Donald Trump’s Suite of Power
Trump International Hotel is the epicenter of the President’s business interests in D.C.
How the President’s D.C. outpost became a dealmaker’s paradise for diplomats, lobbyists and insiders
At the bar of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, you can order a crystal spoonful of Hungarian wine for $140. Cocktails run from $23 for a gin and tonic to $100 for a vodka concoction with raw oysters and caviar. There’s a seafood pyramid called “the Trump Tower” that costs $120, or you can hit BLT Prime, a restaurant where the $59 salt-aged Kansas City strip steak comes with a long-shot chance of seeing the President sitting nearby. It’s the only restaurant in town where he has dined.
If the urge to shop strikes, there’s a Brioni boutique in one corner that offers the same Italian suits the President favors, starting at a few thousand a pop. Downstairs, a 90-minute couples massage at the Spa by Ivanka Trump will set you back $460—roughly the rack rate for a recent night in a standard room, where the Trump brand adorns everything from the shampoo bottles to the wine in the minibar.
People pay these prices for more than just booze, caviar and back rubs. This is the new town square in Donald Trump’s Washington. Tourists perch on the blue velvet sofas in the lobby, snapping cell-phone pictures as power players stream across the dark marble floors and cream carpets: international businessmen, Republican operatives, wealthy donors, foreign diplomats, former Trump campaign aides, the occasional Administration official.
Guests can order pricey cocktails and mingle with Washington power brokers at Benjamin’s Bar & Lounge in the hotel.
That’s partly because a President who once promised to “drain the swamp” of influence peddling now owns the city’s newest bog. According to Trump’s 2016 financial-disclosure statement, he owned a 76.7% stake in the limited-liability company that controls the hotel, which is now headed by his son Donald Jr. The place has been a magnet for the capital’s political class. “Of course we hang out there,” says a former Trump campaign adviser. “Everyone hangs out there. Being in the Trump hotel’s lobby is a way to get people to know you.”
The potential conflicts of interest are dizzying. In the soaring atrium, guests kibitz under a massive U.S. flag—a gift on loan from the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that helps shape Administration policy and that thanked top donors by bankrolling a December gala here keynoted by then incoming Vice President Mike Pence. For Trump’s Inauguration, guests willing to fork over the steep fees could mingle with top federal officials. One VIP package, which offered lodging in a 6,300-sq.-ft. townhouse suite—two floors overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, accessed through a discreet wooden door—was advertised for $500,000. The President invited members of Congress to lunch in the ballroom. “It’s an absolutely stunning hotel,” press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Jan. 19. “I encourage you to go there if you haven’t been by.”
Foreign governments seem particularly keen to patronize Trump’s property. Between Oct. 1 and March 31, lobbyists working on behalf of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia ran up a $270,000 tab on rooms, catering and parking, according to foreign lobbying disclosures filed at the end of May and first reported by the Daily Caller. That stretch coincided with a Saudi lobbying push against legislation that would allow victims of terrorist attacks to sue foreign governments. In May, Trump chose Riyadh as his first foreign stop as President, where he announced an arms deal, gave a major foreign policy speech and participated in a traditional ceremonial sword dance.
In December, diplomats from Bahrain shifted that country’s National Day festivities to Trump International’s gilded, 13,000-sq.-ft. presidential ballroom. As if on cue, Kuwait moved its own annual gala in February from the Four Seasons across town to Trump International—even though the former location had already been reserved. The embassy of Azerbaijan co-hosted a Hanukkah party in the hotel’s elegant Lincoln Library, with a roster of guests that included Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who has become notorious this spring for meeting with several Trump Administration officials. “You know, successful people own things,” Azerbaijani Ambassador Elin Suleymanov tells TIME. “That is a natural thing.”
The Old Post Office Pavilion is the second tallest building in D.C., after the Washington Monument.
One longtime Republican power broker summed up the role the hotel is playing in Trump’s Washington: “It is a magnet for unsophisticated foreign governments and companies to offer tribute. It does not work, but it is perceived as a path to influence.”
Yet domestic groups have found reasons to do business there as well. Last year, evangelist Franklin Graham planned a global conference on Christian persecution at the Mayflower Hotel for this May. Two months after Trump was inaugurated, Graham decided to add a closing banquet at Trump International, where he also reserved rooms for select guests, which meant ferrying them between hotels in a fleet of black SUVs. Among the guests was a delegation from Moscow headed by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, a top cleric of the Russian Orthodox Church and a close ally of Vladimir Putin, who met during the conference with Pence. A spokesperson for Graham said neither the Mayflower nor a nearby Hilton could accommodate the banquet, and up to 40 rooms came as part of the package.
