TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General William Barr, Saudi lobbyists, foreign government officials are among the people who have booked rooms or ballrooms at Trump Hotels, raising serious ethical questions. We're going to talk about Trump family businesses and related questions of conflict of interest with Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold, who has been focusing on those issues. His reporting on Donald Trump's personal charitable foundation revealed that Trump used the foundation for personal and political profit. That reporting led New York's attorney general to sue the charity, Trump and his three oldest children, alleging persistent illegal conduct. In response, Trump agreed to shut down the foundation. Fahrenthold also broke one of the most talked about stories of the Trump campaign, the "Access Hollywood" video in which he bragged about grabbing women by their genitals. Fahrenthold won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.
David Fahrenthold, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So let's start with one of the ethical questions from this week. Vice President Mike Pence was flying to meet with Ireland's president. The meeting's scheduled for Dublin, but Pence stayed at a Trump Hotel in Doonbeg more than 150 miles away from Dublin. So why was Pence and his family, and his entourage of security and aides, why were they staying in Doonbeg?
DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: The two interesting questions are why and where they stayed. So they were - he says they were visiting Doonbeg because Pence has a distant cousin who runs a pub in Doonbeg. That's the ancestral Pence family homeland from decades and decades ago. It also happens to be the location of Donald Trump's only property in Ireland, a big golf resort in Doonbeg. So that trip meant that Pence could spend two nights at his boss' resort.
GROSS: So this raises several questions. First of all, President Trump suggested that Pence stay at Trump's hotel. What questions does that raise?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, you're looking at a president who is - I mean, he's not ordering the vice president, but does the president ever have to order the vice president to do anything? The president is suggesting to the vice president that when the vice president travels with his large - with his family and his retinue of aides and security people, why don't they stay at this resort that the president owns and in the process put money in the president's pocket? So, you know, the president is the vice president's boss. He is suggesting to Mike Pence that when he travels on the U.S. taxpayer dime that he put some of that taxpayer money into Trump's own pocket.
GROSS: And let's get an idea of how much money we're talking about. It's not just Pence staying at the hotel. It's members of his family. But Pence says he's paying for them. But then you have the security and the aides traveling with him who are also staying at Trump's hotel in Doonbeg. And so if the government is paying for them to stay there, it not only increases the number - the amount of money going into The Trump Organization, we the taxpayers are paying that money, right? Aren't we paying for them to stay at the Trump Hotel?
FAHRENTHOLD: We are and not for the first time. If you look back at Trump's travel, he stopped in Doonbeg this past summer. He was at his golf course in Turnberry the summer before. He's obviously been to Mar-a-Lago a number of times. It's really, really hard to get details out of the government about how much those trips cost. But the little bit that we know indicate that each one of those means tens of thousands of dollars of revenue to The Trump Organization.
GROSS: So is Pence staying at a Trump Hotel in Ireland - is that illegal? Is it an official violation of ethics? Is it murky territory?
FAHRENTHOLD: The last one - it's murky. One of the things that we have figured out in the Trump era is that the safeguards that kept the president from using the presidency to benefit themselves were mostly followed as kind of an honor system. And one of the things that you and I talked about a couple years ago when we were talking about Trump's charitable enterprises is that he doesn't adhere to honor systems. He exploits honor systems. He uses honor systems as a way - you know, he's violated the honor system. And it takes everybody else a few - you know, a while to figure out what's going on because they're so used to people following it.
So in this case, the Emoluments Clauses is - are the sort of operative parts of the Constitution. Those say presidents should not receive anything from the United States government beyond the president's official salary and that the president should not receive emoluments, meaning payments, from foreign governments. Trump has done both. He's gotten lots of payments from the U.S. government related to these presidential and other vice presidential trips to his properties. He's gotten at least a million dollars a year from foreign governments staying at his properties. And the mechanism to enforce that turns out to be the federal courts, which have moved very, very slowly as they try to sort of process this whole new area of law that they really hadn't dealt with before. The practical effect is that Trump gets away with it. There's nobody who really has the authority to tell him to stop.
