ILYA MARRITZ: A quick heads-up before we get started — this episode contains cursing.
[THE SOUNDS OF A LOBBY WITH MUZAK PLAYING SOFTLY]
ZACH EVERSON: Oh, what are we looking at? He’s going to go to the entranceway with the …
MARRITZ: So I’m at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., people-watching with my new friend Zach Everson, when a large group appears at the check-in desk.
EVERSON: Managing director escorted them in there. Somebody is recording it — videoing it. And I have no idea who this could be.
MARRITZ: Zach’s a food and travel journalist who now writes a daily email newsletter called “1100 Pennsylvania.” That’s the address here. It is to Trump’s Washington what Tatler was to 18th-century London: a gossipy running account of famous people in a famous place.
[AFTER A BEAT, THE LOBBY’S AMBIENT NOISE FADES IN]
EVERSON: Clearly, they’re all stopped to get their picture taken. And we have one, two, three, four cameras out there, taking pictures of what’s happening?
MARRITZ: Clearly we’re looking at a someone. But who is this?
EVERSON: They actually have a manager of the hotel — manager at the restaurant — and it’s one of those guys, is behind them as well. So they are getting the grand entrance.
MARRITZ: And everyone in the group is Black. I’m guessing maybe they’re from an African country? They sort of have that fashion, maybe?
EVERSON: It certainly could be. Though there’s one older white gentleman with a bald head who just came out to greet them in the middle, but he is obstructed.
MARRITZ: This could be a story for tomorrow’s newsletter — if Zach can figure out who drew this crowd. And now the crowd is moving away from the check-in desk and towards the elevators. Well, you can only get upstairs if you have a key card.
EVERSON: It appears they’re staying here.
MARRITZ: You know who else is staying here? Me, and Trump, Inc. Senior Producer Meg Cramer. We just did something that anyone with enough money can do — we checked into the President’s hotel.
HOTEL ATTENDANT: Hello!
MEG CRAMER: Hi, how are you?
MARRITZ: Marritz and Cramer — with a “C.”
CRAMER: Just so you can picture it, the Trump International Hotel is a new business in an old building: the Old Post Office. It’s a huge granite castle located directly on the diagonal that leads from the Capitol Building to the White House.
We booked two rooms. Our key cards came in paper sleeves listing Trump properties around the world, including several that have been de-Trumped, like Panama, Toronto, and SoHo.
MARRITZ: We sit down with Zach. It’s a little bit like how I imagine hanging out with a Secret Service man might be. He has this situational awareness thing —
EVERSON: There goes the bacon, by the way.
MARRITZ: — even if it’s just the waiter coming by with the candied bacon, which is served on a mini clothesline. It’s a hit on Instagram.
Not long after this, Zach is looking at his phone and his eyes go big, and he announces: he just figured out who brought the entourage.
EVERSON: [SHOCKED, SPEAKING HIGH] He’s a fucking candidate [MARRITZ LAUGHS] — he’s a fucking candidate for President of Nigeria! The election’s next month.
MARRITZ: Are you kidding?
EVERSON: So now the fuckin’ Trump Hotel is a campaign stop!
MARRITZ: How did you —
MARRITZ: How’d you figure this out?
EVERSON: Somebody in his entourage posted a picture —
EVERSON: — and they tagged the Trump Hotel. Oh my god. I’m sorry to be talking so high, but holy crap.
MARRITZ: Atiku Abubakar, a candidate for President of Nigeria, paying money to the business owned by the President of the United States. We hope you enjoy your stay at the Trump International Hotel!
[TRUMP, INC. THEME MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: Hello, and welcome to Trump, Inc., a podcast from WNYC and ProPublica that digs deep into the Trump family business. I’m Ilya Marritz.
CRAMER: And I’m Meg Cramer. This week, we’re exploring the Trump family business by going there. The Trump International Hotel in DC came into being almost at the exact same moment that Trump became president. In fact, he talked about it all the time during the campaign — like in this debate with Hillary Clinton.