Not everyone found the fancy digs necessary. “We didn’t have to stay there,” Ignatius Aphrem II, patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Damascus, told TIME. Speaking of Graham’s organization, he added, “Maybe they have special arrangements. Maybe they are friends of the President.”
In the past, Presidents have often gone to great lengths to assure the public that they aren’t mixing the nation’s business with their own. Many of Trump’s predecessors voluntarily divested their business assets or placed them in a blind trust administered by an independent third party, to avoid both conflicts of interest and the appearance of them. Trump has taken a different approach. He has stepped away from the operations of his business, but he has not relinquished ownership. Critics say the approach falls far short. “He is one great big example of exploiting public office for private gain,” says Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who trains governments around the world in ethics and anticorruption practices. “Of course it’s a scandal.”
Which doesn’t mean it’s illegal. Trump does not seem bothered by the appearance of conflicts, often doing his public business in his private holdings. During the campaign, Trump visited his properties across the U.S. as well as his golf courses in Scotland. He used televised campaign events to promote Trump products, including bottled water and wine. As President, he decamps on many weekends for his golf courses in Virginia and New Jersey, trips that guarantee free publicity from the press corps. He took Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping on separate trips to his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, where the club entry fee doubled after his election, to $200,000.
Trump denies any impropriety. “The law’s totally on my side,” he said in November. “The President can’t have a conflict of interest.” Or rather, as his lawyers point out, as President he is not subject to federal conflict-of-interest laws, which offer broad latitude for the Commander in Chief. And his sprawling business empire was front and center on the campaign trail, with aides highlighting a track record of delivering projects under budget and ahead of schedule.
To address concerns, Trump announced in January that he would hand control of his business empire to his two adult sons and a trustee, halt all new foreign deals, terminate some pending ones and wall himself off from company decisions. Because the emoluments clause of the Constitution bans most transactions between government officials and foreign governments, the Trump Organization pledged to donate its profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury. “President-elect Trump should not be expected to destroy the company he built,” said his lawyer Sheri Dillon. “This plan offers a suitable alternative to address the concerns of the American people.”
The firewall between the Trump presidency and the Trump Organization has turned out to be less than airtight. His sons have participated in political meetings and are sought-after speakers at Republican functions across the U.S. Eric Trump’s wife Lara is employed by the digital firm working for Trump’s re-election campaign. Meanwhile, the company, according to internal documents released in May by Democrats in Congress, has since determined that it is not practical to segregate all foreign sources of income, arguing that such an effort would not “even be possible without an inordinate amount of time, resources and specialists.” The donation will be made on an annual basis at the end of each calendar year, according to a Trump Organization spokesperson. It’s unclear who would ensure that the company complies with its pledge.
In response to the unusual arrangements, multiple groups have filed civil lawsuits against Trump, aiming to force the courts to step in. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a progressive watchdog group, filed suit alleging that he has violated the Constitution by accepting emoluments. Cork Wine Bar, a D.C. restaurant, filed another suit that claims Trump’s stake in the hotel’s restaurants gives it an unfair competitive advantage in the city’s fine-dining market. House and Senate Democrats are also planning to sue Trump to stop emoluments violations, according to Politico, arguing that he is breaking the law by continuing to profit from his businesses while serving as President.
Luxury SUVs line up outside of the hotel’s presidential ballroom.
The story of Trump and the Old Post Office Pavilion is a tale of grand ambition, outsize promises and a complex deal that left a trail of criticism. Built in the 1890s, it is the capital’s second tallest structure, a landmark of gray granite and steel girders with a glass atrium and an iconic clock tower that overlooks Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall. Over the years, it had become an aging orphan nobody wanted, scheduled for demolition several times over the past century, only to be spared by preservationists.
With a nudge from Congress, the General Services Administration (GSA), began soliciting bids in 2011 from private companies looking to redevelop the building. Trump put together an appealing proposal, promising to pump some $200 million into a renovation and partnering with a venerable D.C. architect who had worked for years to save the building. Trump lined up financing from Colony Capital, a major developer run by his close friend and future inaugural committee chairman, Tom Barrack. And he promised to pay the federal government $3 million annually in rent for 60 years. GSA picked Trump from a crowded group of bidders, including such hotel chains as Hilton and Hyatt.
