[SACCHARINE ELEVATOR MUZAK-ESQUE MUSIC PLAYS]
ILYA MARRITZ: Thursday, April 6, 2017, was a busy day at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s private club.
The president was in. And while club members made use of the six clay tennis courts [THE SOUND OF A TENNIS BALL BEING VOLLEYED], the chip and putt golf course [THE SOUND OF A GOLF BALL BEING HIT], and the beachfront bistro [THE SOUND OF GLASSES CLINKING], Trump huddled with his national security team in an improvised war room. He ordered a tomahawk missile strike on Syria, in response to a chemical weapons attack. And later, Trump welcomed leader of China, Xi Jinping, to a formal dinner. After that, he went on TV to talk about the missile strikes.
Our story begins in the evening, when a group of people — including some described as White House aides — repair to the library bar.
DEREK KRAVITZ: Which is this wood paneled study and bar in the Mar-a-Lago estate with the really famous painting of Donald Trump in, um, whites.
MARRITZ: This is Derek Kravitz, a contributing reporter at ProPublica. We don’t know how many were in this group, or who was there. But it seemed important.
KRAVITZ: They essentially kicked out the bartender, told him that, you know, “We need to take over the bar and talk about confidential business,” and they had Secret Service agents guard the door. And then it’s unclear exactly what happened next, but a lot of alcohol was consumed.
MARRITZ: How much alcohol?
KRAVITZ: So they had a bill that they broke out all of the, uh, expenses. Lemme just pull it up here.
[PAPER SHUFFLE AS KRAVITZ LOOKS FOR THE INFORMATION]
MARRITZ: It’s a big pile. Every month, Derek has been receiving a haul of emails, invoices, and other documents related to government spending. A court ordered federal agencies to release these records, after a Freedom of Information group, Property of the People, sued and won. They shared their records with us, and that’s the reason we know about any of this.
KRAVITZ: So here’s the breakdown: 22 glasses of Chopin Vodka, 16 orders of Patron Tequila, 10 glasses of Don Julio Blanco — which is a type of tequila — and six orders of Woodford Reserve.
[INTRIGUE MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: The night winds down. Everyone goes to bed. And a few weeks later, at the US State Department, a bill arrives. It’s from Mar-a-Lago’s catering manager.
KRAVITZ: So the bill has “The Mar-a-Lago Club” at the top, and then it goes through each type of alcohol consumed. So 16 glasses of tequila Patron … [FADES UNDER]
MARRITZ: 54 drinks. $838, plus a 20% service charge. It comes out to just over a thousand dollars. [PAUSE] There’s also an email exchange, between Mar-a-Lago and State.
KRAVITZ: It’s very matter-of-fact at this point, but it’s also very awkward, because, essentially, Mar-a-Lago’s trying to make the case that they need to get paid, and the White House and the State Department basically have all these outstanding bills that they haven’t accounted for and haven’t paid up. So it’s basically, like, a creditor — or someone coming after you and saying, “Okay, you need to pay this now.”
MARRITZ: Derek asked the State Department and the White House for answers about who was at this drinks night and the business purpose. They did not give an answer. Eventually, the White House — of which Donald Trump is the head — paid Mar-a-Lago — which he owns. It’s not clear whether staffers were asked to reimburse the government.
This thousand dollar bar tab was just the beginning of a getting-to-know-you process. Records show that month the State Department asked to use some meeting rooms at Mar-a-Lago for free. The club said no. This triggered a bizarre charade. In order to comply with federal contracting rules, the State Department had to set up a more or less fake bidding process so that Mar-a-Lago could collect its fee.
KRAVITZ: They were the sole source competitor — in this case, the only place that the State Department and the White House would hold functions when the President was in town.
[DRAMATIC MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: That charade is over. Last year, Trump signed a law raising the dollar threshold for these kinds of bids. Now the State Department can make large payments to Mar-a-Lago without putting them out for bid.