DONALD TRUMP: I’ll give you an example. We’re just opening up on Pennsylvania Avenue right next to the White House, so if I don’t get there one way, I’m going to get to Pennsylvania Avenue another.
CRAMER: It was a big renovation project, remodeling a historic building: the Old Post Office in D.C.
TRUMP: But we’re opening the Old Post Office — under budget, ahead of schedule, saved tremendous money. I’m a year ahead of schedule. And that’s what this country should be doing.
CRAMER: There’s some debate about these claims.
MARRITZ: The ribbon-cutting at the Hotel is the following month. The month after that, Trump is elected president. If you are inclined to see problems, now you see a really big one.
REPORTER 1: Right now, there are questions raised about the Trump Hotel in DC — you know, and if the President isn’t off the lease, or off the ownership portion of it, by inauguration, he could be breaking the law.
REPORTER 2: There have been a lot of questions about whether the Trump International creates a conflict of interest, because its lease is with the federal government.
REPORTER 3: You want a favor from the President of the United States? You’re not going to go to any other luxury hotel — you’re going to go to the Trump Hotel in the Old Post Office.
[MUSIC QUIETLY PLAYS IN THE BACKGROUND]
MARRITZ: And then, Trump is sworn in. And this hotel instantly becomes a very popular place.
Trump himself has visited at least 20 times since taking office, according to The New York Times — attending fundraisers, greeting guests. As far as we know, it contains the only restaurant in DC that he’s been to since being sworn in. And a whole host of people doing business with the government have been spending their money here.
CRAMER: So many that we have begun to think of this place as the physical manifestation of the conflicts of interest between Trump’s business and his presidency.
Take, for example, T-Mobile’s CEO John Legere. A few days before we visited, he was spotted in the lobby, walking around — as he often does — in hot pink T-Mobile gear. Legere is — right now — trying to get the government to approve a big merger with Sprint. More on that later.
MARRITZ: The hotel is also the subject of three ongoing lawsuits, which claim that when local and foreign governments spend money at Trump’s property, it’s a violation of the Constitution’s anti-corruption clauses. Those are known as the emoluments clauses. Trump’s lawyer, Sheri Dillon, disagrees.
SHERI DILLON: These people are wrong. This is not what the Constitution says.
MARRITZ: She said paying for a hotel room isn’t a problem, since it’s not a gift. She pledged that the Trump Organization — under the leadership of Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, the President’s sons — would give the government any profits from the bookings. To date, the company — which the President still owns, and can take money from at any time — says it has donated over $340,000 to the US Treasury.
[LOBBY SOUNDS PLAY AGAIN]
CRAMER: Couple of things to know before we head back to the lobby — we recorded the conversations you’ll hear on cell phones to be unobtrusive. And we had permission to record, from the people we interviewed. Also, we paid for our stay.
MARRITZ: Not long after we sit down with Zach, a man approaches us, purposefully. He’s in a very nice suit, and he looks a little bit like the actor Ralph Fiennes. This is Mickael Damelincourt, the Managing Director of the Hotel.
MICKAEL DAMELINCOURT: Hey Michael.
MARRITZ: Ilya. Nice to meet you.
MARRITZ: He has these Old World good manners and a mild French accent, like a hotel manager in the movies. But this does not quite smooth out awkwardness I’m feeling.
Weeks earlier, we at Trump, Inc. published emails — his emails. The correspondence showed Damelincourt quoting a price for event spaces at the Trump Hotel to the Trump Inaugural Committee — a price that was so high, we reported it.
[CRAMER, MARRITZ, AND DAMELINCOURT ALL LAUGH]
DAMELINCOURT: I know where to find you! [CRAMER AND MARRITZ LAUGH]
MARRITZ: So yeah, it’s weird. But also cordial.
EVERSON: Very nice guy. He’s perfect for this job. I mean, you have to have that sort of personality to succeed in — in this business. And he works out of the lobby.
