President Donald Trump welcomed the Japanese prime minister at Mar-a-Lago, in front of a towering arrangement of roses. The two could have met in Washington, but Trump said his private club was a more comfortable alternative.
“It is, indeed, the Southern White House,” Trump said, greeting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in front of the press.
For Trump, there was another, hidden benefit. Money.
At Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s company would get paid to host his summit.
In the next two days, as Trump and Abe talked about trade and North Korea, Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla., club billed the U.S. government $13,700 for guest rooms, $16,500 for food and wine and $6,000 for the roses and other floral arrangements.
Trump’s club even charged for the smallest of services. When Trump and Abe met alone, with no food served, the government still got a bill for what they drank.
“Bilateral meeting,” the bill said. “Water.” $3 each.
Those payments from April 2018, revealed here for the first time, are part of a long-running pattern whose scope has become clear only in recent months.
Since his first month in office, Trump has used his power to direct millions from U.S. taxpayers — and from his political supporters — into his own businesses. The Washington Post has sought to compile examples of this spending through open records requests and a lawsuit.
In all, he has received at least $8.1 million from these two sources since he took office, those documents and publicly available records show.
The president brought taxpayer money to his businesses simply by bringing himself. He’s visited his hotels and clubs more than 280 times now, making them a familiar backdrop for his presidency. And in doing so, he has turned those properties into magnets for GOP events, including glitzy fundraisers for his own reelection campaign, where big donors go to see and be seen.
Trump says the reason is comfort. “People like my product, what can I tell you, can’t help it,” he told reporters last year.
But documents show that visits by Trump, his family and his supporters have turned the government and the Republican Party into regular customers for the family business.
In the case of the government, Trump’s visits turned it into a captive customer, newly revealed documents show. What the government needed from Trump’s properties, it had to buy from Trump’s company.
So the more he went, the more he got. Since 2017, Trump’s company has charged taxpayers for hotel rooms, ballrooms, cottages, rental houses, golf carts, votive candles, floating candles, candelabras, furniture moving, resort fees, decorative palm trees, strip steak, chocolate cake, breakfast buffets, $88 bottles of wine and $1,000 worth of liquor for White House aides. And water.
In addition, Trump’s campaign and fundraising committee paid $5.6 million to his companies since his inauguration in January 2017. Those payments — turning campaign donations into private revenue — continued even this year, as Trump fell behind in polls and his campaign ran short of money.
The combined total of these payments was more than Trump’s hotels in Vancouver and Hawaii brought him during the same period, according to financial disclosures.
The Trump Organization is not prohibited from accepting the payments. But the payments did break a key promise from 2016: Trump’s pledge that he would “completely isolate” himself from his business once in office, and put his voters’ interests above his own.
“If I win, I may never see my property — I may never see these places again,” Trump said on the campaign trail then. “Because I’m going to be working for you, I’m not going to have time to go play golf. Believe me.”
Trump still owns his businesses, but says he’s given day-to-day control to his eldest sons. There is no official total of what Trump’s company has been paid by the government and Trump’s campaign since he took office. The company and the campaign have both declined to say, and did not respond to questions for this story.
White House spokesman Judd Deere also declined to give a total.
“Any suggestion that the President has used his own official travel or the federal government as a way to profit off of taxpayers is an absolute disgrace and lie,” Deere said in a statement.
Without an official accounting of these payments, The Post has sought to compile its own.
It relied on public databases of campaign spending, and hundreds of pages of federal spending records — obtained via public-records requests, public-records lawsuits and other means.
The result is a never-before-seen portrait of the presidency as a revenue stream.
While Trump was publicly donating his $400,000 annual presidential salary, he was privately using his power to bring his businesses far more than that.
“Americans elect a president to serve the people, not profit off them. Yet President Trump exploits his office to line his pockets with taxpayer dollars,” said Ryan Shapiro of the group Property of the People, whose lawsuits and public-records requests helped bring some of the earliest details of this spending to light.
Much spending remains hidden, because some federal agencies — including the State Department, and the White House itself — have declined to release records. “The amounts we’re seeing are just the tip of the iceberg,” Shapiro said.
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The payments from taxpayers to Mar-a-Lago started in Trump’s first full month on the job, February 2017.
He was meeting Abe at the club. His aides would need rooms. According to federal policy, the most they could pay was $182.
But Mar-a-Lago was not charging $182.
“[There’s] a five bedroom house that three of the senior staff are staying in at $2,600 per night,” State Department employee Michael Dobbs wrote his colleagues, in an email later released to the public. “The two other Senior staffers (Bannon and Walsh) are expected to be charged $546 for their rooms.”