By choosing to travel to Mar-a-Lago, the American president can compel taxpayers to spend money at his property at any time, for any reason. And because the administration is fighting records requests, we may never get a full accounting of it.
[MUSIC BECOMES THE TRUMP, INC.]
MARRITZ: Hello, and welcome to Trump, Inc. I’m Ilya Marritz.
KATHERINE SULLIVAN: And I’m Katherine Sullivan.
MARRITZ: Trump, Inc., of course, is an open investigation from WNYC and ProPublica into the unresolved business conflicts of interest around the only president in history who owns a resort where, with enough money — and the right connections — you can get up close to the most powerful man on earth, and post it to Facebook.
[THE NOISE OF A CROWD]
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to thank everybody, what you’re doing is so important.
PERSON 1: Thank you! [CHEERING AND WHOOPING IN THE BACKGROUND]
PRESIDENT TRUMP: [INDISTINCT] … you’re great … [INDISTINCT]
PERSON 2: We love you, Trump!
MARRITZ: Today, we bring you true tales of Mar-a-Lago. They’re all different, but there are some themes: Trump wants his property to make money. Making money hinges on access. And access can come into conflict with security.
MARRITZ: Katherine, you were in Florida over Easter break to visit your parents and also to nose around Mar-a-Lago. What was it like when the President comes to town?
SULLIVAN: It’s a huge inconvenience when he comes to Palm Beach. Basically, it’s a huge traffic jam. It’s hard to drive across the island, you can’t get from north to south. People are very aware of it because they kind of have to plan around it. It’s like the weather — people know, like, what’s it going to be like this weekend? Donald Trump is going to be in town. It’s going to be a pain to drive anywhere.
MARRITZ: If Palm Beach roads weren’t exactly designed for this, neither were the rules of government spending.
And if you’ve ever filed an expense report at your work, you’ll get why this is tricky. The government has caps on room rates — guidelines on what it will and will not pay for. In 2017, the State Department, which oversees presidential diplomatic travel, made a proposal to get around all this. The Department would pay a one-time flat fee to Mar-a-Lago to cover rooms: $200 thousand.
Derek found out about this offer — which has not been previously reported — and he learned the Trump Organization rejected it.
KRAVITZ: So then the State Department had to go to Plan B, and Plan B was, “Well, we’re going to create a credit card for people traveling to Mar-a-Lago.” That’s a little unusual, but they wanted a — sort of a clean way of charging things.
MARRITZ: Wait. You’re saying, like, create, like, a special credit card just for use at Mar-a-Lago?
KRAVITZ: [AFFIRMATIVELY] A special credit card just for use at Mar-a-Lago. Specifically, a Citibank travel card. And this would be for White House and federal staff traveling with the President to Florida.
MARRITZ: We haven’t seen an image of it, but it is a physical card. It’s not entirely clear why the card was created — but maybe it’s because the club is an expensive place for someone on a government salary, and especially if you are going to be charging your own account and seeking reimbursement later.
KRAVITZ: No one wants to spend, you know, $4,000 or $5,000 on their credit card.
MARRITZ: The State Department did not comment.
SULLIVAN: According to The New York Times, Trump has spent more than 80 days at Mar-a-Lago — more often than any of his other properties.
This year, the Government Accountability Office found four presidential trips to Mar-a-Lago cost $13.6 million, mostly paid for by Department of Defense and Homeland Security, which handle a lot of travel costs. Every time the government goes to the president’s club, it spends money there. We don’t know exactly how much.
[INTRIGUGE MUSIC PLAYS]
SULLIVAN: Today, we’re going to do a slow drive-by down South Ocean Boulevard.
SULLIVAN: Oh, there’s some sailboats on the water. Oh, so nice!
MARRITZ: Trump likes to call it the “Winter White House.” We call it a (reportedly) 20-acre paradox. A private home that’s also a social club open to some members of the public. Much of what happens there is documented on Instagram and Facebook. But, as we’ll see later in this episode, one lawyer who’s trying to get official visitor logs was told, “Forget about it.”