[INTRIGUE MUSIC PLAYS]
CRAMER: Maybe you have noticed, like we have, that the word “lobbyist” contains the word “lobby.” That’s because one comes from the other. In 16th-century London, the lobbies of the Houses of Parliament were where members of the public could meet with lawmakers. Americans turned the noun into a verb.
Trump’s lobby is a bright terrarium at the center of the building, with daylight coming down through a glass ceiling nine stories above us.
There’s a bar at one end topped with a slab of vanilla onyx. In the middle, there are dozens of couches and armchairs grouped around little tables.
At the other end you’ve got the hotel’s restaurant, BLT Prime. The top level is open to the rest of the lobby, like an indoor terrace, with potted trees placed between the tables. And near the middle of the terrace, there’s a round table in a primo spot next to a tree. In all his visits to the hotel, Zach has only seen one party seated there.
[MUSIC OUT, REPLACED BY LOBBY SOUNDS]
EVERSON: I could sense it was happening. You could start to see: They were polishing the banisters a little more. Mickael was pacing back and forth. And, you know, like, I think, “This is happening.” Then I came down to go to dinner. There’s six Secret Service guys at the bottom my elevator. I’m like, “Yeah, yeah. Game on.”
I didn’t ask any hard-hitting questions. It was Earth Day. I didn’t ask him, you know, what his thoughts are for that. I asked him what he ate for dinner.
[CLIP FROM EVERSON’S YOUTUBE VIDEO PLAYS]
EVERSON: What did you order, sir?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Steak.
EVERSON: He said, “Steak,” and gave me a look, and I got a nice little video of it. And that was kind of what I wanted to see that. Because I was here and was a customer of the Trump Hotel, I got a kind of cool interaction with the President.
[HEAVY, TWANGY MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: Sometime around 5, I learn that my room is ready for me. I head on up to the top floor. It takes two elevators. There’s a complimentary copy of Trump Magazine waiting for me. The motto? “LIVE LUXURY, NEVER SETTLE.” And I take stock of everything that’s gold: the taps, the toilet handle, the toilet paper rack, towel hooks, trash can, soap dish, Kleenex box, shower head, drain. And I head back down to Zach. I don’t want to miss anything.
[NIGHTTIME MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: And since I’ve been gone, the place has transformed. It takes me a minute to figure it out what changed. But the lighting is dimmed, the music is louder, and the tourists are gone.
They’re replaced by women in long, slinky dresses and men in tuxes. There’s an event going on tonight in the ballroom next door. It’s a fundraiser for an anti-abortion group called “Save The Storks.” Kirk Cameron — the former teen heartthrob from Growing Pains — is supposed to be there, but we don’t see him in the lobby. Instead we see a singer who’s name I’m learning for the very first time: Joy Villa. Big hair, metallic jacket.
EVERSON: Oh, she has a fan. Joy.
MARRITZ: Where is she?
EVERSON: The guy’s, like, shaking hands — sook hands with her and with her companions.
MARRITZ: Joy Villa has a single titled “Make America Great Again!” She’s known for doing red carpet at the Grammys in a gown with a much larger-than-life-size fetus painted on the side. Her handbag read, “CHOOSE LIFE.” Zach says she’s an example of a type you often see here.
EVERSON: I mean, they’re here to be recognized. If you are a celebrity in Trump World, you don’t sit in the Trump Hotel’s lobby to have a quiet moment to journal or, you know, think about your day. You’re there to be seen.
MARRITZ: Later that night, we spot Dr. Sebastian Gorka, the sui generis American-Hungarian-Brit and former White House aide, holding court. Our butts, by now, are firmly planted on a seafoam couch near the bar. Zach chose this spot for its people-watching.
EVERSON: My license to linger — I usually buy the $15 Tempranillo, [MARRITZ HUMS IN AFFIRMATION] which is pretty good.
MARRITZ: That’s about the cheapest drink on the menu. At the other end of the scale, you can drink one ounce of Hungarian tokay from a crystal spoon for $140.