GROSS: And then, of course, there's the suggestion President Trump made that the next G-7 be held at his Doral golf resort in Florida. And just the suggestion with his description, his very florid description of how great the Doral is, sounded like an infomercial. What would it mean if the G-7 was held there in terms of ethics?
FAHRENTHOLD: It would mean that the basic promise that Trump made when he took office, which was, look, nobody can stop me from mixing my business and my presidency, but I will stop myself, you can count on me to keep business and presidency separate - that basic promise would have just collapsed. Trump would have walked away from it. This is - this would be the president of the United States using American power to basically book a convention for his golf resort, basically using the prestige and the alliances that America has to fill some hotel rooms at his own building and put some money in his own pocket. It would be an unprecedented step, obviously, but also a signal that Trump doesn't intend to follow the even pretty meager guidelines that he set for himself at the start of his administration.
GROSS: And in addition to the ethical questions, security experts think the Doral would be a bad location.
FAHRENTHOLD: Yeah. If you think about the G-7, it is in an - you know, it brings seven world leaders, plus usually a few others who come to visit. It's a huge security nightmare. And so people have tended to do it in very luxurious but isolated places, places where you can put these world leaders somewhere, seal them off and make sure that they don't - you know, that the world isn't - the outside world doesn't come anywhere near them. The last time the U.S. did it at a private compound was in 2004 at Sea Island in Georgia - a literal island that they seal off and they put Navy ships around the island. It was like a - you know, it was a bubble.
And Doral - you can't do that. Doral is located in - it's pretty far inland in Miami. It's close to the Miami airport. The surroundings are shopping malls, office parks, neighborhoods. It's not in any way isolatable in the way that an island or a peninsula would be. So it would be a security nightmare. I think the bigger nightmare might be that it's just not - maybe not nice enough. These places are - these G-7 conferences are held at very fancy places. Every national party gets their own fancy hotel. And so to sort of divide them among the wings that are usually used for visiting golfers, that might not have the same kind of luxurious standards that they're used to.
GROSS: And just to give a sense of a pattern here, I'm going to mention Attorney General William Barr has planned $30,000 holiday party at the Trump International Hotel. He said other hotels were booked and that he consulted ethics officials and they said it was OK. So what questions does this raise, that the attorney general would be holding a $30,000 holiday party at a Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C.?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, this is, again, a sign that there's kind of a gray area at the very top of the federal government. Things you couldn't do if you were just a civil service employee, you can do if you're a Cabinet secretary or the president, mostly because those folks were expected to sort of follow a code on their own and not need laws to bind them. So here's a case where William Barr, the attorney general, was elevated to his post by President Trump, given this vast power and prestige. He then uses $30,000-plus of his own money and gives it back to President Trump in the form of this holiday party booking. There's nothing, as far as we can tell, explicitly illegal about that, but it is the kind of thing that, if it were an employee and his boss somewhere lower down in the federal food chain, there might be much bigger problems.
GROSS: And as you've pointed out, the Department of Justice is defending the president's business in court, including issues related to hosting foreign governments at Trump hotels.
FAHRENTHOLD: That's right. The DOJ - and this arrangement is - it's unusual in some ways and not unusual in others. Often, the DOJ is the president's lawyer. People sued President Obama, President Clinton, whoever. The DOJ would defend them. What's different in these cases is that the DOJ is defending Trump's private conduct, all right? Obviously, the DOJ would defend the president if he's sued over actions he takes as president. In this case, they're defending Trump's actions as a hotel operator - you know, his decision to do business with foreign governments and telling judges and plaintiffs, you know, that's off-limits. It's not a big deal. Nobody needs to know even the details of this. So yes, DOJ has been Trump's lawyer in those cases since before Barr came on. Now Barr is in charge of those efforts and also a patron of the Trump Hotel.
