Special interest groups press case at Trump properties

Tami Abdollah and Stephen Braun
Associated Press

Washington – Payday lenders got regulators to rethink rules on how closely to vet borrowers. E-cigarette makers got a delay in federal oversight of many vaping products. Candy makers praised a decision to hold off on more stringent labeling standards. And title insurers declared “victory” for getting changes that benefited them in the tax overhaul.

What do all these American special-interest groups have in common? They were among those that booked meetings, retreats and conferences at hotels and golf resorts owned by President Donald Trump.

While it’s impossible to draw a direct link between where groups seeking to influence the Trump administration hold their events and what they received, one thing is certain: Never before in American history have such groups had the opportunity to hold an event at a property owned by the president, paying for event space, rooms and food with money that ultimately heads into the president’s pockets.

An Associated Press analysis of the special interests that visited Trump properties in the first year of his presidency found several instances that at least created the appearance of “pay for play.” And lobbying experts say as long as the president fails to divest from his businesses and can still profit from such bookings, special interests will take full advantage.

“The name of the game is to have your message heard, and frankly, if you’re helping put money in the family pocket, that’s a good way of getting heard. And it’s legal,” said Bob Schneider, a former lobbyist who worked in Washington for 25 years.

Before taking office, Trump made a series of promises to draw a “red line” between his businesses and his administration. They included setting up a trust to hold his assets (which he can still access at any time), handing day-to-day management responsibilities to his two oldest sons and hiring an ethics lawyer to vet business deals. He also pledged to always act “beyond reproach” and never give “even the appearance of a conflict.”

In the first year of the Trump presidency, the watchdog group Public Citizen counted at least 19 interest groups that held events at Trump properties, including those representing miners, oil drillers, hedge fund operators, insurers, funeral home directors and commercial real estate investors.

But it’s difficult to know exactly how many such meetings were held and how much money those groups spent because, unlike political organizations or campaigns, interest groups are not required to reveal their expenditures at private facilities. And the Trump Organization declined to even discuss such meetings.