[PAUSE, AMBIENCE FADES OUT TO BE REPLACED BY PLINKY MUSIC]
CRAMER: We invited someone else to help us make sense of the lobby. Anita Kumar covers the White House for Politico and, before that, for McClatchy. By the time she joins us, we’re all squeezed side-by-side, drinking tap water, and I’m pointing a smartphone her way.
ANITA KUMAR: Is this how you’re doing it?
CRAMER: This is how we’re doing it.
KUMAR: I kind of wondered. And I was like, “Is there equipment?” No. Okay.
CRAMER: In her time as a White House reporter, Anita has spent many hours covering Trump properties from the outside, in the press van, while Trump golfs or dines at one of his businesses.
KUMAR: I have not been here that often, but I have been here a couple times. And Trump staffers — White House staffers — have recommended, like, “Let’s meet at the Trump Hotel.” So it’s not that they don’t want to be here, or don’t want to be seen here. So that was — you know, people come here.
CRAMER: During the 2018 midterms, Anita kept track of the money that campaigns were spending at Trump’s DC hotel.
KUMAR: And it was really interesting because you can see — some you can see what it is. It’s, like, $50. They had a drink, or they had a steak or something. And some are spending thousands of dollars. And so we called some of ‘em — all Republicans — we call their offices or call the campaigns and asked, “Why did you come here?,” like, “What was it about this place that drew you here?” And many people didn’t want to talk to us. Some told us, “It’s a great bar, it’s a great restaurant. It’s a great atmosphere. It’s the best place in town. Why would we not want to come?” But I remember Senator Paul’s office — or campaign had said, “Donors want to come here. So if the donors want to come here for a fundraiser we should give them what they want.”
[AS THE AMBIENCE FADES OUT, MEANDERING MUSIC COMES IN]
CRAMER: A spokesperson for Senator Paul said, “Donors love that location, and when you’re raising money it makes sense to hold events where the donors like to be.”
[A MOMENT OF MUSIC]
CRAMER: We order drinks. Zach gets the $15 Tempranillo. It’s 6:45. And I have somewhere to be.
[A LOW HUM REPLACES THE MUSIC]
CRAMER: I have a meeting with a group of people who would be here no matter whose name was on the building: the Washington Ringing Society. They meet every Thursday to ring the official bells of Congress, which hang in the tower of the Old Post Office. As I learned, this is not technically “part” of the hotel.
QUILLA ROTH: Well, it’s in the building.
RICK DUPUY: It’s — it’s in the Old Post Office tower.
ROTH: It predates the hotel.
CRAMER: Quilla Roth and Rick DuPuy are members.
ROTH: I mean, the Old Post Office tower is a national park. So, they’re in a national park. [LAUGHS]
CRAMER: At 7:00, I head out to the sidewalk to hear the bells. And … They’re overpowered by the sound of an approaching motorcade. [SIRENS BLARE IN THE BACKGROUND] It slows down and turns the corner, heading towards the back entrance of this hotel. I can see Vice President Pence’s frosty hair through the window. Minutes later, they’re in the ballroom giving a speech.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: … more than 20 states. Save the Storks has saved 5,000 lives! [APPLAUSE]
CRAMER: Mike Pence visited the Trump International Hotel in DC nine times last year. Political groups affiliated with Pence have been spending big money here — something reporters like Politico’s Anita Kumar have noticed. Since the beginning of 2017, political groups have spent over $1.8 million, just at Trump’s DC hotel.
[KEYBOARD MUSIC PLAYS]
KUMAR: Doesn’t that tell you something? There is a reason they’re going, and it can’t just be that it has a really good steak. They want access. They want access to people who come here, but they want access to people that are close to Trump, maybe President Trump himself.
[MUSIC OUT, REPLACED BY AMBIENT NOISE]
MARRITZ: Later, alone at the bar, I really just want to sip my beer and make notes. But I quickly learn that writing in a reporter’s notebook as a little bit like showing up at church in your bathing suit.
