ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Hello, Trump, Inc. listeners! It's Andrea Bernstein, and we're back with a third season of stories. Before we get into the first one, just a note about timing.
Over the next few months, we're going to be releasing stories in short bursts. So, for example, we'll have a series of episodes, say, three or four weeks in a row, and then we'll take a short break before our next batch of stories.
If you want to stay up-to-date on our latest episodes and you haven't signed up for our newsletter yet, head on over to TrumpIncPodcast.org and sign up!
Okay, here's the story.
[UP-TEMPO MUSIC PLAYS]
REPORTER: In New York City today, Tom Barrack, the Inaugural Committee chair, visited Trump Tower to meet with the President-elect.
[PLUCKY STRING MUSIC COMES IN]
MARRITZ: It’s that limbo period, after Donald Trump’s surprise win in the Presidential election, and before his swearing-in. And Trump Tower, with its gold elevators and security dogs pacing the lobby, is the momentary center of the universe.
A man appears, wearing a thick winter scarf. His head is bald, his face looks kind. A reporter asks him a question.
REPORTER: Just wondering — a little tease of what we can expect for the Inauguration, the balls, the … Maybe Melania's gown? Anything you can share?
BARRACK: I mean, the Inauguration is gonna be amazing. And what we’re doing is trying to orient it towards the greatest tribute to America. [A DOG BARKS, THEN BARRACK’S VOICE FADES UNDER AS THE NARRATION CONTINUES]
MARRITZ: Our story today is all about this man, Tom Barrack. He ran Donald Trump’s Inauguration, an event that, two years later, is coming under intense scrutiny for the record sums of money raised — and how it was spent.
Barrack has been friends with Trump for decades. And the story of how they met is an old chestnut. Barrack shared it at the Republican National Convention.
BARRACK: I was a young pup. He was a big guy in New York at the time. And … [BARRACK’S VOICE FADES UNDER]
MARRITZ: The year is 1988. Donald Trump is desperate to buy the Plaza Hotel across the street from Central Park. It’s a landmark building he can see from the top of Trump Tower, and it happens to be for sale, and it happens that the seller is represented by Tom Barrack. Trump and Barrack get together. And Trump agrees to pay an eye-popping sum of money for the building.
BARRACK: He said no — no contract. No contract. You and I just shake hands right here. No lawyers, no contract, no nothing. You just tell me the things that I should know, and how to fix it, and I’ll do this deal.
MARRITZ: The New York Times ran this quote from an executive familiar with the sale: “Tom played Donald like a Stradivarius.'' Decades later, Barrack gave a different spin to Trump’s supporters in the convention hall.
BARRACK: You know, he played me like a Steinway piano! [CROWD LAUGHS]
MARRITZ: The two men have remained friends.
BARRACK: It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen. He practices an unbelievable set of disciplines. So everybody says … [AUDIO FADES UNDER]
[SLOWER PLUCKY MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: Now, let’s jump forward three decades to Trump Tower, January 2017. Barrack has made a fortune in business. His friend is heading for the White House, and he’s playing maid-of-honor.
BARRACK: [OVER THE NOISE OF THE CROWD] So, we’re going to surround it with the soft sensuality of the place. So we have all of that. But it's in a much more poetic cadence.
MARRITZ: He’ll make sure everything is just right.
REPORTER: Last question. You talk about, uh, what he wanted. Tell us what he has told you he wants. What are some specifics that he wants to be a part of the Inauguration?
BARRACK: He — he really wanted it to be about the people, not about him. So his instructions to me — by the way, which is the worst job in America, right? He — he gave the best job in America to all the bright guys, and he said, “You be the party planner.”
MARRITZ: The worst job in America. Master of a $100 million party chest, with the world’s most powerful people on the invite list.
[TRUMP, INC. THEME PLAYS]
MARRITZ: Hello and welcome to Season 3 of Trump, Inc. I’m Ilya Marritz from WNYC.
ELLIOTT: And I’m Justin Elliott from ProPublica.Trump, Inc., of course, is a co-production of ProPublica and WNYC.
MARRITZ: An open investigation, in real-time, into the business ties that underpin the Trump Presidency.
