I’m no Trump fan, but Sunday’s New York Times article, The Swamp That Trump Built, which major media figures will likely call a “bombshell,” is filled with innuendo but little proof that spending at Trump properties actually buys influence.
The story does document that Trump’s private properties, particularly Mar-a-Lago in Florida, have become favor-seeking cesspools, with individuals, organizations and companies directing business there. The story also makes it crystal clear that the influence-seeking spending has been lucrative for Trump properties.
The story also documents that an awful lot of individuals, groups and companies that patronized a Trump property had business before the administration.
But The Times went further. It asserted that the favor-seekers got what they wanted for their money, advancing their interests.
“An investigation by The Times found over 200 companies , special interest groups and foreign governments that patronzed Mr. Trump’s propertieswhile reaping benefits from him and his administration,” The Times reported. “Just 60 customers with interests at stake before the Trump administration brought his family business nearly $12 million during the first two years of his presidency, The Times found. Almost all saw their interests advanced, in some fashion, by Mr. Trump or his government.”
The problem is that in many cases The Times presented no hard evidence that spending by the favor-seekers at Trump properties was directly connected to favorable government decisions. Simply saying that many big spenders at Trump’s properties “saw their interests advanced, in some fashion, by Mr. Trump or his government” is not proof of malfeasance. If that is proof of corruption, all the members of Congress should be in jail.
The story is littered with references to businesses and organizations holding events at Trump properties, implying that they were buying special favors.
The Times reported, for example, that Morgan Stanley paid at least $156,882 to hold a conference at Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. in 2017, Deloitte spent at least $347,529 for a conference there in June 2017 and the Food Marketing Institute paid $1.2 million to hold conferences at Trump National Doral Miami in 2018 and 2019. But all three told The Times the events had been booked long in advance. So much for buying influence with the President.
In another case, the Times wrote about a time when a White House meeting of restaurant executives to discuss the pandemic included Tilman Fertitta, a billionaire who had once operated a café in a Trump casino. Fertitta complained that bad publicity had forced him to return millions of dollars in federal aid intended to help strapped small businesses. He asked that the administration create a second fund for the larger private restaurateur. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was noncommittal, the Times wrote, and the fund never materialized. I guess that connection didn’t pay off.
Then there’s David Storch, who the Times story suggests was involved in some influence peddling that began at Mar-a-Lago.
Shortly after Trump’s election, a Mar-a-Lago member invited Storch, an Illinois aviation executive, to a round of golf at the nearby Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach. They ran into Trump in the golf club’s dining room and the three ended up playing together. (The Times gratuitously noted that Trump International abuts the Palm Beach County jail)
According to The Times, “In the closing months of the Obama administration, Mr. Storch’s company, AAR Corp., had wrested from a rival a $10 billion contract to service State Department aircraft. The contract was to be the linchpin of AAR’s move into expanded government work. But as Mr. Trump took office, the competitor, DynCorp, was fighting the award in federal court.
DynCorp had a potentially powerful ally in the new president. It was owned by Cerberus Capital Management, whose billionaire co-founder Stephen A. Feinberg had donated generously to Mr. Trump’s election effort. Mr. Feinberg was in talks to take a senior administration role, while DynCorp would soon begin lobbying the administration to rescind AAR’s contract. On Inauguration Day, Mr. Storch took to the new president’s favorite social media platform and tweeted a picture of their (golf) game.”
That’s it. That’s all the story said. Did Storch raise the contract issue with Trump during the golf game? Did the golf game lead directly to further contacts between Trump and Storch or his representatives? Did the contact between Storch and Trump play a role in the federal court decision? What was the court’s decision? The Times story didn’t say.
The Times story also noted that The FLC Group, a Vietnamese conglomerate with a commercial airline subsidiary, hosted a conference at Trump’s Washington hotel in June 2018, promoting investment opportunities in Vietnam.The story then connected that event to the Federal Aviation Administration certifying eight months later that Vietnamese airlines could fly to the United States. Quite a leap.
Individuals and businesses seeking favors from the U.S. government have been spreading their money around since the American Revolution.
There’ve been cash payments to a Secretary of the Interior for control of federal oil reserves in Wyoming and bribes in plain envelopes to a vice president in the White House, hidden campaign contributions, donations to non-profits endorsed by a member of Congress, even purchases of advertising on a puny little Texas radio station owned by a president’s wife.
The Times story shows that the spending by favor-seekers is continuing during the Trump administration, this time in the form of paying for memberships and events at Trump properties, with active encouragement by Trump.
What the over 10,000 word story doesn’t do, however, is provide evidence of a quid pro quo, establish a clear link between all that spending and subsequent favorable government action. In other words, in its zeal to trash Trump it failed to prove its point.