ANNE WEISMANN: They said, “Well, we don’t really have a system for clearing in visitors like we do with the White House. I pressed pretty hard because I found it rather incredible.”
MARRITZ: This episode, we’ll see how this ad hoc system is coming under strain.
REPORTER: Secret Service has a Chinese woman in custody tonight after she successfully crossed presidential security lines at Mar-a-Lago over the weekend.
SULLIVAN: Last month, a Chinese national made her way past several layers of security at Mar-a-Lago, telling a variety of stories about why she was there.
Law enforcement says she was carrying four cell phones, one laptop, one external hard drive, and one thumb drive containing “malicious” malware. She’s now in jail, awaiting trial on charges of lying to a federal agent and entering a restricted area.
MARRITZ: Donald Trump did not seem concerned.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: The end result — it was good. I think, probably, we’ll see what happened. Where she’s from, who she is. The result is, they were able to get her. She’s now suffering the consequences of whatever it is she had in mind. But I would say, uh, I — I could not be happier with Secret Service. [FADES UNDER]
MARRITZ: It’s Donald Trump’s club. The Secret Service is just the bouncer.
SULLIVAN: Mar-a-Lago is different from a lot of the other properties Trump owns. For one, it’s old. A historical landmark, built in the 1920s, by a breakfast cereal heiress named Marjorie Merriweather Post.
MAJORIE MERRIWEATHER POST: We are about to begin. Is this all correct? Are you now set up?
MARRITZ: Post sat for an interview in 1962. She said the site was truly wilderness when she arrived.
POST: First and foremost, the jungle had to be reasonably cleared so you could get through.
MARRITZ: Her creation was Spanish-inspired. Ornate, with expensive antique tiles and tapestries.
POST: … set up in wicker furniture, very old Spanish rugs, and is most gay and colorful. [FADES UNDER]
MARRITZ: And, unbelievably enough, as she reached the end of her life, Post had this vision for her estate’s future. She wanted it to become a retreat for America’s presidents.
LAURENCE LEAMER: Mrs. Post, in her last years, decided she wanted to give Mar-a-Lago to the United States government as a winter White House. It would memorialize her. To her, it seemed a great idea. But can you imagine Jimmy Carter at Mar-a-Lago? [LAUGHS] So nobody — so no president came down here, and the government gave it back to her, back to the Foundation.
SULLIVAN: This is Laurence Leamer.
LEAMER: And I’m an author of seventeen books, including, most recently, Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace.
SULLIVAN: We met at his apartment across the street from the ocean, on the same road as Mar-a-Lago, just a mile or two up the beach. He moved to Palm Beach in 1994.
LEAMER: And I thought it was the strangest place that I’d ever seen. There’s almost nobody on the street. Everything is hidden behind hedges. I thought, “What a bizarre place! I’ll come here and write a book.”
SULLIVAN: Trump bought Mar-a-Lago in 1985. It had been sitting vacant for over a decade. The asking price was $20 million. Leamer writes that Trump bought it — with all its custom furnishings — for around $10 million, paid in cash with a secret loan from Chase Manhattan bank.
This is turning point number one in our history of Mar-a-Lago: a young and brash Donald Trump sets out to bring back its old splendor. Leamer knows, he’s been there.
LEAMER: Yeah, I go often. Yeah. I played tennis. I’ve been there for all kinds of events.
SULLIVAN: Can you describe it?
LEAMER: Oh, it’s an exquisite place. I mean, it’s one of the most — maybe the most beautiful places in America.
SULLIVAN: Leamer has since been banned from Mar-a-Lago because of his book.
LEAMER: And Trump did a wonderful job of restoring it. He didn’t use his taste, which is mediocre at best. He stayed with what was already there. And he, again — he deserves great credit for the way he keeps and he keeps it perfect now.
SULLIVAN: From the beginning, Mar-a-Lago is costly. Marjorie Merriweather Post had a staff of 39 just to run the household. And, around this time, in the ‘90s, Trump is running into serious financial trouble. A lawyer in Palm Beach gives him the idea to turn his palatial estate into a money-maker.