A couple women seated near me start to ask questions. “Oh my god! Are you a writer? Are you writing about us?” I tell them what I do. And when I ask them what they do, they sort of clam up, and they tell me they do PR. Political PR.
Twenty minutes later, the same exchange repeats itself, with a different duo. So I put away my pad and just hang out.
The place looks and feels like an ad for premium liquor. Everyone seems to be in their 30s, they’re well looked-after, they’re laughing at each other’s jokes. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger.
And when I head up to my room a little after midnight, the music is still pumping. I can hear it through the gap at the bottom of the door, as I drift off to sleep.
[A BEAT OF MUSIC, THEN SILENCE]
CRAMER: A few hours after Ilya goes to bed, I wake up with a plan.
CRAMER: It’s about 3:00 in the morning. I set my alarm because I want to just make sure that I saw at least what was going on in the lobby at some point in the night.
CRAMER: I climb out of bed, leave my pajamas on, pull on a pair of sneakers, and walk out to the balcony overlooking the lobby.
CRAMER: Keycard. [THE SOUND OF CRAMER LEAVING THE ROOM, THEN A VACUUM]
CRAMER: There’s someone vacuuming in one corner, another person is sweeping behind the bar. And there are three people in evening wear —
CRAMER: I hear some voices down there.
CRAMER: — hanging out around a small table in the middle of the lobby.
CRAMER: I’m, like, a little underdressed to be approaching interview guests.
[A BEAT, A TRANSITION]
CRAMER: Hi there. Sorry to bother you. I’m a — I’m a reporter … [FADES OUT]
CRAMER: This is the first time all night, by the way, that I have convinced someone to let me record our conversation. It doesn’t take much — Jen Lux is a very friendly person.
JEN LUX: Talk to me, goose.
CRAMER: Yeah, yeah. [LAUGHS]
LUX: Where are you from?
CRAMER: Jen lives in DC and works in “political operations.”
LUX: I’ve been doing it since John McCain in 2008. Which has nothing to do with Trump in 2019.
CRAMER: She’s at the hotel tonight for the Save the Storks Charity Ball.
CRAMER: Were you working at that, or were you attending?
LUX: [QUICKLY] Nope! Attending.
CRAMER: [HUSHED] Did you see Kirk Cameron?
LUX: I did see Kirk Cameron. [LAUGHS] And I’m a child of the ‘80s, so I understand what that means.
CRAMER: It’s been a while since she and her friends have seen each other, so they’re lingering in the lobby, drinking water and talking.
LUX: If you have the leftovers from the event, we’re the leftovers of the leftovers who are just trying to catch up on, like, family.
CRAMER: I get the sense this is all I’m going to learn about Jen Lux, because once I sit down next to her — my pajamas, next to her evening gown — she starts interviewing me.
LUX: How long have you been in journalism? Did you study journalism or communications?
CRAMER: I studied history.
LUX: Such a beautiful thing to study. Where were you?
CRAMER: A few minutes later I say thanks and goodnight.
CRAMER: Thank you.
LUX: Thank you! It was, like, so nice to meet you. I hope you, like, sleep well and the beds are lovely and all the things.
CRAMER: Thank you.
[WANDERING ELECTRIC GUITAR MUSIC PLAYS]
CRAMER: 3:16 AM. It’s been about 12 hours since we checked into the President’s hotel. In that very short period of time we have seen a Nigerian presidential candidate, the current Vice President of the United States, at least two Trump world celebrities — Ilya saw Reince Priebus going into the restaurant at one point. And a lot of people like Jen Lux — people who are not necessarily here to get Trump’s attention, but who were drawn to this place — directly or indirectly — by the powerful pull of Trump’s celebrity.
We’ll be right back.
[MUSIC PLAYS OUT TO MIDROLL]
MARRITZ: Time to greet the day.