[THEME PLAYS OUT]
MARRITZ: A year ago we brought you a story that asked a simple question: the Inaugural Committee raised nearly $107 million. What did they do with all that cash?
Or, as George W. Bush’s Inaugural chief Greg Jenkins put it:
JENKINS: So they had a third of the staff, and a quarter of the events, and they raised, what, at least twice as much as we did? So there's the obvious question, “Where did it go?” I don't know.
MARRITZ: No ideas?
JENKINS: No ideas.
MARRITZ: And since Jenkins and I spoke last year ...
[URGENT, DEVELOPING-STORY MUSIC PLAYS]
ABC BROADCASTER: ABC News reporting right now that Mueller’s team is probing — right now — the donations made to Trump’s Inaugural Committee.
ELLIOTT: One key Inaugural official testified under oath he might have dipped into the fund.
BROADCASTER: Gates admitted to Manafort’s lawyers in open court that he, quote, “possibly” wrongfully submitted personal expenses to the Inaugural Committee for reimbursement.
ELLIOTT: A D.C. lobbyist pleaded guilty to facilitating an illegal contribution from a Ukrainian businessman and member of Parliament.
BROADCASTER: Sam Patten admitting to arranging an illegal foreign donation to Donald Trump’s Inauguration.
ELLIOTT: Then, last December:
CHRIS CUOMO: Tonight we’re learning how a lot of that money went right into the pockets of the Trump family business. [CUOMO CONTINUES UNDER NARRATION]
ELLIOTT: We at ProPublica and WNYC broke some news ourselves.
CUOMO: … have uncovered evidence that Ivanka Trump played a role in how hotels were booked for the Inauguration …
ELLIOTT: Next, the Inaugural Committee came directly under investigation.
BROADCASTER 1: Federal prosecutors in New York issuing a wide ranging subpoena for documents and records … [FADING INTO THE NEXT BROADCAST]
BROADCASTER 2: … A laundry list of potential crimes: conspiracy against the US, false statements, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering … [FADING INTO THE NEXT BROADCAST]
BROADCAST 3: … whether people from the Middle Eastern countries including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE used straw donors to disguise contributions.
[MUSIC WRAPS UP, THEN SILENCE]
MARRITZ: The Trump administration has attracted people who have tried to profit from government connections. Think — Michael Cohen, or Michael Flynn.
Now, with a federal investigation of the Inaugural Committee, it looks as if the pattern may have been set even before Trump took the oath.
[REPETITIVE KEYBOARD MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: That brings us to the man in charge of the celebrations in January 2017, Tom Barrack.
Stylistically, he could not be more different from the President. Trump’s thing is braggadocio and exaggeration; Barrack can be almost comically self-effacing.
BARRACK: All of the really smart, intelligent people are in the transition, taking jobs [LAUGHTER], worrying about trade, finance, nuclear disaster, and I am the master party planner. [LAUGHTER]
MARRITZ: This is a man Fortune Magazine, on its cover, once called “The World’s Greatest Real Estate Investor.” He oversees a company called Colony Capital with $44 billion of assets under management. He’s in hotels, offices, and warehouses.
A word he uses a lot is opportunistic.
BARRACK: But you have to be opportunistic.
ELLIOTT: Even if Barrack took the job of Inaugural chairman simply as a favor for a friend, he still had something to gain.
PETER ELKIND: Barrack gets substantial financing and does a lot of deals with Middle East countries.
ELLIOTT: This is ProPublica’s Peter Elkind.
ELKIND: … the perception and reality of his having influence on government policy is something that matters deeply to all the Middle Eastern states, sovereign wealth funds, investors, who are a really important part of — of funding what Barrack does.
[MUSIC CHANGES, BECOMES MORE UPBEAT BUT STILL PENSIVE]
ELLIOTT: We found a confidential memo that shows Colony Capital, this global finance and real estate firm, had a well-developed plan to profit from its connections in Trump’s Washington, right from the start.
[A BRIEF PAUSE]
MARRITZ: One note on this story. People who worked the Inauguration were covered by a confidentiality clause. So if you're wondering, “Why am I not hearing the voices of the people who made this party happen?” That’s one reason.
Justin’s gonna rejoin the story in a little bit.