The promises began to unravel. The architect, Arthur Cotton Moore, dropped off the project. The financing partner fell through. Once work got under way, the Trumps quietly reneged on commitments to preserve historic features, from the lighting scheme to the wall trim, according to a person closely involved. The Trump Organization denies that charge. “Throughout the revival process and restoration of this iconic asset, we worked tirelessly to maintain the integrity and storied history of the original landmark building,” said a spokesperson for the organization. “We worked meticulously with the GSA and a team of consultants on the historic preservation and are incredibly proud of the extreme attention to detail that we paid.”
A projection by artist Robin Bell on the facade of the hotel on May 15. Liz Gorman/Robin Bell
But the biggest complication was still to come. The 263-room hotel opened in the fall of 2016. A few weeks later, Trump won the White House, making him, if somewhat indirectly, both landlord and tenant of a valuable government property. His contract with GSA, the federal agency that administers the lease, explicitly forbids elected officials from being admitted to “any share or part of this lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”
And so, shortly after the election, congressional Democrats summoned a GSA official for a briefing about how it would handle the situation. During the meeting in the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill, the GSA official said the agency had concluded that Trump would be in breach of contract upon Inauguration, according to a letter signed by four House Democrats and confirmed by two other people present.
But when Trump took office, the GSA went mum on the matter. On March 23, Kevin Terry, the GSA contracting officer responsible for the deal with Trump, clarified the agency’s position, declaring the President to be in “full compliance” with the lease. There is no evidence Trump or anyone in his Administration pressed GSA about the arrangement. But critics say the fact that the President has the power to appoint and remove the head of the agency may have influenced the move. And while members of Congress have pressed GSA for more information about the decision, it lacks the power to reverse it. (Terry referred questions to a GSA press representative, who declined an interview, asked that TIME supply written questions and then never responded to them.)
In the beginning, business at the hotel was sluggish. During its first two months of operation, September and October 2016, Trump International lost more than $1.1 million, according to a letter from a group of House Democrats to the acting GSA administrator. But such struggles faded after the election. At happy hour, the lobby bar fills with guests nibbling charcuterie and sipping Trump-branded rosé beneath flat screens tuned to Fox News. Patricia Tang, director of sales and marketing, said the hotel’s ownership hasn’t affected its bottom line. “The whole situation has been neutral,” says Tang, an industry veteran. “You win, you lose. The result is we’re doing fine.”
In late May, Tang took TIME on a tour of the hotel’s gilded spaces, from the townhouse suite—replete with a gym and private dining room—to the ballroom where workmen were breaking down the remnants of a wedding. Privacy is part of the package, she noted. There are no public boards listing the day’s conclaves, and there are separate entrances for VIPs. As a policy, the hotel doesn’t reveal who has held events or booked accommodations.
Of course, governments looking to pay tribute to the American President need not come to Washington to do it. According to his financial disclosure report, the President appears to own or control more than 500 businesses in countries ranging from India to Indonesia. “The hotel,” says Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor who served as President George W. Bush’s ethics lawyer and is part of the CREW lawsuit, “is really just a tip of the iceberg.”
Some of the President’s foreign holdings are in countries that may test the lines between his business interests and his role as Commander in Chief. Trump licensed his name to a 57-story luxury residential tower in Manila, set to open later this year. The head of the company that built it has been named a special trade envoy to the U.S. by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. In the President’s flagship building on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, one of the biggest tenants is a state-owned Chinese bank, whose lease is up for renewal in 2019. Last year, after Trump made incendiary comments about Muslims on the campaign trail, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for Trump’s name to be stripped from a pair of towers in Istanbul’s business district. Erdogan later backed off, and Trump has since praised his counterpart despite the autocrat’s crackdown on dissidents and democratic institutions. According to his financial disclosure report, Trump earned up to $5 million from the project. “I have a little conflict of interest,” Trump told his future White House strategist Stephen Bannon during a 2015 radio interview, “ ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul.”
As its hotel in Washington flourishes, the Trump Organization is working to find new ways to extend the brand. On June 5, it unveiled a new midscale hotel chain, under the patriotic name of American Idea. It plans to debut it in Mississippi. The target demographic includes some of the same voters who lifted the President into the White House.
—With reporting by Tessa Berenson, Elizabeth Dias, Haley Edwards, Philip Elliott and Zeke J. Miller/Washington □
The heart of the hotel is a nine-story atrium under a skylight.