GROSS: So last year, foreign governments paid more than a million dollars to The Trump Organization. Ninety percent of that was spent at the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C. Who are some of the foreign leaders and foreign businessmen who have stayed there who have official business to do with the Trump White House?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, I should start by saying we don't know all of them. The ones that we know have come through media reporting - you know, looking at Instagram. You know, we - there's no comprehensive list, so there could be people out there we don't know. Here's what we do know. The Malaysian prime minister visited and stayed overnight with a huge entourage. A couple of Romanian officials, including the Romanian prime minister, have stayed there. Just in the last year, it seems to be kind of picking up. The Ecuadorian trade minister came in while he was sort of trying to negotiate a trade deal with the U.S. Office of Trade representative, stayed at the Trump Hotel. A Nigerian presidential candidate who was trying to avoid - he'd been under a lot of U.S. scrutiny for his roles in past bribery scandals. He stayed at the Trump Hotel. Nigeria's vice president stayed at the Trump Hotel when he was in town to meet Vice President Pence.
So a number of folks who've been in town to do official business will stay at the Trump Hotel, and often, you know, the reason we know about them is they want to make their presence known. They want people to know, either here or back home or both, look where I am. Look how close I am to the president of the United States.
GROSS: I want to mention a couple of more that you mentioned in your articles. A wealthy Iraqi sheikh who advocates for an American military confrontation with Iran spent 26 nights at Trump's hotel on Washington. Lobbyist for the Saudi government rented 500 rooms at the Trump Hotel in Washington. So you want to talk about the kind of possible conflicts of interest this presents?
FAHRENTHOLD: Sure. Those two interests, among several others - these are people who want something from the federal government. In the case of the Iraqi sheikh, he wants something pretty drastic. He wants the U.S. to launch military strikes against Iran. In the case of the Saudi government, obviously, there's a number of things they're hoping Trump will do to serve their interests.
And this is a way in which they create this kind of private relationship with Trump. Trump is obviously, you know, leading American public diplomacy, but at the same time, he has a private channel to these people in which they pay him money. How much they pay him, for what services, even the identities of who's paying him - we don't know any of those things.
GROSS: So, like, the people who represent foreign governments or, you know, large corporations - this raises the question, if you book rooms in a Trump hotel, are you trying to curry favor? I don't know if that's a question any outsider can answer, but is that a question that needs to be asked?
FAHRENTHOLD: Definitely. When we have asked it, almost all of them say, oh, no. It was a - you know, just a lovely place. In fact, I can only think of one person we've talked to who - or we've - that has spoken about his patronage of the Trump hotel in a way that's sort of nakedly political, and that was the ambassador of the Philippines. They had a big National Day party at the Trump Hotel last year, and he actually said - he told Philippine TV, we mean this to send a message. We're close allies with Donald Trump. We want to be closer to him. That's why we did this. Other than him, everybody else says, you know, that it was just a coincidence that they stayed at the president's hotel.
GROSS: So if foreign government interests have spent about a million dollars in one year in Trump Hotels - in the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C. - can you put that in context for us? Like, is that a small part or a large part of the hotel revenues or of, like, Trump Organization money? Is that a drop in the bucket, or is that, like, a really significant amount?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, it's not a huge amount given the hotel's revenue. It's probably - I think the hotel's revenue is about $52 million a year, so that's, like, you know, 2% - something like that. The Trump Organization's overall revenue is 600 million or 700 million, so it's a small fraction of that. You have to understand how expensive an embassy party is. In D.C., one embassy party can be $500,000, so if that number is accurate, if that was really what the foreign government spending was at Trump's hotel in D.C., it may be less than the Ritz Carlton of the Four Seasons does. Now, that's no reason not to pay attention to it because Mr. Ritz Carlton isn't president of the United States, but if that number is accurate, it seems to show that Trump's foreign business is not an unusually large amount of his business for a D.C. hotel.
GROSS: Well, if one party can cost a half a million, then the revenue would be more than a million from foreign interests, right?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, so, you know, we had one big gala from the Kuwaitis. There was a Philippine gala if they count that because it was paid for by private interests, although the Philippine government chose the location. There's a lot of other stays by foreign leaders. So a million dollars is plausible, but I would believe it a lot more if I knew more about whose purchases and what countries made up that number. It was a big victory for us to just get a number. That's how little we know about this line of business for them. But I don't know much more about what goes into that million dollars.