Tom Barrack is 71 years old. He surfs, plays polo, and received the French Legion of Honor for his skills as a vintner.
BARRACK [OVER SOFT, CHEESY MUSIC]: You look at the vine. The vine itself is capable at every level of growing these kind of berries.
MARRITZ: And he sometimes gives out these laminated cards to people he meets with his “Twenty Rules for Success.”
Number nine, “Always be nice to the invisible people.”
Number fifteen, “Take care of others, and the universe will take care of you.”
Even angry Tom Barrack doesn’t really sound mad.
[DRAMATIC NEWS ANCHOR MUSIC PLAYS]
CRISTINA ALESCI: You’re one of the few people in the business world that is really supporting, very publicly, Donald Trump. Why?
BARRACK: I, as a user of the system, am also angry with the system. I’m not angry at President Obama. It’s really, really difficult, unless you have somebody who’s chipping away at all of these bureaucratic pieces.
[DRAMATIC MUSIC FADES OUT]
MARRITZ: His whole adult life, Tom Barrack has walked the corridors of power.
His first job, straight out of law school, is for the personal lawyer to the President of the United States. The President at the time is Richard Nixon. The lawyer is named Herbert Kalmbach. He’s the man who personally delivered bags full of cash to the Watergate break-in team. Kalmbach claimed he didn’t know what was in the bag.
[DRAMATIC BUT SLOW GUITAR MUSIC PLAYS]
Barrack doesn’t stay there long. An assignment takes him next to the gas fields of Saudi Arabia, where he has a happy accident.
BARRACK: I was a terrible lawyer. I knew nothing about gas liquefaction, but I could play racquetball. So one day my boss comes in, says, “There’s a guy I want you to play racquetball with.” He sets me up with one of the sons of the king.
MARRITZ: From this first connection with a Saudi prince, Barrack spins out a web of new personal and business relationships around the Middle East — relationships that continue to this day.
INTERVIEWER: Is there anyone in corporate America who knows the Saudis as well as you do?
BARRACK: Oh, I’m sure there’s — there’s — there’s — plenty of people, but I started as a young pup.
MARRITZ: While he’s in the Middle East, Tom Barrack also spends time in Beirut. There, he strikes up a friendship with another young American who’s also interested in business and politics — Paul Manafort.
Next, Barrack travels to Haiti, to negotiate an oil refinery deal, with that country’s dictator, Baby Doc Duvalier.
In the ‘80s, it’s on to Washington, where Barrack briefly holds a job in Ronald Reagan’s Interior Department.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
MARRITZ: Not long after that, he’s called before Congress to answer some tough questions about a home loan he forgave, which some saw as questionable.
BARRACK: Thank you, Senator. I — I would like to make a brief opening statement. [AUDIO FADES OUT AS MARRITZ CONTINUES]
MARRITZ: The loan benefitted Reagan’s incoming attorney General Ed Meese. An independent counsel investigates, and finds no evidence Barrack was doing a favor to get a job in Washington.
Barrack returns to the private sector. He founds Colony Capital, a private equity firm. And Colony thrives, buying up bad loans for cheap in the savings-and-loan crisis of the early 1990s. After the 2008 financial crisis, he scoops up foreclosed homes by the hundreds.
ELKIND: And he’s not at all reluctant to swoop in and grab something and profit on somebody’s misery. You know, that’s capitalism. [LAUGHS]
[BOUNCY, JAZZY MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: This is Peter Elkind from ProPublica, who’s researched Barrack’s career with Colony Capital.
ELKIND: They’re involved in financing of deals, they’re involved in structuring of deals. They’re really a pretty eclectic operation and reflect Barrack’s personality in many ways.
MARRITZ: When Michael Jackson is sinking in debt, Colony Capital buys his Neverland Ranch and makes plans for a world concert tour. Colony also helps Annie Leibovitz hang on to the rights to her photographs when her creditors come calling.
ELKIND: He is an acquirer of both distressed assets and distressed people. He’s really good at buying low and developing relationships with people — often at times when they’re in trouble — and doing big favors for them that ultimately will help him down the road.
MARRITZ: On at least two occasions, Colony shows an interest in partnering with Donald Trump. Both times the result is the same: no deal.