Within the State Department, emails show, officials did not seem inclined to fight. Federal rules allowed them to pay up to three times the normal limit — $546, in this case — with authorization. And the White House had authorized it. (Months later, Mar-a-Lago lowered the rate it charged the State Department to $396.15 per night, and provided partial refunds for some of the earlier charges above that.)
Within the White House, one former official said, some officials grumbled about holding the events at Mar-a-Lago. The events required dozens of staffers and enormous logistics, which had to be shoehorned into a private club on a narrow island full of other, nosy, paying guests. And there were some ethics concerns about the president repeatedly visiting his own properties.
“It’s a hell of a lot easier to do it at the White House, which is set up for it,” the former official said, speaking — like others — on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly. “It’s a pain in the [posterior] having those guys down there for the staff.”
Foreign leaders also sought the prestige of visiting the president at his vacation home because they believed it showed a close bond with the United States, two former officials said.
But Trump returned, two months later, with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“He was truly of the opinion that his property was better than anyone else’s property. And he wanted you to know it,” the former official said.
And Mar-a-Lago’s bills only got bigger that time, according to State Department records newly obtained by The Post. Now, there were florist bills: When Trump visited with Xi Jinping of China in April 2017, the club had started charging for flowers, and $50 per palm for decorative palm trees.
That same weekend, a group of White House staffers gathered in a Mar-a-Lago bar adorned with a large portrait of Trump wearing tennis whites. They kicked out the bartender “so they could speak confidentially,” according to an email Mar-a-Lago’s catering director sent to the State Department later.
The group then helped themselves to the contents of the bar: 26 servings of Patron and Don Julio tequila, 22 Chopin vodkas, and 6 glasses of Woodford Reserve bourbon, documents show.
The bill to the government: $1,005.60, including service charge. The State Department refused to pay, emails show. But ProPublica — which first revealed this bill — reported that the White House eventually did. (The White House has not responded to questions asking how much it has paid Trump’s clubs out of its own budget.)
But the most expensive — and most famous — event of the weekend was the formal dinner for 30, where Trump informed Xi about U.S. missile strikes against Syria during dessert. “The most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen,” Trump later said in an interview with Fox Business Network.
Taxpayers likely paid for that: Mar-a-Lago charged $7,700 for that dinner, a charge that appears to have covered Trump’s food, as well.
Trump returned to the club a year later for another summit with Abe. The mood that time was more tense, with North Korean missile threats looming over the two leaders.
In preparation, Mar-a-Lago bought $6,000 worth of floral arrangements.
The list of preparations filled a full page: There were three kinds of candles (votive, floating, candelabra), centerpieces, vases — and a floral plan for even the smallest of meetings. Even “National Security Council pre-briefs” got their own centerpieces, the bill showed.
Taxpayers were billed for all of it, records show.
Mar-a-Lago’s florist, Julie Miner, declined to comment, citing a nondisclosure agreement.
A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, defended Trump, saying “the President has hosted near 100 head of state/government visits since 2017” and only a fraction were at his own properties.
But, last year, Trump sought to award his own company a much bigger event: the massive Group of Seven summit, which Trump gave to his Doral golf club in Miami. That event would have brought hundreds of foreign and U.S. officials to that property. Trump reversed the decision days later, retreating under public pressure — and resistance from his own aides.
His visits brought another customer: The Secret Service.
When Trump visited Mar-a-Lago for two weeks at Christmas last year, for example, the club charged the Secret Service $32,400 for guest rooms.
In addition, Trump’s adult children have brought their father’s company another $260,000 in taxpayer revenue on their own, records show, by taking solo trips to Trump properties with their own Secret Service agents in tow.
And, in some cases, Trump’s properties even got paid on days when no Trumps were present at all.
In Bedminster, N.J., for instance, Trump’s club has charged the Secret Service $17,000 per month to rent a cottage from May to November — even on days when the family is absent. That’s an unusually high rate for the area, but a former Trump administration official said they had to pay it — to be ready, if Trump suddenly decided to visit.
Defense Department records recently obtained by The Post show a similar pattern of $17,000 payments to Trump’s club in Bedminster in recent years. Pentagon officials declined to answer questions about whether they have a cottage there, too.
In the past, the Trump Organization has defended its actions with two arguments. One is that — even if it wanted to — it couldn’t do all this for free.
“Legally, by law, you have to charge the federal government something, otherwise you get into all sorts of gift laws,” Eric Trump told Fox News in February. Eric Trump has not specified what laws he is referring to.
Ethics experts said they were baffled by that claim, since the agencies that the Trump Organization is known to have charged the most — the departments of Homeland Security, State and Defense — all have policies allowing them to accept gifts under some circumstances.
