During an April 30, 2018 appearance on CNBC, T-Mobile CEO John Legere said he would be personally lobbying the White House to approve his company’s merger with Sprint over the next several days. The following day, Legere was spotted at Trump International Hotel – Washington, D.C., where he stayed during his trip. Legere’s patronage of the Trump International Hotel shows how President Trump’s decision to hold onto his business interests while serving as president has equipped special interest groups with an influence tactic not available in most prior administrations: paying the president in his personal capacity by booking rooms or events at one of his properties.
CREW’s review of lobbying records shows that events held by special interest groups at Trump properties often coincide with their use of more traditional tactics aimed at influencing the president, such as lobbying the executive branch and registering new lobbyists with ties to the Trump administration. At least thirteen domestic special interest groups have lobbied the White House Office or Executive Office of the President during the same or following quarter as when they patronized one of President Trump’s properties. At least five foreign governments and foreign government-tied groups that patronized a Trump property also hired lobbyists connected to President Trump. These findings suggest special interest groups view booking a Trump property as part of a broader strategy to influence the Trump Administration.
At least thirteen U.S. special interest groups have lobbied the White House during the same or following quarter as when they patronized one of President Trump’s properties. At least four of these groups were lobbying the White House for the first time ever, and at least four of these thirteen groups also brought on new lobbyists with links to the president (see Table 1). For example, the American Petroleum Institute (API) held events at Trump International Hotel – Washington, D.C. in March of the past two years. API also lobbied the White House during the same quarters as these events. In fact, on the second day of the 2018 conference, after API’s president and leading oil executives stayed the night at the Trump D.C. hotel, they travelled from the hotel to the White House to meet with President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence about trade policy. Around the same time, API also sought help from a lobbyist with ties to the president. Former Trump campaign official and White House liaison Rob Wasinger lobbied on behalf of API for the first time during the same quarter as the 2018 event, lobbying the White House on trade and energy issues.
The Seasonal Employment Alliance (SEA), which advocates for visas for temporary foreign workers, used a similar strategy. The group chose President Trump’s D.C. hotel for a gathering in February 2018. Less than two months after patronizing the hotel, SEA hired Cove Strategies, whose co-founder, Matt Schlapp, is married to senior White House official Mercedes Schlapp and was recently spotted on Air Force One. Lobbying records show that Matt Schlapp personally lobbied the Executive Office of the President on behalf of SEA in the second quarter of 2018. Review of the federal lobbying database indicates that SEA had never lobbied the Executive Office of the President or the White House Office before then.
In addition to patronizing the Trump International Hotel – Washington, D.C. as part of an apparent effort to influence the White House, special interests are also gaining access to high-ranking agency officials at events held at the president’s property, then lobbying those officials’ agencies. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt attended the 2017 API event at President Trump’s D.C. hotel, and API lobbied both of their agencies during the same quarter. Zinke and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry attended the 2018 API event, and API also lobbied their agencies during the same quarter.
The National Mining Association (NMA) also invited Trump administration officials to its October 2017 meeting held at the president’s D.C. hotel. Both Secretary Perry and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross spoke, and Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt attended. Lobbying disclosures show NMA lobbied the Executive Office of the President as well as the Departments of Energy, Commerce, and the Interior during the same quarter as this event.
Special interests may also patronize the Trump International Hotel – Washington, D.C. hoping to make more informal connections with officials. SEA Executive Director Gray Delaney said one reason the group hosted its event at the hotel was because of its reputation as an after-hours hangout for people within President Trump’s orbit. He told the Daily Beast: “[T]he added benefit of [the] Trump [hotel] is that you can run into people who do have influence. That’s always a possibility.”
Foreign governments, and groups closely associated with them, also seem to patronize the Trump International Hotel – Washington, D.C. as part of a strategy to curry favor with the Trump Administration. At least five foreign governments that hired lobbyists connected to President Trump spent money at a Trump property or is closely linked to a group that did (see Table 2).
Between October 2016 and March 2017, a lobbying group hired by Saudi Arabia paid the hotel $270,000 for rooms for U.S. military veterans as part of a lobbying campaign against an anti-terrorism law. In May 2017, soon after the lobbying campaign began, Saudi Arabia hired Sonoran Policy Group, a lobbying firm that employs several former Trump campaign staffers.
On May 11, 2017, the Turkish government inked a deal with Ballard Partners, which was founded by a former lobbyist for the Trump Organization who was the Florida finance chairman for President Trump’s campaign. Ten days later, the Trump International Hotel – Washington, D.C. hosted a conference organized by the Turkey-U.S. Business Council, a group with close ties to the Turkish government.
These examples demonstrate how President Trump’s continued business ties allow special interest groups to attempt to exploit his conflicts of interest as they try to influence the White House. Special interests ranging from private companies to foreign governments appear to be patronizing Trump properties in an attempt to curry favor with policymakers across the Trump administration.
See a table of the visits to Trump properties here.