GROSS: All right. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold. His beat is following the money of Trump family businesses and potential conflicts of interest related to those businesses, including the Trump Hotels. His reporting led Donald Trump to agree to shut down the Donald J. Trump Foundation. Fahrenthold won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for national reporting. We'll be right back after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold. He follows the money of Trump family businesses and the potential conflicts of interest and ethical questions that they raise.
So we've talked about some of the foreign businessmen and government officials who've stayed at Trump hotels. We've talked about how Vice President Pence and William Barr have booked rooms at Trump hotels. Let's talk about how President Trump has booked his own hotels while on taxpayers' money. Trump has spent all or part of more than 250 days at his hotel and golf courses since becoming president.
Now, obviously, he doesn't have to book his own room. But there are aides and Secret Service and, you know, probably other security that accompanies him whenever he is any place. So what are we talking about? Like, if Trump spends time - 250 days - at his hotels and golf courses, what kind of income does that bring in to his hotels?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, there's still so much we don't know because the government won't give up the details - or hasn't given them up yet. But each one of those visits, especially to Mar-a-Lago or to Turnberry, places where there's a hotel or overnight guest rooms and the guests stay, the cost to the taxpayer can be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Well, the cost is much higher than that. The revenue to Trump from taxpayers from those kind of visits can be in the tens of thousands of dollars.
We've gotten public records from the government for some of the early trips Trump took to Mar-a-Lago when he had summits with the Chinese premier and with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago. And you could see the receipts they're getting, where they're - they book all - Mar-a-Lago has, I think, 13 guest rooms. They book all the guest rooms for Secret Service, body man, Sean Spicer, all these aides - and charge the government for every one of them.
And I think they figured out - what is the maximum you could charge the U.S. government for a hotel room? - and charge that, which I think is, like, 280-something dollars a night for every Mar-a-Lago room. So those trips are expensive. They're expensive because Trump's hotels are expensive, and you're taking up part of those. Even if you're getting a relatively cheap rate for the Trump Hotel, it's still a lot more than staying at the Holiday Inn.
GROSS: Does he charge discount prices to his own security?
FAHRENTHOLD: What they say - what The Trump Organization says is that they charge only their cost. But that - you know, in the case of Mar-a-Lago, it happened to coincide with the most they could possibly charge. So I guess their argument is that they don't gouge the U.S. government. Obviously, they are a single-source provider. Trump's not going to go to somebody else's resort. But we don't have enough documentation from the government yet to really fact-check that claim.
GROSS: So there are several suits pertaining to The Trump Organization hotels. Tell us about some of those suits.
FAHRENTHOLD: There's been three main ones, and they all have to do with these Emoluments Clauses in the Constitution - you know, sort of these original, you know, 1700s anti-corruption statutes where the founders said that you shouldn't ask individual states or the federal government to pay a president more than the president's salary and foreign governments shouldn't pay emoluments, or payments, to the president.
So there's been three suits filed, and it's been really slow going and I think pretty frustrating going for the plaintiffs. One case was thrown out. Another case that was filed by the attorneys general in the District of Columbia and Maryland, that was thrown out - although they're trying to have it revived. And a third one, which was filed by congressional Democrats, is still going but is on hold now while, basically, Trump is allowed to appeal to an appeals court to ask the appeals court to throw it out.
What you're - what you see here in these cases is that federal courts don't like to sort of make up whole new areas of law all at once. They like to proceed slowly. So they're - you know, each case only adds a little bit of law on top of what's already known. But because so many presidents just stayed way away from any possible violations of these Emoluments Clauses, there's not a lot of law here.
And so I think the courts have kind of just choked on the size of the task. And even the first questions - well, who has the right to sue the president if he's violating the Emoluments Clause? Who has the standing? That's been sort of the original question, and that's what's killed two of the three suits so far.
GROSS: So there's no legal precedence 'cause nobody's ever used the Emoluments Clause in court before.
FAHRENTHOLD: No. I mean - no. You know, the - Jimmy Carter put his peanut farm in a blind trust. Obama actually asked for Office of Legal Counsel opinion about whether he could accept - remember Obama won the Nobel Prize early in his term. That is actually - the money that comes from that is technically from the government of Sweden. And so he actually asked the Office of Legal Counsel - can I even take this, or is that an Emoluments Clause violation? Presidents just saw - stayed way the heck away from this. And so there's not any - there's not really a lot of good law about what it means and how it works.
