On a rainy night in late September, when President Donald Trump reportedly signaled his support for Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) candidacy for Speaker of the House, he chose the perfect setting for the favor–a private fundraiser for McCarthy and Vice President Mike Pence’s joint fundraising committee at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
McCarthy and Pence’s PAC, Protect the House, spent $154,000 to host the reception and dinner for around 300 guests at the hotel that night. That’s on top of $65,000 that Protect the House has previously spent at that venue and another $7,500 at Trump’s Bedminster golf course–all of which puts money in the pocket of the Pennsylvania Avenue hotel, just a few blocks from the White House. And that directly benefits President Trump, who neither divested from his 77% ownership of the hotel nor put them in a blind trust (as is customary for U.S. presidents) when he took office.
While it’s not clear if Trump’s support and affection for McCarthy stems from his hotel selling more than $200,000 of catering services to the congressman’s committee–McCarthy’s main competitor for the Speaker position is conservative Jim Jordan of Ohio, a Trump ally, whose campaign spent a little more than $3,000 on food and drinks during a fundraiser at the Trump International’s steakhouse last May—the president does have a track record of championing his customers and lavishing praise on his guests and customers. The venue has become a magnet for administration officials, lobbyists, and foreign officials currying favor with the president, as has been reported by Fast Company.
McCarthy isn’t the only political candidate possibly parlaying Trump Organization patronage into President Trump’s approval: The campaigns or affiliated PACs of at least eight candidates for federal or state office have spent funds at a Trump property soon before the president tapped out his coveted tweet of endorsement. Of course, as the leader of the GOP, Trump can be expected to endorse its candidates, though he only reserves his powerful Twitter account (which has 55 million followers) for favored politicos. And though it doesn’t violate campaign finance laws, the pattern does trouble ethics experts.
“This is another example of the problems that arise from President Trump refusing to divest from his businesses,” says Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to holding candidates and government officials accountable. “We don’t know whether the president is endorsing these candidates because he supports their platform and policies or whether his decision to endorse them was influenced by their spending money at the properties he still owns.”
Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an organization involved in two emoluments lawsuits against President Trump, and a former federal corruption prosecutor, also questioned if the president’s endorsements were padding his wallet. “It raises the specter that the president is essentially enriching himself by virtue of his position,” Bookbinder says. “Because if you have other politicians who think they’re more likely to get the president’s support if they spend money at his hotels or his golf courses or his other businesses, they’re more likely to do that and the president makes more money.”
White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters did not respond to an inquiry asking if President Trump considered whether or not a candidate patronized his businesses when deciding to make an endorsement. Similarly, the Trump Organization and the Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C. (the location for most of the campaign expenditures) did not reply when asked if any employees ever told a campaign that patronizing a Trump business could put the candidate in President Trump’s good graces.
The campaigns that spent money at a Trump property before receiving an endorsement tweet were reelection efforts for Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.); Reps. Tom Reed (R–NY), Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), Lee Zeldin (R-NY), and political newcomer Republican John James‘s candidacy for U.S. Senate in Michigan.
Also on Oct. 13, Trump endorsed Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), who’s in a tough reelection fight; the Barr-affiliated Building America’s Republican Representation PAC spent $292 at the D.C. hotel a few months earlier. And Trump endorsed McCarthy during his primary race as well, which was after McCarthy’scommittee made its first disbursement at a Trump property.
The campaigns and committees for the seven incumbents made one expenditure each at a Trump property before receiving the endorsement, ranging from $242 to $13,500; James made five separate purchases at Trump’s D.C. hotel (which is not in Michigan), totaling more than $2,500.
Trump has tweeted endorsements for 53 federal, state, and local candidates, meaning 15% of them also double as Trump Organization clients. Those endorsements are incredibly important, considering that there are thousands of candidates running for office in this election. In addition, as of this May, only 59 political groups (candidates and PACs) had spent money at the hotel during Trump’s presidency, meaning that a much higher percentage of candidates who’ve patronized the hotel have been endorsed by Trump compared to the candidates who haven’t spent money at his properties.
Additionally, President Trump endorsed many candidates whose campaigns didn’t patronize his properties but who were supported by unaffiliated PACs that did. For example, while the campaigns for Rep. Kevin Cramer (R–ND) and Missouri attorney general Josh Hawley (R) (who’s running for U.S. Senate) did not spend money at a Trump property, the Peter Norbeck Leadership PAC, which donated to both candidates, spent $3,422 at Trump’s D.C. hotel.
“Obviously somebody spending a hundred thousand dollars or a million dollars may be more susceptible to influence the president than somebody spending a few hundred dollars or a few thousand dollars,” said Bookbinder. “But the president has also made clear in statements that he’s made that he likes when people patronize his businesses. He think it reflects well on people and he pays attention to that.”
None of the seven campaigns or Barr’s PAC responded to inquiries asking if they spent money at the president’s properties in the hopes of getting in his good graces or receiving an endorsement.
Bookbinder and Fischer don’t think there’s anything illegal about the president touting a candidate who’s patronized his businesses unless there was some other factor. For instance, Bookbinder said if there was an agreement that the endorsement was contingent on spending money at a Trump property and was connected to Trump’s official duties as president.
For this analysis, we cross-referenced President Trump’s tweets containing “endorse” (or variations thereof) with Federal Election Commission and state records of campaign disbursements at Trump hotels and their restaurants since Trump’s inauguration. (Trump endorsed McCarthy in a July tweet, but didn’t use the word “endorse”; Fast Company came across it when looking into the would-be speaker’s relationship with the president.) We also verified expenditures were incurred before the candidate got the Trump seal of approval. For one Trump-endorsed candidate, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) (campaigning for reelection), 2018 campaign finance reports were not available publicly yet (but he is included among the 531 candidates whom Trump has endorsed).
Neither Bookbinder nor Fischer could think of a historical precedent for a U.S. elected official endorsing candidates for office who also patronized his business. “I think that speaks to the uniqueness of the Trump presidency,” Fischer said. “Most elected officials divest from having any properties that could pose a potential conflict of issue, so this is not a recurring issue.”
Bookbinder agreed. “When you have these potential conflicts of the president taking actions that benefit someone who’s bringing business to him, it’s possible that there was no affect based on that and that he made the decisions for the same reasons he always would have,” he said.
“But it’s also possible that he didn’t. There’s really no way for us to know. We shouldn’t have to be asking those questions.”