MARRITZ: It’s 8:30. I’m meeting a friend who just moved to DC. He seems surprised the hotel is so nice. The waiters are attentive. The coffee is good. There’s no one much here except us and the Nigerians.
MARRITZ: AND I’m looking at a table of [COUNTING] one — two — three — four … I think 13 or so people. And everyone’s having breakfast. They look happy. Every so often, people who seem to be friends or supporters come by, shake hands, make the rounds.
MARRITZ: I’m watching their body language, trying to figure out who here is the candidate for President, Atiku Abubakar. Later, I learn Abubakar wasn’t at the table when I was there. Maybe he was heading off to visit Congress, or doing TV back home.
REPORTER: So, let me begin by asking you, why did you decide to go to the U.S. now?
ATIKU ABUBAKAR: Well, uh, I had invitations from a number of organizations in the U.S., and I felt this is the appropriate time to come.
CRAMER: If you look closely over Abubakar’s shoulder, you can see he’s doing this particular interview from one of the upper floors of the Trump Hotel.
[PIANO MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: There’s a lot to learn about this man. [PAUSE] Before going into politics, Abubakar had a 20-year career as a Nigerian customs official. In the 1990s, he and his wife lived in the suburbs of Washington D.C.
CRAMER: In 1999, he became Nigeria’s Vice President. Some years later, an American member of Congress, William Jefferson — Democrat from Louisiana — was jailed for arranging a bribe that prosecutors said was intended for Abubakar.
MARRITZ: In 2010, Abubakar’s name came up again. A Senate committee produced a detailed report on how the proceeds of foreign corruption sometimes end up in the United States. Abubakar is mentioned more than 300 times. He is believed to have moved over $40 million in suspect funds into the U.S.
CRAMER: Now, many Nigerians like Atiku Abubakar. But the knock on him — the thing that might keep him from winning this election? It’s corruption. He’s asked about it all the time.
REPORTER: You avoided going to America for the past 12 years because of corruption. Do you think your visit to the U.S. right now will set the record straight?
ABUBAKAR: I have always maintained there is no corruption issue with the US. [FADES OUT]
[GUITAR MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: He hasn’t been charged with crimes, and he says he’s not corrupt. About ten years ago, the State Department reportedly barred Abubakar from visiting the United States.
CRAMER: And then, in the fall of 2018, Abubakar and his party hired two lobbyists close to Trump. One is Brian Ballard. Years ago, he was Donald Trump’s lobbyist when he wanted to establish a casino in Florida. Now, he’s what Politico called “The Most Powerful Lobbyist in Trump’s Washington.”
A partner at Ballard, Jamie Rubin, told us the firm worked only on supporting the democratic process in Nigeria — not on Abubakar’s travel.
The other lobbyist is Scott Mason. He used to run Congressional relations for Trump’s campaign and transition team. Disclosures filed by Mason show he lobbied Congress, the State Department, and the National Security Council on “visa issues.”
Mason’s firm did not comment. As we saw with our own eyes, Abubakar got a visa.
[SOUNDS FROM THE LOBBY]
MARRITZ: Down in the atrium, Abubakar’s retinue is swelling and spilling over onto more and more loungers and settees, till they take up about a quarter of the space.
I spot two guys who look like they could be aides to the candidate, and so I start a conversation. Within seconds, a hotel manager plants himself between me and the Nigerians.
Without acknowledging me, he tells them, “Ilya is a reporter. Do you know that?”
The Nigerians don’t seem fazed. So, I give them my card and we continue talking. One of them tells me, “We need to put Nigeria on the right path.” He says Abubakar is in Washington for discussions on trade and the economy. He chose this hotel because it’s convenient, and a nice place to stay.
[HEAVY, SLOW PIANO MUSIC]
DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: I always wonder what this place would be like if Trump had not won, you know? Who would be here? I’m sure, it would be a beautiful hotel. But how different would the clientele be if Donald Trump was still Donald Trump the businessman, rather than president.
CRAMER: David Fahrenthold met us at the hotel at breakfast time. He covers Trump’s businesses for The Washington Post.
He and his colleague Jonathan O’Connell have been reporting on who spends money at Trump’s hotel, and what kind of influence they might want.
They wrote about a hotel guest we mentioned earlier in this episode: T-Mobile CEO John Legere.
FAHRENTHOLD: The T-Mobile story that we got was different because it was such a close tie between somebody wanting something from Trump’s administration and paying money to Trump’s business. So we got to hold these things called “VIP arrivals lists,” the things that the staff here gets from their managers everyday to say, “Here are the most important people checking in.”
CRAMER: People like friends of the Trump family, or big spenders at the hotel, or important people in Washington.
FAHRENTHOLD: They tell the staff, you know, “Be on the lookout so you can greet people by name.” And we got those for April 30th of 2018, last year. So April 30th is the day after T-Mobile, this company based in Seattle, announces a huge merger with Sprint that they need the Trump administration to approve. This merger — they’re going to — they’ll make a lot of money.
CRAMER: The next day, nine executives from T-Mobile check into the Trump Hotel. They come back again and again.
FAHRENTHOLD: This is not nine people from the accounting department or, you know, nine people from the T-Mobile store in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s nine of the top executives at headquarters, including John Legere, who was their — their outspoken CEO. My co-reporter Jonathan O’Connell found him and asked him, “Why are you here?” And he said, “I just feel very comfortable here, you know? And, also, I’m here to lobby the Justice Department and it’s right across the street.”
MARRITZ: We asked the White House and the Trump Organization if there are any protocols in place to prevent President Trump from knowing who patronizes his D.C. hotel or other Trump properties. They made no reply to this, or any of our other questions.
FAHRENTHOLD: And, you know, if there’s not, like, an explicit order — which we haven’t found — have Donald Trump saying, “Hey, if you want something from me — you know, from my government — come stay at my hotel.” People are stupid, right? In Washington, everybody wants a leg up. Everybody wants to influence government in every possible way they can. So if you think this will help you, why not? In the grand scheme of things, given how much people spend on lobbying in Washington, even a really expensive hotel room is a drop in that bucket.
MARRITZ: We’re two years into this thing, so I’ve spent a lot of time looking back at the articles that were written in January of 2017, and now it’s January of 2019. What does that mean, those — those two years of accumulated social action in this space?
FAHRENTHOLD: It’s a really interesting — to me, a sign of how Trump has become the Republican Party. You know, there’s no Republican headquarters but here. There’s no — if you’re going to gather as Republicans in Washington, this is the place to do that. That — I’m not sure that place really existed before. We’ve talked to people here — Republicans who are here … There’s often so much drama and negativity outside this building for them. Their — you know — because of trade wars and tariffs and stock market problems and declining poll numbers. Here, it’s always, you know, November 8th, 2016. You know, there are always winners, then surrounded by people who were there when they won. So it’s a — I think somebody called it a safe space. You know, they come in to — to be with other people and revel in that moment that they had together.
MARRITZ: They’re, like, a hotel at Disney World that does New Year’s Eve every night is? [FAHRENTHOLD LAUGHS] Is it — it’s, like, the analog for that.
FAHRENTHOLD: Yeah, it’s similar. It’s — and the people who were there on November 8th, 2016, that were part of that victory, even if they’ve fallen from grace in the Trump world, you’re never, you know, everybody knows your name here. You know, they are celebrated here in a way that doesn’t go away.
MARRITZ: And what about the ongoing conflict of interest?
FAHRENTHOLD: The conflict of interest thing is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in modern American history. I want to know how this — not necessarily how it ends, but how it is in a year. You know, we’ve gone through a period where there’s been so little inter— interest in official Washington scrutinizing what’s happening here. That’s over. There’s going to be lot more scrutiny now. I don’t know what that will look like in a year and if it will seem as great of an idea for Trump to set up his own hotel five blocks in the White House in a year as it does today.