GROSS: My guest is Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold. After we take a short break, we'll talk about ongoing attempts to make Trump's tax returns public. And we'll hear about Fahrenthold's reporting on how The Trump Organization fired undocumented workers after the public learned about the organization's reliance on them. Later, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album that unites jazz and poetry. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON'S "WELL YOU NEEDN'T [LIVE]")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold, who's been investigating Donald Trump's businesses, its finances and related questions of ethics and conflicts of interest. Fahrenthold won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting.
Trump has said that The Trump Organization is donating profits from its transactions with foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury. And it's donated about $240,000 since Trump became president. What does that mean that he's donating money to the U.S. Treasury?
FAHRENTHOLD: It's sort of an odd arrangement because it seems to indicate that this money is the taxpayers' and it should go back to the taxpayers. He's not donating it to charity. He's donating it back to the U.S. government. It's not enough money that the U.S. government is probably, you know, planning to do anything with that. And Trump doesn't earmark it. It doesn't say spend this money on building the wall. It just goes back to the general fund. But it's a strange number, and it's not that useful for transparency because what they mean by foreign profit in this case is so obscure. I don't really know how they calculate it. And what they've told us is so complicated that to take that number, you can't really extrapolate very much about where that money is coming from or how Trump's businesses are doing.
GROSS: And you can't calculate what - how they define profits at the Trump Org.
FAHRENTHOLD: No, which matters because, say, Doral, right? Pick a hotel that you think is doing badly. If Trump had a hotel that was losing money and 99% of its revenue came from foreign governments, but it didn't actually make a profit for that year, I think they would count that as zero foreign profit. So no money would go into that foreign profit account. But obviously Trump would be quite grateful to have that money because it would be keeping his business going or, you know, close to solvent.
GROSS: So we've been talking about potential conflicts of interests posed by Trump Organization hotels, but there are other conflicts of interest as well. For example, Trump has been pushing to lower interest rates and has insulted the Fed chair - the chair of the Federal Reserve - for not lowering them or not lowering them fast enough. How could lowering interest rates affect Trump businesses?
FAHRENTHOLD: It could significantly lower Trump's own borrowing costs. So Trump has more than $300 million in outstanding loans from Deutsche Bank related to three of his properties - the Doral golf resort, his Chicago hotel and tower and his D.C. hotel. And all of those Deutsche bank loans are variable rate loans. That is, the interest rate on the loans changes depending on the overall prime rate or the LIBOR rate to sort of benchmark rates that move up and down. So if the Fed lowers interest rates, those benchmark rates go down. Trump's borrowing costs go down. The savings to him - I think Bloomberg estimated it as, like, $850,000 a year just for every quarter point that the Fed lowers interest rates. So obviously Trump may have other goals in mind when he harangues the Fed chair. He may just want to get reelected. But there's a personal benefit to Trump for rates going down that is probably in the millions of dollars.
GROSS: When candidate Trump was asked about his tax returns, he said that he would make them public as soon as the audit was done. There's never been any proof that there's an audit underway or that there was an audit underway when he made that statement. He certainly has not released his tax returns. On the contrary, his legal people are doing everything they can to prevent his taxes and other financial records from being released to congressional committees or the public. So you've been wanting to get your hands on his tax returns as a reporter. Just give us an overall view of some of the ongoing attempts to get Trump Organization financial records and to get the president's tax returns.
FAHRENTHOLD: In Congress, there's separate efforts, both to get Trump's tax returns from the U.S. government - there's a statute that says that the secretary of the Treasury shall provide copies of anyone's tax returns, including the president's, to this particular congressional committee if they ask. They asked; Treasury didn't give them, so now there's a lawsuit. There's also an effort to get Trump's financial information from some of his lenders - Deutsche Bank or Mazars, which was his accounting firm. That was in response to the Michael Cohen testimony earlier this year where Cohen said that Trump had basically exaggerated his wealth and misled his lenders to get bigger loans.