SULLIVAN: In 1995, Mar-a-Lago opens as a private club. Turning point number two.
Trump busts the stuffy norms of Palm Beach, where clubs have restrictive rules of entry and conduct. At Mar-a-Lago, it’s money that gets you in the door.
LEAMER: Everybody who comes to this island changed to become part of it, to be accepted. He didn’t do that. He was his own person, you know? He’d bring in these models who do all these crazy wild parties. Nobody had done that before. I mean, it just outraged Palm Beach. That’s Donald Trump. For good or bad, that’s Donald Trump.
SULLIVAN: Charity galas, the bread and butter of Palm Beach social life, start moving their events to Mar-a-Lago’s small ballroom.
LEAMER: But then he wanted to have the biggest ballroom on the island, to have the biggest events. So he built this incredible ballroom for $40 million. And you and I would probably say, “What a waste, what a waste!” But it works. These people come — they just come in, line up to get in there, do anything to get in there.
SULLIVAN: What’s the name of it?
LEAMER: Wh— How can you ask? It’s the Donald Trump Ballroom.
[MUSICAL FLOURISH, THEN OUT]
SULLIVAN: The ballroom is big business for the Club. The Washington Post reports that events at Mar-a-Lago can bring in up to $275,000 in revenue in just one night.
And then, turning point number three: Marjorie Merriweather Post’s wish comes true.
TODAY SHOW REPORTER: Donald Trump’s home here in Palm Beach is quickly earning the title “the Winter White House.” Trump has spent the past 20 Thanksgivings here. But now, as president-elect, everything is different.
SULLIVAN: Right after Trump is inaugurated, membership fees double, to $200,000. For the first time, the owner of the place seems to maybe matter more than the amenities.
LEAMER: People are getting in there because they want to get close to Trump. You know, it’s a different — a different place now. It’s not as interesting. Nothing about it is as good as it was. Food is not as good. Nothing is as good.
SULLIVAN: Still, Palm Beach society and Donald Trump are in sync. It really is the Winter White House.
Now, for turning point number four: In August, 2017 Donald Trump weighs in on the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: But you also have people that were [PAUSE] very fine people on both sides.
SULLIVAN: The biggest charities that have been mainstays at the club for decades cancel their events: the Red Cross, the Palm Beach Zoo, the Salvation Army, and the American Cancer Society. More than 20 charities pull out. For the first time in years, Mar-a-Lago’s calendar is wide open.
[A LONG MOMENT OF MUSIC]
MARRITZ: Nature abhors a vacuum. So do expensive social clubs. [PAUSE] We’ll be right back.
[MEANDERING MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: We’re back. After Charlottesville, Mar-a-Lago’s most prominent charity balls pulled out. An important revenue stream was cut off. So who filled the gaps?
SULLIVAN: Before I flew down to Palm Beach, I spent a lot of time trawling Instagram to see who had been posting about Mar-a-Lago — who was going there after all those events cancelled.
What I saw was a large number of models, modeling promoters, and people involved in politics. The YouTube stars Diamond and Silk, for example, if you know them.
My friend Sarah Blaskey is a reporter at The Miami Herald, where she’s been closely covering Mar-a-Lago’s guest list. She found someone else who was spending a lot of time at Mar-a-Lago. Enter Li Yang, who also goes by “Cindy.”
SARAH BLASKEY: I first heard about Cindy Yang in business records that were related to the Asian day spa where New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was busted, allegedly receiving sexual acts by one of the masseuses.
[A NEWS CLIP ABOUT THE EVENT PLAYS]
REPORTER: Well, detectives say that they have video of Super Bowl champion New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft paying for a sex act. Police in Florida say he made two different visits to an illicit massage parlor called “Orchids of Asia” day spa. Kraft faces … [FACES DOWN]
[THE NEWS CLIP ENDS]
SULLIVAN: You probably saw the headlines about Kraft. It’s Yang’s story that reveals something about Mar-a-Lago. Yang was the founder of the massage parlor patronized by Robert Kraft. That’s why Sarah was looking into her. Pretty soon, she came across Yang’s Facebook page. At the top —
BLASKEY: — was Cindy Yang, pictured with Donald Trump at the Trump International Golf Course watching the Super Bowl. And so that’s kind of where this whole thing started. It was an accident.
SULLIVAN: More pictures. Working backwards, you could see her social climbing world of Florida GOP in a short span of time. [EACH NAME PUNCTUATED BY THE CLACKING OF COMPUTER KEYS] Here she is with Florida Governor-elect Ron deSantis, there’s Governor-turned-Senator Rick Scott, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Don Jr., and Eric Trump.
BLASKEY: Furthermore, she had a website where she would also post these photos. And on that website she marketed her ability to gain access to the president to overseas Chinese businesspeople.
SULLIVAN: If you want to go to Mar-a-Lago, there are 3 ways you can do it:
Number 1: you can become a member. That will cost you $200,000 up front, plus annual dues of around $14,000.
Number 2: You can go as a guest of a member, to eat, drink, or hang out by the pool.
Number 3: You can buy a ticket to one of the club’s many events. Some of these go for as cheap as $250 for a lunch event.
As far as we know, Yang was not a member. She used this third way: buying tickets to events in bulk, getting her and her clients — mostly buyers from China — close to the President. After Charlottesville, it was easier to get these tickets, with big name organizations gone and new, smaller organizations filing in.
So, Yang was getting tickets to some of these events. Then, she would publicize them, in Chinese, on her website and on WeChat, a social media website popular in China.
BLASKEY: And it would essentially have the same date as the event and all of the sort of same information except for it would say something like, “Come to this gala of international elites.” It would use vague language and often sort of promote the idea that you could use this opportunity to meet Donald Trump and/or his family.
SULLIVAN: This business was so robust, so successful, that at times it was noticeable.
BLASKEY: There was actually a funny story. So, one of the first events that Cindy Yang promoted at Mar-a-Lago was an event that was called the “Friends of Israel event.”
[AUDIO FROM THE EVENT PLAYS]
EMCEE: Thank God for this wonderful organization, The Truth About Israel. [CLAPPING, THEN FADE DOWN]
BLASKEY: And it had come in last-minute. And what ended up happening is that, according to a staff member at Mar-a-Lago, as people are up there giving these passionate speeches about Israel, half the crowd is Chinese and doesn’t speak English very well and they’re actually just sort of standing on their phones not paying attention, so a staff member says, you know, half the people are really passionate about the topic. The other half the people are passionate about taking pictures and coming up to staffers and sort of asking, you know, “Where’s the President?”
One woman apparently went up to the staffer and said, “Here’s a video of my daughter singing. Can you help me, like, have my daughter sing for the President of the United States?”
SULLIVAN: Since the Herald’s story about Yang’s business broke, she has come under investigation and her website has been taken down. Yang’s lawyers did not respond to our request for comment. In an interview with NBC News, Yang says she’s been treated unfairly.
CINDY YANG: Nobody else has happened, only me. I think it’s because I’m Chinese. I’m the, you know, Chinese Republican, that’s the issue.
[PIANO MUSIC ENTERS]
SULLIVAN: Another way to look at it: Cindy Yang has a good instinct for what people will pay for.
BLASKEY: And this idea that there is a tourism industry centered around President Donald Trump selling specifically Chinese businesspeople mostly access to a United States President is something very specific that we didn’t know about before.
SULLIVAN: This product has a market. In fact, it has a secondary market.
While Yang is buying tickets in bulk, selling them to Chinese buyers, there are more downstream bundlers, repackaging Yang’s tickets into all-inclusive tours of places in the U.S. where powerful people gather. One guy who does that is known as Charles Lee.
BLASKEY: So Charles Lee might promote a tour that would include a stop at at Wall Street in New York, and then they would fly to D.C. and see the Capitol the next day, and then the following day the trip would end at Mar-a-Lago at one of these events that Cindy Yang had been promoting.
