department announced that the Trump administration would ratify the amendment just weeks after the event at Doral.
The payday lender industry has also reaped the benefits that come with spending at Trump properties. The Community Financial Services Association of America, the industry’s official trade group, and its members have spent about $1 million at Trump properties that personally enrich the president. In both 2018 and 2019, CFSA held their annual convention at the Trump National Doral resort. The industry has also donated a collective $1.3 million to Trump’s inauguration.
For this industry, the spending appears linked to a vital cause. Since October 2017, payday lenders have fought to stop an Obama-era rule requiring lenders to assess whether the borrower will be able to repay their loans. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimated that this rule would cause the industry to lose around $7.5 billion.
Just one month before CFSA’s 2019 event at Doral, Trump’s CFPB proposed rescinding the rule, and in July 2020 it was officially revoked. The industry continues to receive special access to the Trump administration. In September of last year, the head of one of the country’s largest payday lenders was caught on leaked audio bragging that if he needed help with something, he could get the head of the RNC to call the White House and say, “Hey, we have one of our large givers… They need to be heard and you need to listen to them.”
The candy industry similarly received a favorable policy ruling from the Trump administration after some heavy spending at Trump properties. In September 2017, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb proposed delaying an Obama-era rule that would impose stricter labeling standards on candy products. This announcement came just six months after the National Confectioners Association, the trade group that represents candy companies like Hersey and Mars, hosted a conference at Trump National Doral in March 2017. The group previously held an event in 2016 at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. The organization advocates for “rollback of government sugar subsidies that candy firms say drive up the costs of making their products” and began lobbying the federal government on “issues related to food labeling” in the beginning of 2017.
It’s not a coincidence that so many special interest groups have chosen President Trump’s properties to hold their events. When a group attempting to influence public policy opts to spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars at Mar-a-Lago, Doral, or any of Trump’s other eponymous properties, it seems clear that a conscious, strategic decision is made, one for which the return on investment could be great. An event that costs an industry a couple hundred thousand dollars could open the door to favorable policies that save the industry millions of dollars down the road.
When Donald Trump declined to divest from the Trump Organization as president, he signaled to special interests that his influence was for sale. President Trump has claimed that he is draining the swamp, instead he uses his power to help those who can give him something in return.
CREW research interns Tiffany Tam and Angela Li contributed to this report.