In addition, New York state passed a law earlier this year saying that they would make Trump's - anybody's, but they meant Trump's - state tax returns accessible to anybody in Congress who asked. Congress hasn't actually asked for those yet. The Democrat in charge of House Ways and Means, who's the person who could ask, is kind of dragging his feet. There's a lawsuit there, too. Any one of those could produce some financial documents. I think the most likely ones are the ones involving Deutsche Bank and Mazars because those are third parties. It's not like you're asking the president directly to provide his financial information. But none of it has been given over yet. One of the surprising things is how much time has elapsed with a Democratic-controlled Congress and how little we know about anything involving Trump's finances compared to when the Democrats took over.
GROSS: Is that because Congress isn't doing a very good job in trying to get those financial records? Is it because The Trump Organization is doing such a good job in trying to block any attempt to get financial records? Is it because the legal system isn't prepared for the kind of questions that we're facing now? Like, why is it taking so long?
FAHRENTHOLD: It's a bit of all of the above, but I think one of the things that - if you've watched Congress for the last few years, Republican and Democrat, they're terrible at investigating. They're just really bad at it. And, you know, they have trouble getting themselves all on the same page to investigate anything with sort of singleness of purpose. And now Trump has sort of flooded the zone with a bunch of things they want to investigate.
In Congress, there's also been two particular members of Congress who have the power to push these things, these investigations, forward or to slow-walk them who have been accused by their colleagues of slow-walking them. That's Richard Neal, the chair of Ways and Means, and a guy named Peter DeFazio from Oregon, who was the head of Transportation and Infrastructure. That Transportation and Infrastructure Committee actually oversees Trump's D.C. hotel. Trump's D.C. hotel is located in a taxpayer-owned building under a lease from the GSA, the General Services Administration. So that committee, DeFazio's committee, has the power to really dig into it if it wanted, and it hasn't really done very much. And the pushback from DeFazio's underlings, other members of Congress, has been that DeFazio is slow-walking this because he wants to make an infrastructure deal. He still has some hope that infrastructure week will finally arrive like the great pumpkin and he'll make a deal with Trump. DeFazio said, oh, it's not true. But the end result is that hotel the taxpayers own, we know so little about what Trump's doing there. I mean, that just sort of seems like that's the baby step of oversight, and they haven't done that.
GROSS: So this is just an odd arrangement here. President Trump sued to block Congress from subpoenaing his financial records, and he sued his accounting firm to stop the firm from giving the House committee detail about his past financial dealings. And as you point out, this move amounts to Trump, the leader of the executive branch, asking the judicial branch to stop the legislative branch from investigating his own financial past. That is a really unusual situation.
FAHRENTHOLD: That's right. And Trump's argument has been this really novel argument that, well, Congress is only allowed - or should only be allowed - to investigate things that have to do with the legitimate legislative purpose. Like, if they're going to pass legislation about something, fine. But if they're just investigating in an oversight role that's not tied to a specific piece of legislation, that's wrong, and they shouldn't be allowed to do it.
I don't think that's going to pass muster, but Trump is playing for time here, right? The longer he appeals, the more he ties this up, the more he delays and either gets through the end of his first term or gets to a place where he's out of office before any of this stuff really ripens. And he may also have a thought that - look. I put two people on the Supreme Court. If it goes all the way up there, they'll see it my way.
GROSS: But if the leader of the executive branch is asking the judicial branch to stop the legislative branch from investigating the president's financial records, is that a constitutional crisis?
FAHRENTHOLD: The judicial branch is there to referee disputes like this. I don't think we're in a constitutional crisis until the judicial branch says, Trump, you must do this, and Trump refuses. We could get there, but I don't think we've reached that point yet. The judicial branch is just taking a long time, as is its habit, to sort these disputes out.
GROSS: All right. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Washington Post national reporter David Fahrenthold, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his reporting on Trump family businesses and potential conflicts of interest raised by those businesses. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Washington Post national reporter David Fahrenthold. His beat is following the money of Trump family businesses and potential conflicts of interest related to those businesses, including the Trump Hotels. His reporting led Donald Trump to agreed to shut down the Donald J. Trump Foundation. Fahrenthold won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize.
