The Trump family is reportedly exploring a sale of the Trump Hotel in Washington D.C., partly out of concerns raised by ethics watchdogs and emoluments lawsuits that the president is profiting off of his presidency. The Trumps are right to be (belatedly) worried. I know the Trump Hotel D.C. pretty well, and I feel confident saying there is plenty more where those red flags came from.
My daily look at who is patronizing the president’s D.C. hotel started as research in July 2017 for what became one sentence in a 5,500-word feature for Condé Nast Traveler. A few minutes on Instagram revealed that if you had concerns about the U.S. president doubling as a hotelier, they were well-founded. I found photos of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R–Calif.) crashing a Vapor Technology Association’s conference; a guest posing with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, captioning her photo, “He’s still calling the shots”; and the president’s attorney Rudy Giuliani enjoying a cigar in a wine-stained tux the night of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s wedding. Lawmakers, lobbying groups and would-be powerbrokers were taking full advantage of the chance to better their lot by throwing a few bucks the president’s way.
More than two years later, I haven’t stopped scrolling through photos from the Trump Hotel D.C. For two years, I’ve read through every Instagram, Facebook and Twitter post geo-located to the Trump Hotel D.C. I’ve also made several visits and done some more sleuthing around the internet, then published my findings, first on a Twitter thread and now in a newsletter that comes out five days a week.
After two years of observation, I’ve learned three big things about how people use the Trump hotel to curry favor with the president, all while he profits.
Social media from the Trump Hotel can tip us off to major stories months in advance.
Despite being known as the “guy who’s always at the Trump Hotel,” I visit about once a month, usually to meet with other journalists, in response to a tip or because friends from out of town want a justification for grabbing a drink there. Instead, most sightings come from the 80-plus websites and social-media pages I‘ve bookmarked—Twitter feeds and lists and a dozen Google alerts. If you want it to be known that you’re sending money the president’s way, social media is an easy way to do that, after all—and that online advertising makes it fairly easy to find the Trump Hotel’s big spenders. Instagram, LinkedIn and a website of a person’s employer are more helpful for identifying lobbyists than watching them work in situ.
Social media can be especially useful in combination with real-time observation. For instance, take the evening this past March when I spotted Romania’s prime minister, Viorica Dancila, at the hotel.
That spotting got a lot more interesting later. I’d seen Giuliani at the Trump Hotel D.C. earlier that same weekend, but not with the Romanian prime minister. We already knew that Giuliani had reached out to Romania’s president “about continuing damage to the rule of law” in the country, so there was reason to think at the time that the two would know each other. But a Giuliani spokesperson didn’t respond to my inquiry asking if he had met with Dancila.
But later that same week, Giuliani tweeted a photo of himself dining in the hotel’s steakhouse with other members of Trump’s “All Star legal team.” There, seated at an adjacent table, within arm’s reach of the president’s attorney, was Romania’s prime minister. It was just her rear profile, though; if I hadn’t seen her hairstyle and outfit in person that same evening, I would not have recognized her. (Giuliani has since implied in an interview that Romania is connected to his efforts regarding former Vice President Joe Biden and “corruption.”) Later, an Instagram post the Wall Street Journal uncovered showed that Lev Parnas, Giuliani’s associate who was recently arrested on campaign finance violations, was there that night, too.
Scoping out social media also allows me to report immediately on what’s happening at the hotel that’s not often available through other channels. Even if he wins a second term, Trump probably will be out of office before all my Freedom of Information Act requests regarding government officials’ visits are answered. Campaigns and committees sometimes don’t report a disbursement at the hotel to the Federal Election Commission until months after the event—and they don’t provide any insight into who attended. For instance, while a tip helped the Washington Post expose the extent of T-Mobile’s Trump Hotel D.C. patronage in the eight months following its unveiling of controversial plans to merge with Sprint, a Facebook post the day after the announcement gave an immediate glimpse of CEO John Legere’s strategy for winning administration approval: frequent and highly visible trips to the Trump hotel in Washington.
The profits from foreign governments are especially opaque.
All told, officials from at least 29 different foreign countries have stopped by or stayed at the U.S. president’s D.C. hotel since opening, a number I arrived at through my reporting combined with that of other outlets. And the money coming from those guests is a lot harder to track than the money coming from U.S. lawmakers.
