Paying to Protect the President
Hand-drawn bar graph which has been mocked by some but I think is very compelling and list of what trump charges secret service whose mocking your hand-drawn Polygraph People People. Who Don't anything about good graphic design and described the bar graph for me. What does it say? Well it's with a pen and I have to use a straight edge. I use the site of an envelope and make a straight line. I'm trying to show people as my knowledge grows of how much total trump has gotten from his own government. So I'm up to four hundred and seventy thousand dollars. That's just from the secret service. Just in two thousand seventeen and is the number grows. The bar graph will grow. We may even end up exceeding the piece of paper that I'm on. I have no idea how big it's going to get. Hello and welcome to trump inc an open investigation from WNYC and Propublica into the business of trump. I'm Ilya Marritz today. One of the most direct ways. Donald Trump makes money from the presidency told by a reporter with that hand drawn bar graph and a mandate to follow public money flowing into trump properties. This is something that people ask me all the time when they cover trump organization they say well. What are we paying him? How much money. See getting from the tax payers and I was struck by how little we know. I'm Dave Barrett old and I read about the trump organization for the Washington Post. We cover the president's private businesses but also the conflicts of interest in the potential conflicts of interest that they create when he's the president and the head of his business. Donald Trump makes four hundred thousand dollars a year as president but he's pledged to give his salary back to the government and it's gone to agencies doing work like preserving civil war sites promoting stem education and fighting the opioid crisis but because he's retained control of his own businesses Donald Trump is profiting from the government in other hard to track ways. Will we do know comes? Basically sort of piecemeal through public records that have been released by various agencies in response to federal records requests. But it's extremely spotty and most of it is old. Most of what we know comes from the year twenty seventeen more than two years ago you have a dollar figure for total taxpayers spending at trump properties since trump became president. Well what I've got is a pretty preliminary number we know of four hundred seventy one thousand dollars payments from the secret service specifically to trump. There's a lot more out there. That's just the only spending that we've had the time to sort of total up and again that is just a little slice of time just from January. Twenty seventeen to the beginning of two thousand eighteen. Do you have any notion how much bigger it could be like if we could see all of the spending three times as much ten times as much well. What we saw was just one agency over one year. I don't have any reason to believe that it's much less. You know the next two years since then have been any less expensive for the tax payers. Don't know one thing that's important is saying all this was with asked both the service and the trump organization to give the numbers right. I mean I don't WanNa do this piecemeal. I'd rather have it all once and they haven't done it even drilling down on one data set in particular which was obtained by this group called property of the people last fall. They got it from the secret service in it. Shows payments from twenty seventeen to the president's properties. And the reason it took you until now to report on what's in it is. These records are actually kind of hard to decipher. Can you describe what the records are and what you had to do to make sense of? It is really maddening and I. I don't mind saying that. So this was something that this group property people got only after suing and the the with the Secret Service gave them was records that were just from the first six months of twenty seventeen and what they gave them was just a sheet of paper with columns columns were data of the purchase the name of the trump property where the money was spent and the amount of money spent nothing about which trump property it was in many cases they said it was called trump national golf club of which there are eleven and they didn't say which one it was and they said nothing about what they spent and so we said okay. Well this is terrible. This is not even a small step towards transparency. But it's all we have so let's see what we can make out of this kind of Rosetta stone and when we dove into it by looking at the numbers looking for patterns in the numbers looking at other records we realized that there was a lot here in many of the things that were in that she were sort of misleading many of the payments that were listed as trump national golf club. We're actually payments to mar-a-lago which is not a golf club. And so the more we looked into it the more we could start to understand. Oh there's a little bit here but you really learn was like wow. This is what we're getting for. Just the first six months of two thousand seventeen. There must be so much more that we haven't seen yet. So like for instance used the calculation of sales tax at a particular property to identify. What state the expenditure was made in? I'm glad you asked about that because it's one of the few times I've used math successfully in reporting so we looked at the expenditures on this list and most of them are in round dollar amounts but a few of them were not a few of them had sense attached and they were all to trump national golf club. We didn't know where. And so we started looking at those numbers and seeing if there are common factors among those numbers you know. Is there any sort of pattern? These numbers of told you anything and what we learned was that they were all factors of the number one point zero six eight seven five and we said well what the heck is one point zero six eight seven five. I could not figure out what you know. That's not even you know. It's more than two decimal places so it wouldn't even be a charge and finally I figured out the sales tax in the state of New Jersey in the year. Two thousand seventeen was six point. Eight seven five percent so the reason those numbers were factors of one point. Six eight seven five is that they had New Jersey sales tax applied. And once you saw that pattern you could say off these payments to Bedminster. We know what do they have in common? What are we buying it Bedminster? And that was the start of uncovering the payments to bedminster which turned out to be. The trump was renting a cottage to the secret service for seventeen thousand dollars a month. That was the charge that was obscured in the secret service list that we finally figured out what it was. We also started to go back and look okay. Whoa who else has gotten public records requests from the secret service that might match up to this and we found in the files of this group. Judicial Watch that sued for trump's travel records. We found some of the records from mar-a-lago to explain a number pattern. We saw mar-a-lago payments. Which was they were all in multiples of six hundred and fifty dollars. What's six hundred and fifty? I couldn't figure out what caused six hundred fifty dollars. It seemed too high to be the rate for a hotel room but indeed it was for a hotel room once. We started looking at other documents from the same expenditures. You could start to match it up and say okay. They were charging the secret service. Six hundred and fifty dollars per night per hotel room Mara Lago. That's why those payments were in those number patterns. Yes and that was really. I believe that number was the headline of your story Six hundred and fifty bucks a night is certainly more than I wanNA pay for a hotel but is treat yourself. Don't sell yourself short. I think even when we stayed at the trump hotel in DC cost a bit less than that. But we'RE TALKING MAR-A-LAGO. It's a super nice resort. There's like you know pools. Here's the sea breezes. I think like a mini golf course and stuff like that. So six hundred fifty bucks a night. Is that high. Well it depends on what you're comparing it to and I think if you were. I Were A MAR-A-LAGO MEMBER. Renting room for the night in the high season in the middle of winter that might actually be a normal rate. The problem is the trump organization had already told us we thought they had told us they had already made publicly about what they charge the government when trump travels and they didn't say well we charge whatever we can get early. We charge what Joe blow next door would pay. You know they said we charged only the cost of housekeeping. Eric Trumpets said particularly last year. Was when my father travels to his properties government officials. Stay there for free. This is one other thing that people don't ever. Kinda give us credit for anytime the government comes in you know father. Travels they stay our properties for free meaning cost for housekeeping effectively. You actually have to legally charge government something and then. He corrected himself to say. Well you know we're like cost of housekeeping and the dollar figure he used was fifty bucks. It cost fifty bucks to stay in a trump hotel room. If you're a government official so everywhere that actually goes if he stays at one of those places. Government actually spends a meaning. It saves a fortune because they were hotel across the street charging five hundred bucks a night whereas we charge them like fifty bucks. Right and they're they're they're on. Property never gets credit for that and so that was the promise they had made so that I think that's the important comparison. Point is it's not what they could get for these rooms. It's what they told us they were getting. It's the public promise. They made before we knew the reality. We've asked them for more since that story ran but they haven't given it to us. The one comment they gave was. We provide these rooms at cost and so we came back and was like well you know. How do you get to six hundred dollars of cost? There was no response. I wonder if it's too soon to say whether government spending actually makes up a significant portion of income at a place like Bedminster or mar-a-lago given that the numbers are coming back even the limited numbers that we have. They're coming back pretty big. Could it be five percent of their yearly income? Ten percent maybe more we don't know enough yet to make that comparison but I think you mentioned bedminster and that's a good example because bedminster gets a huge amount of money from the federal government than we again. We didn't know at all until we started this reporting. It's a golf course. But it has little sort of villas and cottages where people can stay. Trump has one of them and secret service. Rent a cottage near trump's Kat. It's got three bedrooms. Looks Nice Enough? The rate that they are charges that we the taxpayers pay is seventeen thousand dollars per month. And so you ask well. Is that a lot for the town of Bedminster New Jersey and yes. We looked at other people advertising houses going back to two thousand seventeen and the average rent people sought for three bedroom. Plus houses in Bedminster New Jersey was like thirty four hundred dollars and the highest rate. We could find anybody asking for his eighty five hundred dollars. So trump is charging twice that to the secret service to occupy this place so I was asking myself how to think about the numbers that you're digging up and one point of comparison for me is political groups spinning at trump properties which is disclosed because the SE requires it on these quarterly and annual statements and open secrets found last fall. That more than sixteen million dollars had been spent By political groups and campaigns and such at trump properties since two thousand sixteen which is obviously a lot lot more than that government spending that we know about. How should we think about what the political spending means versus? What like the tax payer spending means. They're both kind of concerning but in different ways that's right. I think of the political spending as an interesting example of how much trump has come to dominate the Republican Party. And how happily they pay fealty to him. They not only support him in work for him. They also do their best to give their donors money to trump but in that case the moral question is different because those political campaigns obviously know where their money is going and their donors know where their money's going in the donors didn't like the fact that their money was being given trump. They know now and they could. You know it's all volunteer. The donations are voluntary. The payments from the campaign's trumper all voluntary on the federal spending the taxpayer spendings trump of. It's voluntary you know. That's my money. It's your money. We didn't know this was happening. It's not only that trump has control over this. He's paying our money to himself but also that we told you could make the case that if they publicly advertise this list of these things in public spending databases and you and I knew about this from the beginning you know they might be able to make the argument like the public knows and they're okay with it but we didn't know they didn't tell us so. There's a real moral distinction. I think between the money he makes from Republican donors who do this knowingly and willingly and the money he gets from tax payers which is totally involuntary and where we trusted him as taxpayers to be a good steward of our money and if he's using it behind closed doors to pay himself especially to pay himself at high rates that to me is a fundamentally different thing. Morally is the secret service reporting this information differently from how they would report payments to like the Waldorf Astoria or or their motel six. Yes As far as we can tell if you look in government spending databases they're supposed to report any transactions over ten thousand dollars To any vendor and so if you look in the spending databases you'll see a bunch of other expenditures that have to do with trump's travel. You see golf cart rentals. You see tent rentals. You see port a potty rentals all cases where those services are going to Bedminster mar-a-lago but the actual vendor being paid is not trumpet. Somebody else you'll see a lot of payments to other hotel chain Hilton hotels. You know whoever else where the agents day you see no trace of the spending trump properties and you. Don't see it in mar-a-lago where they're paying for hotel rooms and you don't see it in Bedminster they're paying every month for a cottage and we've asked the secret service and the trump or you know. Why isn't this stuff listed? And we haven't gotten a response. The only other recent secret service protectees. Who did anything like this? Or Joe Biden who charged the secret service. Rent a cottage in his house in Delaware. The difference there Is Two differences. One Biden a lot less. It was only twenty two hundred dollars a month. So it's one hundred seventy one thousand dollars. Total trump's surpass that in a few months but also biden put it in public spending databases. You could look it up and see that. He was a vendor to his own government and people didn't buy over the coals and conservative media for that trump has done nothing like that in fact the opposite is the only statements is companies made have been statements that they weren't getting making profit. They weren't charging higher rates statements. That don't seem to be accurate. So there should be some public disclosure of this in if there's not you know the public can't make a decision about whether they want this to continue happening. The White House did not respond to the posts questions about trump's knowledge of these payments. In a statement the Secret Service said IT spending quote balances operational security with judicious allocation of resources. The Secret Service did not respond to a question about why it spending trump properties was not listed in public databases. Trump INC will be right back so let's pivot for a minute and talk about methods. You are a guy who is well known for doing your work on legal pads with ballpoint pens and you like to tweet out images of your notes and I like get those tweets. I think it's really fun and Readers obviously due to. Are you still doing that on this project? Yes Since we wrote our first story we've been really open about the reporting process. We're going through so I've No Pad Down all the different rates. We've learned that trump or charged the secret service at various hotels various years. I think people just like to see that because they like to see progress they like to see how the story is growing and as they see my tweets go by. They see the piece of paper get more filled out. They see the bar graph grow. Then they go. Oh Yeah you know now. It ties it all together. This is truly how you do your work. It's not just study. No one of the things that I think is so hard as a reporter now and it's going to be even harder this year in a in an election year is just to keep people focused on a thing. You're doing there's so much going on. I'm always trying to get people kind of a threat if you're interested in what I'm doing. How can you follow the thread and grab onto it and follow it forward as I learn more but also follow it backward in time and see where this started and what I've learned already so I try to write content on stories online with that in mind? And if I catch your attention once Nile know how to go back and see where I came from before you hit publish at some point you use like are real spreadsheet yes yes we use real spreadsheets. I mean that's one of the challenges of this reporting not so now. I'm moving on from the Secret Service. We're also trying to add. State Department spending a trump properties and. There's actually been a lot released kind of weird piecemeal fashion so a lot of I'm trying to do is just keep track of what's been released to make sure I'm not double-counting things so yes. Computer spreadsheets are much more useful for that than hand-drawn spreadsheets. So there's another new thing that you're doing which is that. The Washington Post recently hired a foia specialist. So tell me about how you're working together and what he's doing. It's made a huge difference for me. So Freedom of Information Act. Requests are a tool that any reporter can use. If you have one data records or information from government agencies. You can send them this freedom of Information. Act Request and they have to respond. I had had many years of trying to use this tool and many years of failing until we got. We hired this. Guy Jones who sort of a Foia Guru and he's helpful not only in giving you the language to put in your letter so that your legal cases better but also just understanding the dynamics of foia and I really have been surprised by this and one of the things that I've learned. Is it so often reporters send in request? Show me all the transactions that you have made you know you. The Secret Service has made between yourself and the Bedminster golf club between these dates and they either get nothing back are they gonNA know records response. Where the secret services? We can't find the records. I always took that kind of end of the story and in fact. No there's something like a we call a look harder appeal if they say they can't find record you're like none. I'll look again and you can say look really some people have already. You've already given records about this to somebody else and you'll be surprised. At how the first response to like. Oh we didn't find anything is it? Seems like in many cases even when they say that when you appeal they do find something. Can you tell me about some of the requests that you have out right now We we're asking for to just to the secret service for spending. Both you know updated accounts of spending. They did it mar-a-lago in Bedminster but also at other places trump has gone that giral golf club in Miami his hotel in Chicago and also trying to understand more about spending that we know. But we haven't really learned the details yet. I mean there's an incredible amount of spending at the trump hotel in DC by the secret service. They appear to be renting rooms paying tons and tons of money for limb rentals which is insane because trump doesn't ever stay the night at his hotel in DC and because the secret service headquarters is in DC. If there's any place in the world secret service does not need hotel rooms. It's in Washington. Dc where their headquarters almost all of their agents are based. So why are they spending all this money and hotel? Rooms trump property. We know that they're doing it but we don't know why we don't know what rates are being charged so. I found a couple more foyers to try to figure. Out what is behind the spending. All I know is the dates and the dollar amounts. I want the receipt. Do you have a sense at this point? More than three years into trump's presidency. How much of an interest? Donald Trump himself is now taking in his businesses. I don't really have that. I mean. Obviously he still owns his businesses. But he says he's given away day to day control to Eric Trump and Donald trump junior of donald trump. Junior does not seem to be doing very much at all with the business. These days basically politician himself. You know there. There are some important things happening. With the trump organization. Some of their businesses like durant on the Chicago. Hotel are doing quite badly their hotel in the in. Dc actually for sale which they don't really sell thing so it'd be one of the biggest transactions accompanies done in many many years. They say that you know they. That trump doesn't have involvement in day to day decisions. But they've always left open the door that he would be asked about major decisions. So does anybody go to Donald Trump and say should we sell the DC hotel? She'll be accept this bid I don't know and I love the answer the question but I don't know I want to ask you about something a little bit bigger picture and I keep thinking back on this story that we at trump INC reported about a year ago on government spending it mar-a-lago and this is focused on the State Department and a visit by China's leader Xi Jinping was actually Derek Kravitz. The reporter who Used information obtained by property of the people and sort of the sexy part of. That story was about this thousand dollar liquor. Bill this bar bill for White House. Aides who evidently had a really fun night one night So we learned that that can happen by just looking at that receipt. Actually Yeah so when the State Department couldn't or wouldn't pay that bill the White House stepped in and they pay the bill. Are you looking at White House? Spending is there even a way to look at White House spending at trump properties It is hard I we are looking at that and I have not really learned the limits of that yet. I'm looking at the State Department. Now just because a lot of records already exists Department including the ones you referenced. But I'm not sure what else gettable from the White House. But that is certainly my list and the bill you referenced. is an insane sort of thing that the White House aides locked themselves up in a bar. Kick out the wait staff. Drink a thousand dollars of liquor and then send the bill to the government when you hear that like just that episode alone that nobody on the way was like. Why don't we just pay for our own drinks you know? What is a taxpayer? Get Out of you drinking your third vodka the idea that no one in the trump organization or the trump White House saw that was like. Why are we making the taxpayers pay for this no matter which taxpayer bucket it comes out of say department or White House like that? Everyone was like yeah. The taxpayers should definitely paid for these seventeen shots of whatever vodka that shows you what you're dealing with. I think when you see that you say okay well. This got to be a lot more here. This is the sort of moral framework or lack thereof. They're applying to spending the taxpayers money. We what else did it. We don't know about house. Democrats recently sent a letter to the director of the secret service. And the first part of the letter is basically a recap of your recent story. About how the secret services paying what appear to be high rates for hotel rooms at trump properties and other such expenses and as I read the letter. I felt this rising indignation because even more than it's your job to figure this out. It's their job to get answers. It's Congress Congress has oversight federal agencies. Why have they been so ineffective in this role? Well I think it's a much more difficult oversight challenge for them than it has been in the past so this is a a situation where they are used to asking agencies for information and getting it you know not right away eventually because they have that oversight power and just because that's what you do at some point this is kind of an honor system but what. I think we all learned in. Congress seems very slow to learn that president trump uses honor systems his advantage. He has always seen honor systems as kind of a head start. So this is another honor system. He's just hasn't complied with and he's got a huge advantage so his administration has not complied with requests from Congress especially if the Democrats when they weren't in power and now they're in power not really then either so that. That is a challenge. The Democrats are dealing with that said. Democrats have been some of them. Not all of them have been very slow to respond to that. I think of the committee that oversees the trump hotel which is owned by the US government trump releases. A government owned building. They have got nothing from the government. About what trump hotel makes what they pay anything about foreign customers really anything they just got an stonewalled and the response is like two years later like well. We're going to send it a subpoena any day. Now you know when we ask them well you fund these people. Can't you just cut off their funding or telomere cut off their funding. Unless they give you the information you want it was like speaking a foreign language. They didn't see that as a possibility at all and I can tell they. Apply that kind of power to trump. He's not going to respect an honor system he respect power and they don't seem willing to do it. This is the project for you for twenty twenty two map public spending on trump properties. What are your biggest unanswered questions? Especially the ones where your readers or maybe our listeners can help. Oh man there are so many. I guess what I'm looking for is sort of the full scope of the spending that he he is directed from his government to his business and also his personal role in the biggest unanswered questions. I would say would be. Why is the secret service spending money at trump's DC hotel who caused that you know that doesn't make any sense with secret service protocal wise it happening? How is trump changed? If he has changed his travel patterns. Because these trips making money and then What role has he had in setting the rates for his own business? Those are hard questions to answer but there are people out there who know those answers and the frame tried to put on this coverage is. Let's try to prove the trump organization right eric. Trump said they charge just the cost of housekeeping. They charge just fifty bucks. A room can find any indication at all. That was ever true. Was that right even one time so I haven't found it but maybe that answers out there and people know that too there was a time we charge fifty bucks for a room. I WANNA know. Where do you like to receive tips? I would have people. Email me at Farren. Fold F. A. H. R. E. N. T. H. O. L. D. At WASH POST DOT COM or. Find me on twitter at at Farren. Poll David thank you so much. Always a pleasure to talk to you. David Farren told a reporter at the Washington Post covering the trump family and its business interests. You can learn a lot more from the world of trump ink by subscribing to our newsletter. It's where we share. Not only the latest episode but links to what were reading questions were curious about and stories from behind the scenes. Sign up at trumping PODCAST DOT org. While you're there find out how to securely share tips about government spending at trump properties or anything else. This episode was produced by Matt Kellett and Alice Wilder and edited by Eric. Manzke jared Paul does our sound design and original scoring Hannah's Brown road our theme and Additional Music special thanks to Lena Muhammad at the Washington. Post's Daily News podcast post reports. Matt Kellett is the executive producer of trump inc. Emily Boutin is the vice president for original programming. Wnyc and Stephen. Engelberg is the editor in chief of PROPUBLICA. I millionaire. It's thank you for listening The night of my wedding we stood at a Ritz in Boston. That must have been expensive and my wife's parents paid I. I don't know I'm there's been six hundred fifty dollars in a hotel room even close. I would definitely remember that. You're very thorough guy.