SULLIVAN: One trip featured on Yang’s website shows her and others at a Department of Commerce event where Secretary Wilbur Ross was speaking.
BLASKEY: You get to travel in a Mercedes Benz and eat at nice restaurants and that kind of thing. So, yeah. It’s, like, an all-inclusive business diplomacy travel package.
SULLIVAN: Here’s where things take another strange turn.
BLASKEY: On March 30th of this year, Yujing Zhang, a 33 year-old Chinese national, was arrested trying to go into Mar-a-Lago by Secret Service and she told them that she was going to this event: Safari Night 2019. She didn’t call it that. But that was the event she had paid to attend.
SULLIVAN: Safari Night 2019 was a fundraiser that Yang and Charles Lee were both promoting on their websites. Zhang bought her ticket from Lee. The event had been canceled — Zhang knew about the cancelation, but showed up anyway with a different story about why she was there.
I wanted to see how far Zhang got with my own eyes.
[THE AMBIENT SOUNDS OF NATURE PLAY]
SULLIVAN: Here we go!
SULLIVAN: So I went to Mar-a-Lago.
SULLIVAN: The flag is huge. The grass is nice.
SULLIVAN: Trump was scheduled to arrive the next day. The front gates were wide open.
SULLIVAN: Here comes somebody.
MAR-A-LAGO EMPLOYEE: [FAINTLY] Can I help you?
SULLIVAN: I’m a reporter. And I’m wondering if I could speak to … [FADES DOWN]
[PIANO MUSIC INTENSIFIES]
SULLIVAN: I didn’t get too far. About three-quarters up the driveway, I was told to leave. Zhang got much further. According to the government’s criminal complaint, on her way into the club’s reception area, she passed: seven “Restricted Access” warning signs, five Secret Service agents, one Mar-a-Lago manager, one Mar-a-Lago security officer, and one magnetometer — like a metal detector. Eventually, she was stopped by the receptionist.
JUDGE: You are also charged with entering a restricted building. [FADES UNDER]
SULLIVAN: Zhang’s initial court appearance was on April 1st. The Miami Herald got this tape and shared it with us.
BLASKEY: She entered the courtroom the first day that I was there clenching her fists so hard they were turning red, holding them up against her chest as she sort of repeatedly glanced at the crowd in the room and gnawed on her bottom lip.
SULLIVAN: The main charge she’s facing is lying to a federal agent. Zhang has a public defender. And in court, she has a translator.
YUJING ZHANG: [BEGINS SPEAKING IN CHINESE, FOLLOWED BY A TRANSLATION BY A TRANSLATOR] Um, having an attorney. If possible, I would like my family — I would like to be able to talk to my family, and let them — and discuss with my family for them to hire an attorney for me. Um, so I would really like to be able to make an international call. If not … [FADES DOWN]
SULLIVAN: She’s been denied bail, and is considered a flight risk. Her trial is scheduled to start in late May. She’s pleading not guilty. Her public defender declined to comment.
There’s something very important that Sarah Blaskey and her colleagues at the Herald learned from Zhang’s arrest.
BLASKEY: We were made aware of a much broader counterintelligence investigation that the FBI had launched in South Florida prior to all of this coming out, focusing on possible Chinese spying and Mar-a-Lago — and certainly Cindy Yang’s business of selling access through Mar-a-Lago is now a focus of that broader investigation.
SULLIVAN: To be clear, neither Yang nor Zhang have been charged with spying.
When asked for comment, the White House referred us to the Secret Service. The Secret Service said it does not determine who is permitted to enter the Club, but it does do physical screenings. Blaskey says there’s no evidence Donald Trump knew what was going on, or approved of it.