Between my and others’ reporting on the peculiar-to-this-administration reporting, we know Trump’s D.C. hotel has already hosted government officials from at least three G7 countries. Ontario Premier Doug Ford lunched there last September at the invitation of Kelly Craft, then U.S. ambassador to Canada and currently the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Not only was Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage’s patronage of the Trump Hotel cited in a 2018 emoluments suit—for diverting business from a Maryland hotel and toward one owned by the president—but he also served as a featured attraction for 800 hotel customers at a Turning Point USA gala this year. In January, Italy’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, Guglielmo Picchi, met at the Trump Hotel with two senior officials in the president’s shadow cabinet: Lewandowski and Giuliani.
And while no Japanese officials have been spotted at the Trump Hotel D.C. (yet), Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might one day have a sand trap on a Trump golf course named after him: The prime minister has visited at least five different Trump properties since their owner’s election.
Nigerian dignitaries are such fans of the place that it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn a Trump Hotel Lagos was in the pipeline. And sometimes they come for reasons related to politics back home more than Trump’s approval. The Trump Hotel D.C. seemed like a swing state last year when—a month before Nigeria’s presidential election—the main opposition candidate, the scandal-plagued former vice president Atiku Abubakar, entered the lobby with an entourage of Nigerian lawmakers and supporters posting videos of his every move. At the same time, and apparently coincidentally, another longshot presidential candidate was also bunking at the U.S. president’s hotel. The U.S. State Department’s willingness to allow Abubakar to even enter the United States was an election issue. He may not have been able to land an audience with Trump, but a town hall he held for Nigerian immigrants in the United States in Trump’s hotel and streamed for voters back home was intended to make him look more legitimate and help his election chances. (It didn’t work—he later lost.)
Whatever a foreign official’s reasons are for visiting the Trump Hotel D.C., the president gets paid—but we don’t really know how much. While the Trump Organization has donated more than $340,000 to the U.S. Treasury, which it says are its profits from foreign governments for 2017 and 2018, the organization won’t disclose the governments themselves or if the figure has been independently audited. But there are two big reasons to be skeptical of that number. The Trump Organization relies on the foreign government official to self-report to the hotel, and all of us rely on the Trump Organization to calculate profit per hotel room correctly.
More than half of Republican senators have visited or spent campaign or committee funds there.
The Nigerians, of course, may have just taken their cues from Trump’s Cabinet: By my count, 25 of the 33 different officials who have served in it have dropped in on Trump Hotel, D.C., often to headline events for their boss’ paying customers. It can only help in a world where a humiliating termination is just a tweet away.
Lawmakers do the same. FEC filings and social media posts combine to show that 28 of the 53 Republicans in the Senate have visited the Trump Hotel D.C. or spent campaign or committee funds there. So have seven of the 17 GOP members on the House Judiciary panel and six of the 17 GOP members on the House Oversight Committee.
Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R–Calif.) is the top spender at the hotel of any member of Congress, according to FEC filings. Photos of him on social media provide only glimpses of what he’s up to there, like smiling in the lobby with a supporter, speaking in a private room behind a Trump Hotels lectern and posing during his PAC’s Trump inauguration party with a Ukrainian billionaire and parliamentarian (as one does). Altogether, the leader’s campaign, joint-fundraising committees and PAC have spent more than $245,000 at Trump properties since the 2016 election, mostly on catering and facility rentals. It appears to have paid off: Trump has repeatedly endorsed him for speaker.
Rep. Jim Jordan’s (R–Ohio) campaign has spent more than $22,000 at the hotel. He went a step further than just spending there when he wrote to the General Services Administration, the D.C. hotel’s landlord, criticizing an inspector general’s report that said the agency ignored the Constitution when allowing Trump to keep the lease upon assuming office. So when the president commented, “Thank you Jim!” while retweeting Jordan last month, you had to wonder if it was for more than just the lawmaker’s attack on the impeachment proceedings.
Despite everything I’ve learned, there are personal drawbacks to this kind of reporting—and no, being blocked on Twitter by Eric Trump is not among them. False accusations of doxing by Trump supporters are a common nuisance. (The information I publish is almost always culled from what these hotel guests chose to share publicly, and never includes a home address.) The project also has zapped whatever joy and personal utility I got out of social media. And it does seem a bit hypocritical that, like the president, I too am benefiting from his ownership of the hotel—for example, with this assignment.
Then there’s the matter of the $3,000 or so I’ve spent at the president’s business, mostly media outlets’ money, but some of it my own. It’s easy to justify those expenses, though. Through the customers I’ve spotted at the Trump Hotel D.C.—and a whole bunch of patrons whose identities will never be public—the U.S. president reported $81 million in revenue for 2017 and 2018. Even if the hotel changes hands sometime soon, that’s still a pretty good haul for half a presidential term.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine