President Donald Trump was sitting beside Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in the Oval Office in March when he fondly recalled his luxury golf resort on Ireland’s west coast.
He gushed about his two tony Scottish resorts months later while standing next to French President Emmanuel Macron in France.
And in August, while meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he first suggested that he just might bring the G-7 summit of world leaders to one of his Florida resorts in 2020. “We haven’t found anything that could even come close to competing with it,” he said.
Trump constantly brags about his properties around the globe when he speaks with foreign leaders in person or by phone, even more than the public instances witnessed out in the open, according to three people familiar with Trump’s conversations with foreign officials. The remarks are permeating every membrane of his presidency so much that they’ve left aides and allies mastering verbal jiujitsu to defend his unprecedented approach to fusing personal business interests with his position in high office.
The interactions have led House Democrats — who have already launched an impeachment inquiry into whether Trump is illegally profiting off the presidency — and sometimes even his own staff to question whether his namesake businesses are influencing U.S. foreign policy.
“He talks up his properties every chance he gets with anyone — with staff, with members of Congress, with the press, with the public, with foreign leaders, with anyone,” said a former White House official. “That’s what he has done. He’s been a salesman. He’s been a PR person for his properties for the last 50 years, so almost out of force of habit, that’s what he does.”
Trump’s conversations are facing renewed scrutiny after the White House initially announced late last week that the president planned to hold the G-7 summit at his financially struggling Trump National Doral Miami resort in June 2020 — awarding a federal contract to his own private company in an open rebuke of government ethics and his own pledges to put his business aside while in the White House.
Trump reversed course with a Twitter announcement late Saturday night after days of pressure. That he would even consider holding the summit at his own resort brought days of intense criticism from not only Democrats and government ethics experts but pundits on his favorite television network — Fox News — and Republicans he needs to defend him against impeachment.
The House had been expected to vote this week on a resolution condemning Trump for holding the G-7 at the Doral resort and “rejecting his practice of accepting foreign government emoluments without obtaining Congress’ affirmative consent.“ Despite Trump's G-7 reversal, his Doral gambit has trained congressional investigators' eyes even more closely on the president's continued blending of his private businesses with public work.
As president, Trump has met with leaders of at least 10 countries where he has a property or is developing one: Turkey, the Philippines, South Korea, India, Indonesia, Canada, Ireland, Panama, Dominican Republic and the United Arab Emirates, according to his schedules. He also met with leaders of three countries — China, Saudi Arabia and South Korea — where state-owned companies are developing new Trump resorts. Some of the governments are spending their own money on roads and other infrastructure for Trump’s projects.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said Trump's conversations with foreign leaders create a counterintelligence risk because other countries can use his personal and financial information against him. “They know the truth of those conversations and we may not know what's being said and they could use that against ... him and manipulate him or members of his family,” he said. “That's always a possibility.”
House Democrats are investigating whether Trump is violating the Constitution, which forbids a president from profiting from foreign governments unless approved by Congress or receiving any money from the U.S. government except his or her annual salary. He already faces lawsuits alleging he violated the Constitution.
The Oversight and Judiciary committees demanded the administration and Trump’s company release details about the president’s call to host a G-7 summit at Doral and Vice President Mike Pence’s recent stay at a Trump resort in Ireland. Those requests have been ignored.
In a letter sent to Trump last week, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said representatives of 22 foreign governments have spent money at Trump Organization properties, including hosting and attending events, renting or purchasing property and staying at Trump hotels.
CREW, a government watchdog group, puts that number higher: 111 officials from 57 foreign countries. “The United States must model governance that promotes transparency and is free from undue influence,” he wrote.
The White House and the Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment. But Trump has repeatedly denied that he is using the presidency to promote his resorts. “I have a lot of hotels all over the place, and people, they use them because they’re the best,” he told reporters recently.