[STRINGS MUSIC PLAYS]
BLASKEY: But one of the things that has been raised by experts that I think is worth mentioning is that the fact that Donald Trump still owns Mar-a-Lago gives him a financial interest in letting people in, which is sometimes sort of counterposed to a national security interest — or maybe counterposed is not the right part, but it sort of creates a tension with national security, because on the one hand national security interests might say, “Let’s keep everyone away from the president.” On the other hand, in this particular case, which is unique to this particular president, he financially benefits from more people coming into his club.
[A MOMENT OF MUSIC]
MARRITZ: I suspect that if Trump were asked about Cindy Yang in the boardroom of The Apprentice, he’d compliment her. Her hustle is impressive. Instead, he was asked about Yang inside the White House.
REPORTER: [FADES UP] … Cindy Yang. Do you know her?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: No, I don’t. I don’t know who she is. Who is that?
REPORTER: She was this woman who was pictured with you at your Super Bowl party. She —
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Oh, I see. She’s the one that, uh, came to the party. [INTERRUPTING HIMSELF] I don’t know anything about her. I mean, I take a lot of pictures with people that look like a selfie or something, and I do that a lot. I do that, sometimes, depending on where I — what I — you know, where I am, or what I’m doing, hundreds of times a day.
MARRITZ: We’ve seen how President Trump allowed a selfie industry to develop around his club, Mar-a-Lago. We wanted to find out what exactly is known about who’s getting up close with the President. We got in touch with Anne Weismann.
ANNE WEISMANN: I am the chief FOIA counsel for CREW: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
MARRITZ: Is it safe to say that hardly anyone in the country has spent as many years or filed as many lawsuits as you have, concerned specifically with this issue of access to government records?
WEISMANN: Well, I have some competition, but it is safe to say that I’ve been doing this a long time, through, uh, a number of administrations.
MARRITZ: Shortly after Trump was sworn in, Weismann filed a lawsuit seeking visitor logs for the White House and Mar-a-Lago.
Under the Obama administration, her organization, CREW, sued to see who was entering the White House. Eventually, the two sides reached an out-of-court compromise: every month, the White House released redacted visitor logs. On taking office, Trump canceled that compromise.
MARRITZ: So your complaint is dated April 10th, 2017, right at the beginning of the Trump presidency.
MARRITZ: Lot of time has passed. Have you gotten the records that you were seeking?
WEISMANN: No, we haven’t gotten the records. We sued, and then they took the position that these are not agency records that are even available under the Freedom of Information Act.
MARRITZ: The way the law works, agencies must make their records available to the public. But there’s a carveout for presidential records, which aren’t covered. That’s why Trump won’t release the White House visitor logs.
When it comes to Mar-a-Lago, which is private property, the government is making a different argument. They say, aside from a few emails which have been released, there are no records.
WEISMANN: As to Mar-a-Lago, they said, “Well, we don’t really have a system for clearing in visitors like we do with the White House.” I pressed pretty hard because I found it rather incredible.
MARRITZ: Incredible as in literally not believable, or just quite something?
WEISMANN: Well, okay. So, my — my view on this has morphed from incredible-not-believable to now incredible-it’s-quite-something, because what’s come out when the woman from China who was allowed access to Mar-a-Lago — you know, that tells me that, “Yes, maybe, in fact, the Secret Service doesn’t have as active a role at Mar-a-Lago of clearing visitors than they do at the White House.” The explanation I’ve come up with — and, again, this is just me trying to piece together the dots — is that I don’t think the President wants a greater security presence at Mar-a-Lago because the job of the Secret Service is to limit access to the president. What the President is selling, in part, at Mar-a-Lago is access, and that’s what people are buying.
MARRITZ: It’s useful to compare security at the Club with security at the White House. Weissman has been there a number of times.
WEISMANN: When you enter that space you have to have had a criminal background check before you go in. You know, there’s a whole screening process. It’s monitored what entrance you come in. It’s monitored when you leave, where you departed from. You’re given certain passes, and depending on the kind of pass you get, that dictates where you can and cannot go. So there’s a — you know, a fairly intense security system and it really makes no sense why there isn’t something comparable at Mar-a-Lago.