What have you been doing to try to get more Trump financial records, including his taxes?
FAHRENTHOLD: Well, lots. For us, one of the challenges of covering The Trump Organization in general is it is so secretive. It doesn't give information about itself out to hardly anybody. It doesn't write press releases. It doesn't put out annual reports. For a long time, its main spokesman was Donald J. Trump, and he was an extremely unreliable spokesman. Whenever he would make statements about The Trump Organization's riches or its projects or whatever, you know, often, they were just wrong.
So the main guy who spoke for them was just incorrect a lot of the time, and now that he's gone, they just don't speak very much at all. So it's really a challenge to sort of find little windows to peer into that organization, so we've spent a couple of years building up human sources, people that know the company well, looking for people who might have insights into it but also trying to use public records to find every little piece of public information the company has had to give out about itself.
So I haven't found his tax returns yet, but with that approach, we've managed to assemble kind of a piecemeal portrait of a lot of Trump businesses. So I can't tell you overall, is the business making money, losing money? You know, does it have any secret funders? But I can tell you about individual slices of the business, and I'm hoping that adds up to some kind of picture of the whole.
GROSS: What's one of the most interesting things you've learned about a piece of his businesses?
FAHRENTHOLD: There's two examples just from this year. One is that we got some documents from inside the Trump Hotel in D.C. which showed us - they were called the VIP list. Every day, the VIP arrivals list - when the Trump Hotel would hand out a sheet to its employees, saying, here the big muckety mucks who are coming to the hotel today. Here's their picture. Here's their name. Here's their affiliation so you can greet them and treat them like the muckety mucks they are. We got those for a lot of days in 2018, so you got a real sense of who was checking into the Trump Hotel and what they knew about them.
So a lot of great things came out of that. With the Iraqi sheikh we talked about earlier - that guy who stayed for 26 nights, wants the U.S. to bomb Iran - we learned about him from the VIP sheets. But one of the most striking things was T-Mobile, the telecom giant - if you looked at those VIP lists, you could see that last year, T-Mobile announces this giant merger with Sprint that is key to their financial future. It's going to make them a ton of money if it goes through. It needs approval from Trump's administration. They announce it. The next day, nine T-Mobile executives check into Trump's hotel in D.C., and they come back again and again and again. They spent, like, $195,000 on rooms at the Trump Hotel in D.C. just over a few months during this time that their case was before the Trump administration. That, to me, was a real sign that companies see the Trump Hotel as a conduit to influence in Washington.
That's one. Another sort of hidden facet of The Trump Organization we found this year is its total reliance on undocumented immigrants. We've been documenting as the year goes along all these different clubs, all these different instances where the Trump org's businesses were - you know, they worked because they employed huge numbers of undocumented workers. And the workers themselves said, you know, they must have known we were undocumented. Nobody said a thing, even after Trump got into the presidency based on his antipathy toward undocumented workers. That was a factor I didn't expect at all. I didn't expect to find that story, but we did, and I think we have only found a piece of it. It's still growing.
GROSS: How did you find the story about the undocumented workers employed by The Trump organization?
FAHRENTHOLD: Essentially, The Trump Organization fired them. They fired a whole bunch of them. The New York Times late last year wrote a story about one undocumented worker who worked for Trump at Bedminster, his golf course in New Jersey. And in response to that, Eric Trump, who is now sort of running the business day-to-day, fired, you know, a couple of dozen at least workers from all these Trump clubs. And some of them, knowing it was coming, actually audiotaped their own firing, and they found a lawyer and came to us.
We went - another reporter and I went to this house in Ossining, N.Y., in January, which is near Trump's Westchester County golf club, and there was a room crammed with people - 20-plus people who'd all been undocumented workers for Trump, some of them for 10-plus years, and had all been fired. And finding them and getting to know them and understanding that story sort of put us out there, and then as Trump fired other workers, or even as workers at other Trump clubs began to fear they would be fired, they started to come to us.
GROSS: So they audiotaped - some of them audiotaped their own firing. What did the tapes sound like? Did they play them for you?