[HEAVY GUITAR MUSIC]
MARRITZ: The Trump Organization leases the Old Post Office from the federal government. They pay rent. An agency called the General Services Administration manages the lease.
Last month, the Inspector General of that agency published a review of how the GSA handled the potential conflicts of interest that came with Trump being elected President.
CRAMER: Without saying whether it’s proper or improper for the U.S. President to have a financial interest in the hotel, the authors of the report faulted the GSA for not even considering the question. They said the agency ignored the Constitution.
And then they basically said, “Don’t let that happen again.” The GSA agreed with the recommendations.
MARRITZ: So long, thank you!
CRAMER: And with that, we checked out of the Trump International Hotel in D.C.
MARRITZ: Afterwards, Meg and I both had this feeling. “Boy, were we lucky to see so much in less than 24 hours. Dr. Sebastian Gorka. The Stork Ball. Vice President Pence. A candidate for President of Nigeria. How fortunate that we picked this day, of all days, to be here!”
Thing is, you could get lucky here any day of the week.
Each weekday morning, the latest issue of Zach Everson’s “1100 Pennsylvania” newsletter arrives in my inbox, and I am always excited to open it up and see what he’s written. It is stuffed with social media showing lobbyists and cabinet officials enjoying themselves here.
Guests here have included the prime minister of Malaysia, the governor of Maine … A lobbyist for the Saudi government once booked 500 rooms in just three months.
EVERSON: I’ve suggested that the DC media should have a Trump Hotel press pool like they have a White House one but they should pitch in and have somebody here every night from 6 to 11, and just see what you can get.
MARRITZ: I’d go one step further. It’s not just journalists who should see this place — everyone should. All Americans.
CRAMER: On our way out, we had one more stop. We didn’t want to leave without properly checking out the national park. From the top of the Old Post Office tower, you can see most of Washington, including the White House.
CRAMER: [OVER MARRITZ LAUGHING] Gosh, it looks so much bigger on TV!
CRAMER: To the south, on the Mall, the Save the Storks people were gathering for the March for Life.
As for the people we saw at the hotel: Joy Villa made headlines a few weeks later with her “Build the Wall” dress at the Grammys. The gown included a sculptural ball of barbed wire on each shoulder.
Mike Pence’s Political Action Committee disclosed spending of more than $36,000 at the Trump Hotel in the space of just two months.
In the lobby, Ilya kept bumping into Mickael Damelincourt, the hotel’s director. Each conversation was a little bit less awkward. And by the time we left, Ilya felt that they’d really bonded.
MARRITZ: And Atiku Abubakar? Well, as we recorded this episode, the results of the Nigerian election were still coming in, but it seemed pretty clear he would finish in second place, without the votes to win. Abubakar’s party said it could challenge the results.
[CREDITS MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: Coming up on Trump, Inc., Michael Cohen is scheduled to testify publicly before the House Oversight Committee. If that happens, you’ll be hearing from us.
If you enjoyed this show, please leave us a review on iTunes. And if you haven’t already, subscribe to our newsletter at TrumpIncPodcast.org.
CRAMER: Speaking of newsletters, if you have not yet subscribed to Zach Everson’s “1100 Pennsylvania,” I would highly recommend checking it out. We here at Trump, Inc. are big fans.
This episode was produced by Katherine Sullivan. The Senior Producer of Trump, Inc. is Meg Cramer. Wayne Shulmister mixed the episode, with help from Hannis Brown, and Bill Moss is the technical director. Charlie Herman and Eric Umansky are the editors, with Nick Varchaver. Special thanks this episode to Zach Everson, Anita Kumar, David Fahrenthold, Jonathan O’Connell, and the Washington Ringing Society.
Robin Fields is ProPublica’s Managing Editor. Jim Schachter is the Vice President for News at WNYC, and Steve Engelberg is the Editor-in-Chief at ProPublica. Original music composed by Hannis Brown.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.