MARRITZ: The courts have never before had to decide what the public gets to know about who’s visiting a private business owned by a U.S. president.
Last year, a district court ruled against Weismann, and CREW, on making the White House and Mar-a-Lago logs public. It’s now on appeal.
Weismann says the case could be about much more than those logs. Trump administration lawyers are talking about agency records that include White House information.
WEISMANN: And the government has argued that that information, because it says something about the president, is a presidential record. And if you think about that proposition, it has some enormous ramifications because the president functions through all of the agencies, and agencies have lots of information that you could characterize as in some way about the president — about the president’s policies, what the president has directed. If courts accept the view that all of that information — because about the president, that information is no longer accessible to the public, I think it will be like a huge curtain that will come down on our government and the ability of the public to know what’s going on.
MARRITZ: You’re saying this could actually go much further than the specific records you’re seeking.
[A QUICK MUSICAL FLOURISH]
MARRITZ: Every recent president has fought transparency, one way or another. And Weismann concedes that presidents need to have some conversations in private. Years ago, she was a Justice Department lawyer on the other side of the issue. Weismann successfully shielded Vice President Dick Cheney from having to hand over the names of energy executives he was meeting.
WEISMANN: Well, um, I argued — and I believed, as a legal matter, that it was correct — that the president and the vice president are allowed to have advisers, and you cannot compel them to disclose what it is that’s discussed. Um, I will just note — and if I seem a little chagrined at, uh, I was going to say the fact that you’ve outed me, but — I’m pretty upfront about my background. I will also note that it was actually not that long after that that I left the Justice Department. So you can draw what conclusions you want.
I do believe, as a general proposition, that, for example — that presidents have the right to have informal advisers, that they have the right to debate and discuss without the glare of the spotlight and the public on them at every moment. I think you have to strike a balance.
MARRITZ: Anne Weismann, thank you so much.
WEISMANN: Thank you.
[DRAMATIC MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: It could be years before courts conclusively resolve this issue of visitor logs at the White House and Mar-a-Lago.
Social media and news reports show these are some of the people who visited this past winter: a Bangladeshi politician convicted of forging checks in the United States, Rush Limbaugh, a man who — on his website — claims to help Russians procure American visas, a member of the Brazilian legislature who’s also the son of Brazil’s president, several members of Congress, Mike Tyson, a businessman who’s on China’s most wanted list, the President of the Dominican Republic, a real estate investor who’s wanted in Russia for his part in an alleged $170 million fraud, Yujing Zhang, Cindy Yang.
MARRITZ: Coming up on Trump, Inc., we’re taking a close look at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — the agency that was created in the wake of the great recession to regulate companies that offer things like mortgages, credit cards, student loans and payday loans.
We’re hoping to hear from people who have interacted with the Bureau in recent weeks. Maybe you filed a complaint against a debt collector or credit card company. Or, you work for a company that’s being investigated by the Bureau. We want to know what happened to your case. We also want to hear from people who work at the Bureau and who have left recently.
[CREDITS MUSIC PLAYS]
SULLIVAN: Trump, Inc. is produced by Meg Cramer. Associate producer is Alice Wilder. Bill Moss is the technical director. Editing by Charlie Herman, Eric Umansky, Nick Varchever and Robin Fields.
MARRITZ: Special thanks this episode to The Miami Herald and their investigative team, especially Sarah Blaskey, Caitlin Ostroff, and Casey Frank. Justin Sink of Bloomberg News, Nick Leone, Beth Fertig, the Bentley Historical Library, and Property of the People, and Ken and Eileen Sullivan.
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.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: [OVER LIGHT MUSIC] Well, I think Mar-a-Lago is certainly the most spectacular state in the United States. And, interestingly, when Prince Charles came to Palm Beach, he came to play polo and see Mar-a-Lago. And the first thing he did is see Mar-a-Lago. And I say, “You may be the only person I know that has a house that’s nicer than this,” — meaning Buckingham Palace — and he said, “Well, I’m not so sure about that.”
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