In the ‘90s, Colony talks with Trump about financing for a Manhattan development called Riverside South. They pull out, and the project is built with someone else’s help.
In 2012, Colony lends its name to the Trump Organization’s bid to renovate the Old Post Office in Washington DC. There are nine other bidders. Trump beats the odds, wins the contract, and then goes somewhere else for financing — Deutsche Bank.
Today it’s the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.
[SOFT ROCK MUSIC PLAYS]
ELKIND: I think Barrack is willing to put his neck and his company on the line a little bit to help somebody out at a critical moment, even if it doesn’t necessarily make business sense in the short term.
[A BEAT, THEN A CLIP FROM “OUTFRONT”]
ERIN BURNETT: On “Outfront” now, a close friend — business associate — of Donald Trump, Tom Barrack has known the real estate billionaire for more than 30 years.
MARRITZ: And when Donald Trump runs for President, Barrack becomes one of the few prominent business leaders to endorse him. He goes further and recommends his old friend from Beirut days to the campaign, and Paul Manafort becomes Donald Trump’s campaign chairman. Barrack raises money for the cause.
BURNETT: Today, what you’re calling “the real-deal super PAC” has launched, and in just a few hours how much money has it raised?
BARRACK: Uh, about $32 million in — in contributions.
MARRITZ: The PAC, known as “Rebuilding America Now,” actually falls about $9 million short of that target.
MARRITZ: But with the millions Barrack raises, they produce a blizzard of ads like this one.
ADVERTISEMENT: [WITH DRAMA-FILLED PIANO MUSIC] So who is all for women, until she isn’t? Hillary Clinton. When Bill Cosby was accused of sexual assault, Mrs. Clinton tweeted, “Every survivor of sexual assaults deserves …” [AD AUDIO FADES UNDER]
MARRITZ: Right after the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Paul Manafort is forced out of the Trump campaign after his undisclosed work for a pro-Russian Ukrainian strongman is reported in the news. Barrack goes on TV.
BARRACK: … Paul Manafort is the best in the business. Incredibly credible, incredibly thoughtful, an amazing track record. He did the job. And then, as politics goes, everybody gets attacked!
MARRITZ: A week after Donald Trump wins the election, he picks Tom Barrack to run his Inaugural Committee. He’s the chairman now. People start to call him that.
In the past, Inaugural chiefs were often creatures of Washington. Sometimes they went on to jobs like White House Chief of Staff. Tom Barrack, like the man who chose him, is a wealthy outsider. What he wanted from the gig is not so clear.
In Tom Barrack’s world, you make money by managing other people’s money.
[CLIP FROM JIM CRAMER’S MAD MONEY PLAYS]
CALLER “BRIAN IN CALIFORNIA”: I wonder what your thoughts are on Colony Financial. [JIM’S RESPONSE STARTS UNDER MARRITZ’S NARRATION]
MARRITZ: Do it well, and even more money flows your way, and you get cheered on by Jim Cramer on CNBC.
JIM CRAMER: … I think Tom Barrack is money. [COW MOOING NOISE PLAYS] And I’m gonna recommend the stock.
[END OF MAD MONEY CLIP]
MARRITZ: Unlike private equity firms, where the goal is profits, with a nonprofit Inaugural Committee the goal is to raise the money you need to support the mission — and then close up shop. Here are the instructions President George W. Bush gave to his second Inaugural planner, Greg Jenkins.
GREG JENKINS: You don't turn on the spigots full speed ahead. You raised what you need with a 10% contingency, and live within your means, spend within your means, and then you should not have much more leftover.
[SLOW AND LOW GUITAR MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: The 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee, under Tom Barrack, does not adopt this thrifty attitude. On paper, they say they aim to raise $50 million. Almost $107 [million] comes in. There are 47 one-million dollar checks.
I’ve seen the notes from the committee’s first meetings. You can feel the participants trying to manage Trump’s impulses. People say things like “Make it more pageantry than just the military,” or “Eliminate all the parts about winning.”
In a different meeting, according to one source, the President-elect said he wanted the kind of show they have in North Korea.