FAHRENTHOLD: They did, and it was - so they speak mostly Spanish. And the person the Trump Org had sent to fire them, the VP of human resources, did not speak Spanish. So you can hear on the tape - you can hear actually the worker getting into the elevator to go up one floor to the room where she's going to meet - the conference room. And you can hear the whole sort of, like, corporate speak firing from this vice president. And she's reading a script, obviously, telling them, you know, we can no longer employ you. We've discovered you were undocumented. You know, you submitted false documentation. And then they have some guy on speakerphone from Doral - like, you know, they found a Trump Organization employee who spoke Spanish and had this poor person call in from Doral to sort of translate the firing to these people. And, you know, then they - the worker we heard who taped her firing would say, you know, what - ask questions, try to ask questions about, like, why are you doing this? You know, can I stay on? And there's no room for that in the script. You can sort of see that this is kind of this clipped corporate encounter. And then she leaves again. So it was just incredible to hear that.
And the workers - to them, it symbolized such hypocrisy because the documents that they had just, quote-unquote, "discovered" that were false, the Trump worker had them in their records for 10 years or more. And these workers said, well, of course, they knew. In some cases, they said Trump Org actually sent me back to Queens to buy a better fake after they didn't like the first fake I showed them.
GROSS: So what were some of the patterns in how they were treated when they were employed by The Trump Organization?
FAHRENTHOLD: That part's been really interesting, and I have to say it varies from club to club. A number of Trump businesses used undocumented workers. And in some cases, they felt very badly treated. We talked to some at the Westchester club who said they made us do what they called side work, which is basically they would say, OK, well, I need you to work eight hours today as a waiter. And then at the end of your eight-hour shift, clock out, but don't go home. Stay here in the off - at the restaurant and then you can roll your silverware, then you can do these cleanup tasks. Basically, the bosses would say we're only going to pay you for eight hours, but I want you to work 12, you know, with the unspoken understanding - at least the workers saw it this way - that what are you going to do? You know, you're undocumented. Are you going to find another job?
So some of them felt very abused. Others felt like, you know, they had been well treated. They liked the job. We talked to a number of folks who helped sort of build Trump's Bedminster club who were all undocumented workers from Costa Rica. To them, it was sort of a coming of age. They - you know, this was like - they talked about it the way you might talk about your years in the Army or your years in the Peace Corps. You know, this is where I went off, learned hard work and became a man. So they really had different experiences that varied by the club. One of the most recent ones we wrote about was this group of stonemasons that the Trump Org sort of transported from club to club to build walls and bridges. And one of the guys we talked to said, you know, they treated us like slaves. You know, I didn't have any other option, but I felt like they treated us really poorly.
And the other thing was - and I think - I hope we can explore this more as the year goes on - the way that they were treated by the Trump Org, or by the Trump family, which was kind of like they were there but they really weren't there. You know, they were witnesses to so much of the family's interactions, the family drama, but nobody sort of saw them as witnesses because they were the help and they didn't speak English that well. So we're hearing more and more stories from them about what it was like to be in the middle of the Trump family and yet to be kind of in a way invisible.
GROSS: What kind of skills have you had to learn in order to cover The Trump Organization?
FAHRENTHOLD: It's been so much database management. It's been so much gathering information. The kind of reporter I was before this, I was sort of a political feature writer. So they'd send me to write a story about Ted Cruz. I'd spent two weeks learning everything I needed to know about Ted Cruz. I'd write the story and then I would forget everything I ever knew about Ted Cruz because I was on to Marco Rubio. And this is not that kind of beat at all. Something that I learn today, you know, if I file it away properly, if I put it in the spreadsheet in a way that I can use, it could be a crucial part of my reporting a year from now. But the hard part is that every day is such a tornado. It's - I have to really be disciplined about taking all information I've learned today, even if it has no application for me today, and socking it away in a way that I can find again. That's been the biggest challenge for me is just organizing information and keeping track of all of it in a way that I find useful.
GROSS: It's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for coming back to FRESH AIR, David Fahrenthold.
FAHRENTHOLD: Thank you for having me on.
GROSS: David Fahrenthold is a national reporter for The Washington Post. After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new album that merges jazz and poetry. This is FRESH AIR.
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