Trump ignored calls to fully separate from his eponymous company, which comprises more than 500 businesses, after he was sworn into office. He still owns his business but placed his holdings in a trust designed to hold assets for his benefit and can receive money from the trust without the public’s knowledge.
Foreign leaders know that. And as they have gotten to know Trump, they have learned to regularly mention his properties in what appear to be attempts to flatter him.
In June 2018, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave Trump a photo of his family’s first property in that country as a gift. In July, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Trump he had stayed in Trump Tower in New York in their infamous call.
And this year, in another meeting with the Irish leader, it was the prime minister who first mentioned a Trump property when he asked during an Oval Office meeting about whether the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York passes Trump Tower.
Trump laughed and replied that it did. “I used to watch it all the time,” Trump told him. “I would watch it all the time. So you’ll be there on Saturday?”
A former senior administration official said Trump likes talking about his properties with foreign leaders — “not necessarily” to boost his businesses but to display dominance. “It’s literally to show how big and powerful I am,” the person said. “It’s bragging rights.”
Trump has invited the leaders of seven countries — Japan, China, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Lucia, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic — to meet with him at Mar-a-Lago, the resort he has dubbed the winter White House. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been twice to Mar-a-Lago, which he described to Trump as “gorgeous” in 2017 and 2018, staying overnight at least once as a personal gift from Trump, though the Japanese government didn’t answer questions about the second visit. He also has been to Trump National Golf Club in Virginia, Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter and Trump Tower, according to 1100 Pennsylvania, which tracks visits to Trump properties.
The White House, State Department and other governments didn’t respond to questions about whether other leaders stayed overnight.
An official who worked for Trump after he was elected during the transition acknowledged that Trump mentioned his properties regularly in conversations with leaders but not to get them to stay there. “He’s just trying to relate,” the person said. “He’s looking for issues of commonality, just trying to personally connect with someone.”
Trump reportedly asked the president of Argentina to help with permitting problem in Buenos Aires in their first call after the election and spoke to the prime minister of Georgia about his failed development at a White House meeting, according to media reports, but the three former officials say it goes beyond that.
Filipino ambassador to the U.S. Jose Manuel Romualdez, who held an independence day celebration at Trump’s hotel in Washington, said the location made a statement, according to Filipino media. “Having it in a hotel that happens to have his name is not necessarily the end-all be-all, it’s a statement. It’s a statement that we have a good relationship with this president,” he said.
Trump frequently visits his properties — primarily in Florida, New Jersey and Virginia — and has traveled to them more than 300 times since he was sworn into office, according to a compilation of information released by the White House. He’s visited his resorts in Scotland and Ireland, and even considered canceling his trip to Ireland when the prime minister scoffed at meeting at his golf course, the Irish Times reported.
When he was running for president, Trump acknowledged the influence his customers have with him. “Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them,” he said in 2016. “They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them?”
His company donated nearly $200,000 to the U.S. Treasury in February that it said came from profits from foreign governments, but watchdog groups say the amount should be higher.
Revenue increased at many of the resorts Trump visited in 2018, including the Trump International Hotel in Washington, which has become a top destination for Republicans, according to Trump’s most recent personal financial disclosure forms. That comes even as Trump’s overall income dipped slightly from $450 million in 2017 to $434 million in 2018.
In January, Trump ran into Kurdish leader Ilham Ahmed at his Washington hotel, where the president was attending a fundraiser and proclaimed the U.S. would not abandon the Kurds. ”I love the Kurds,” Trump said.
But two weeks ago, Trump reversed course in Syria, moving U.S. troops from northern Syria, leaving the Kurds to take on Turkey alone and some questioning whether his business was a factor.
Trump made the decision after a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who attended the opening of Trump's towers in Istanbul in 2012. Since Trump was sworn into office, at least five events affiliated with the Turkish government have been held at Trump properties.
In 2015, Trump acknowledged his properties posed a conflict of interest in Turkey — though he denies they do now.
“I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” he said on a Breitbart radio show. “It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers.”
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.