For his right-hand man in the committee, running things day to day, Barrack turns to Rick Gates. This is the same Rick Gates who was Paul Manafort’s number two in Ukraine, who worked for the Trump campaign, and who, much later, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI in the Mueller probe.
In the midst of Inauguration planning, Rick Gates writes to Ivanka Trump. He’s looking for a price quote on the event spaces at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
Ivanka connects Gates with the Hotel’s director, over email. ProPublica’s Justin Elliott and I got the emails, and spent a lot of time reading them.
ELLIOTT: The prices they quote are $175,000 per day, and this is going to be for four days, and $175,000 times four is $700,000.
MARRITZ: This information is forwarded to Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, an experienced New York event planner, responsible for conceiving and organizing many of the parties. Wolkoff expresses her concerns to Ivanka Trump and Gates, in writing.
ELLIOTT: And she essentially says, you know, “This price is ridiculous.” She says, “Please take into consideration that, when this is audited, it will become public knowledge that locations were also gifted.”
MARRITZ: Union Station, like the Trump Hotel, is a grand old space that’s booked for an Inauguration week event. Unlike the Trump Hotel, the operator of Union Station decides to donate that space for free.
[PLUCKY STRING MUSIC COMES BACK]
MARRITZ: I called up a bunch of D.C. event planners to ask what they make of this $175,000-a-day number. Their views fell on a spectrum somewhere between, [ACTING MILDLY SURPRISED] “Oh, that’s high,” and [ACTING FRUSTRATED] “You gotta be kidding me.”
A spokesman for the Inaugural Committee confirmed to us, that the number in those emails — four days for $700,000 total — that is what the committee paid.
ELLIOTT: Which means that the objections in this email exchange from Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, the event planner, to that $175,000-a-day rate did not win the day. The quoted $175,000-a-day rate was the rate that they paid.
BRETT KAPPEL: Those emails would be of great interest to the Internal Revenue Service if they were to conduct an audit.
MARRITZ: This is Brett Kappel. He's an attorney down in Washington who specializes in political nonprofits like the Inaugural Committee.
He told us American tax laws were written to discourage the people who run nonprofits from steering money to insiders and their family members.
Ivanka Trump, who helped set the price, once testified she owns 7% of the Trump hotel. Her father and two eldest brothers own the rest.
Kappel says, if the committee paid them above market rate …
KAPPEL: Well, it's a violation of the entities tax exempt status and the regulations that govern tax exempt transactions. Now that's — that’s just a civil violation. Now, if they uncovered evidence of a conspiracy to deliberately violate the Internal Revenue Code by charging two or three times the fair market value in order to derive any illegal profit, then you would get into the criminal side of the tax law. And those emails certainly are not helpful to them in that regard.
MARRITZ: A criminal violation hinges on whether the committee knowingly, deliberately overpaid, and whether it can be proven. Federal prosecutors are now looking at the committee’s finances, though we don’t know whether tax law is a part of their probe.
KAPPEL: One transaction like this is not going to be enough to bring a criminal tax case. But if there's a pattern involving other transactions involving the Inaugural Committee — and I suspect what they're going to be doing is a forensic audit of all of the expenditures made by the Inaugural Committee to see, you know, who ultimately received the money.
MARRITZ: The 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee reported to the IRS that it did not pay above market rates to insiders.
ELLIOTT: We wanted to ask Barrack about this. As the guy in charge, why did you book the Trump hotel? Were you concerned about overpaying? Barrack did not agree to an interview. His spokesman, and the Inaugural Committee, did not answer our questions about this.
MARRITZ: Then there’s Ivanka.
ELLIOTT: Her spokesman basically told us that Ivanka wanted a, quote, “fair market rate” for the event space in the hotel, but he wouldn’t give any evidence of that.
MARRITZ: One thing is clear: the Inaugural Committee treated booking the Trump hotel not as an option, but as a necessity. We know this because the committee tried to muscle out someone else who had already booked the ballroom months earlier. She was pretty much the last person you’d want to give the boot.
[MORE UPBEAT PLUCKY STRING MUSIC PLAYS]
REV. MERRIE TURNER: … Reverend Merrie Turner, and I am the hostess of the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C.
MARRITZ: It’s a smaller event than the National Prayer Breakfast you may have heard about.
