November 1, 2019
Private prisons, payday lenders, fossil fuel companies, and dozens of other special interests have learned one important truth about influence in the age of Trump: If you want to gain favor with the president and his administration, it doesn’t hurt to hold lavish events at the properties he still owns and profits from. In the past, special interests have tried to ingratiate themselves with administrations by making large political donations, but in the Trump era, they can do so by personally enriching the president.
The evidence is overwhelming. According to CREW’s tracking of Trump’s conflicts of interest, special-interest groups—many of which are trying to secure favorable policy decisions from various agencies in the Trump administration—have hosted or sponsored at least 100 events at Trump properties. That amounts to roughly one special-interest event at a Trump property every 10 days he has been in office.
Upon entering the White House, President Trump took the unprecedented step of refusing to divest from his businesses. As a result, within days, his hotels and resorts across the world became centers for corruption and influence-buying. Almost immediately, the president whose campaign was buoyed by chants of “Drain the Swamp” became one of the Swamp’s primary beneficiaries.
Hosting an event at a Trump property frequently affords special interest groups access to high-level government officials. Trump himself has attended two of them—one hosted by the American Red Cross and the other by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, both held at Mar-a-Lago. Meanwhile, CREW has tracked 60 other instances where Trump administration officials and 26 occasions where members of Congress have attended an event at a Trump property hosted by groups representing big businesses, banks, energy and an array of other special interests.
Nine Cabinet-level Trump officials have attended at least one special interest event held at a Trump property. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, both of whom resigned in the face of corruption scandals, attended four each. Then-Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernardt and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both praised the president’s hotel while speaking to special interest groups there. When he made his comments, Bernhardt—a former oil and mining lobbyist who now serves as Secretary of the Interior—was speaking at an event held by mining lobbyists that was also attended by three Trump Cabinet members.
In other cases, special interest groups have visited the White House around the same time that they patronized President Trump’s hotel. Members of the American Petroleum Institute, which has held two events at the Trump Hotel in Washington, visited the White House to lobby on tariffs the same day the group concluded a two-day board meeting at the hotel. Groups that lobby on issues affecting the Latin– and Asian-American communities visited the White House during visits to Washington for advocacy events that were held at the hotel.
The Trump administration has been kind to many of the industries that have gathered at a Trump hotel or resort. It has dealt or supported favorable policies to private prisons, payday lenders, and the fossil-fuel industry, each of which has hosted large gatherings at a Trump property.
Private prison contractor GEO Group, for example, hosted an annual conference at Trump National Doral near Miami in 2017 and sponsored another group’s event there last month. Community Financial Services Association of America, a trade group representing payday lenders, has held events at the same Trump resort both this year and last, racking up about $1 million in charges. Energy industry groups including the National Mining Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of America have hosted no fewer than seven events at the Trump hotel in Washington.
These tallies don’t even include special-interest spending at Trump properties that wasn’t spent on lavish events. For example, T-Mobile has admitted to Congress that spending by its executives at the Trump hotel in Washington increased significantly—to the tune of almost $200,000—while it sought approval from two executive-branch agencies for a merger with Sprint. In the end, they got what they wanted: Trump’s Justice Department signed off on the merger in July, which went on to gain approval from the Federal Communications Commission earlier last month.
President Trump’s ongoing financial interests under the umbrella of the Trump Organization have given rise to so many diverse conflicts of interest, it can be hard to keep them straight. Special interest patronage of the president’s businesses, however, is a particularly illustrative example of the corruption issues that Trump’s financial holdings pose. The concept of pay-to-play long precedes this administration, but never before has “pay” referred to personal income for the commander-in-chief himself.