“There’s nothing that would prohibit any government employee, including the president, from offering the government something for free” if those circumstances are met, said Don Fox, who was acting director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics under President Barack Obama.
The Trump Organization’s second argument has been that — though it must charge the government something — it charges only enough to cover its costs. “If my father travels, they stay at our properties for free. Meaning, like, cost for housekeeping,” Eric Trump told Yahoo Finance last year. “If they were to go to a hotel across the street, they’d be charging them $500 a night, whereas, you know we charge them, like 50 bucks.”
Among the hundreds of transactions reviewed by The Post, there were about two dozen payments that came close to that description: On three occasions when Trump visited his hotel in Las Vegas, for instance, the Defense Department reported paying just $74.51 per night for rooms. The Defense Department declined to comment about those payments.
But, in cases where The Post could determine what room rate was charged, the Trump Organization mostly appeared to charge the maximum allowed under federal spending rules.
At Mar-a-Lago, the government was charged rates ranging from $396.15 to $650 per room, according to documents obtained by The Post and people who have seen other, unredacted receipts. The rate for the cottage at Bedminster worked out to $566 per night. Once, when Donald Trump Jr. stopped at the Trump hotel in Vancouver, the Secret Service was charged $611 per night for his agents’ rooms. The Trump Organization has not commented on these higher charges.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime “fixer” and attorney, said he saw no sign of a discount in those rates.
“That’s what anybody coming in would pay,” said Cohen, who worked at the Trump Organization through the beginning of Trump’s term. This year, he was released early from federal prison, after pleading guilty to campaign-finance violations and lying to Congress.
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The use of campaign donations to pay Trump’s businesses is not new: During the 2016 race, his campaign paid them about $12.5 million. But that time, Trump put in far more money than he got out, contributing $66 million to his own campaign.
In the 2020 campaign, he’s done the opposite.
Trump has donated a mere $8,020 to his 2020 campaign as of Oct. 14, records show. But his campaign and affiliated fundraising committees paid at least $5.6 million out to his companies. The two committees spent nearly $1 million from Sept. 1 through Oct. 14, including $97,000 for lodging at Trump hotels and nearly $800,000 for catering and ballroom rentals, records show.
RNC and campaign officials have said Trump has never ordered them to visit his clubs — but it was understood that he is more likely to attend if an event is at one of his properties.
In those two months, Trump held five campaign events at his properties — including two in the same day. On Sept. 25, he held a “Latinos for Trump” event at his Doral resort in the morning and a fundraiser at his D.C. hotel in the evening.
Trump had planned another campaign event at his D.C. hotel, but it was canceled after he tested positive for the coronavirus. His campaign is expected to commemorate election night there next week.
Paul Seamus Ryan, of the nonprofit group Common Cause, said it was legal for candidates to rent things from their own business — as long as they appeared to be paying market rates and not overcharging.
But, Ryan said, he had never seen anyone do it at the scale Trump has.
“It’s extremely unusual. Unprecedented, in my experience — 20 years or so, watchdogging money in elections,” said Ryan, an election-law expert.
Trump’s campaign spends about $40,000 per month to rent office space in Trump Tower in Manhattan, which in 2016 served as its campaign headquarters. But this year, the campaign headquarters is not in Trump Tower. It’s in Arlington, Va. None of Trump’s key staff is in New York, and Trump no longer regularly visits there.
The Trump campaign and the Trump Organization both declined to answer questions on the record about what happens now in the Trump Tower space.
Trump’s campaign and joint fundraising committee have also paid $3.2 million to rent banquet space for fundraisers at Trump properties. Campaign officials have said this is a decision that pleases both Trump and his big donors, who feel at home inside Mar-a-Lago and the Trump hotel in Washington.
In recent months, something unexpected happened to Trump’s campaign — once called a “Death Star” by former campaign manager Brad Parscale. Several campaign officials have said they could use more money for television ads in the final stretch.
It started to run short of money. The campaign’s cash on hand shrank down to $43 million, far less than that of Democratic rival Joe Biden. That was surprisingly little, for a campaign that started raising money far earlier than past incumbents seeking reelection: Trump’s 2020 campaign had been fundraising since before Trump took office in 2017. The campaign has canceled TV ad buys in key states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. In emails to prospective donors, Trump asked for money in capital letters.
“You’ve never let me down before and I know you won’t start now,” Trump wrote on Sept. 23. “Contribute ANY AMOUNT RIGHT NOW.”
The next day, Trump’s campaign paid Trump’s business $40,000 in rent, for that space in Trump Tower.
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The Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow and Philip Bump contributed to this report.