MARRITZ: You’ve been doing that since how long?
TURNER: We began hosting these in 1993 to pray for the nation and the Office of the Presidency.
MARRITZ: In December, she started getting emails and phone calls from Rick Gates, Tom Barrack’s deputy at the committee.
TURNER: You know, [he] wanted our space, and, uh, wanted the entire hotel blocked for the full week of the Inauguration.
MARRITZ: After she politely declined, Reverend Turner heard from hotel management. They cancelled her booking, invoking common clause in contracts known as “force majeure,” or an act of God, like a hurricane or military invasion. In this case, they predicted civil unrest.
TURNER: That was their excuse, which, of course, had no legal grounds, because they had not canceled other Inaugural events being held there, you know, by the Inaugural Committee. So, if it was unsafe for our group, it would have also been unsafe for the Presidential Inaugural Committee or the Republican Party to have events there the entire week and Inauguration Day.
MARRITZ: Reverend Turner did not back down. And days later, the hotel un-cancelled her contract. And on Inauguration morning, hundreds of God-fearing men and women ate challah and drank communion wine in the Trump hotel ballroom.
We’ll be right back.
MARRITZ: We’re back. And we’re looking at Tom Barrack, the man who ran Donald Trump’s Inaugural Committee.
It’s now Inauguration week. With balls and lunches, and a concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
TRUMP: [OVER CHEERING] Thank you very much everybody, and thank you, Tom.
MARRITZ: And an event that’s never happened before, a 500-guest, black tie gathering: the Chairman’s Global Dinner. Chairman, as in, Tom Barrack.
TRUMP: We have so many friends. 147 diplomats and ambassadors, never been done before. [APPLAUSE] We’ve never had that.
MARRITZ: The entire foreign diplomatic corps is invited, plus top-dollar donors. And there’s a separate guest list of over 100 people invited by the chairman, including ambassadors and foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
TRUMP: Now I know how safe this room is. Boy, oh, boy. [LAUGHTER] This place is surrounded tonight. But I want to thank you for being here. We have great respect for your countries. We have great respect for our world.
MARRITZ: Just a short snippet of video is all that was released to the public.
But for 500 people who mattered, Tom Barrack’s closeness to his friend, the incoming President of the United States of America, is on vivid display [A SNIPPET OF “WILLKOMMEN” FROM THE MUSICAL CABARET PLAYS] as a troupe of Las Vegas dancers — Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers — pivot and twirl on a purpose-built stage that cost close to $3 million, paid for by the committee.
[“WILLKOMMEN” FADES OUT]
MARRITZ: The tax return of the nonprofit 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee gives this mission statement: TO PROMOTE THE SOCIAL WELFARE BY SUPPORTING THE INAUGURAL ACTIVITIES OF THE PRESIDENT-ELECT AND VICE — it cuts off there.
[MYSTERIOUS MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: But what was Tom Barrack’s mission statement? If he thought it was the worst job in the world, why did he take it? Justin and I found a clue.
ELLIOTT: This is an eight-page strategic plan for Colony. It’s dated February 2017, and it's on Colony letterhead.
MARRITZ: … labeled “Private and Confidential.” And let me restate that date — February 2017, right after the Inauguration.
ELLIOTT: What I found so interesting about this memo is that it seems to represent Colony hatching a plan to profit off its access to the Trump administration and its access to all of these foreigners who were in town for the Inaugural events.
MARRITZ: The memo talks about setting up a D.C. office, with a White House liaison, and a public affairs team. Quote, “Tie into international bilateral meetings already occurring with key members of the Trump administration. This would include taking a leadership role in forming the events, the participants, and the agenda.”
ELLIOTT: They seem to be envisioning a sort of form of soft lobbying and actually say explicitly in here, “We want to establish this brand, but we want to do it without the appearance of actually lobbying.” Which sort of suggest that they — they were going to be lobbying, they just didn't want to look like they were lobbying.
ELLIOTT: And, you know, another thing about Colony is one of the ways they make money is by investors giving them money to manage and they make fees off that. So I think sort of the subtext here is that if they position themselves as sort of gatekeepers to the Trump administration, that’s only going to be good for their investment business and for, sort of, potential inflows from foreigners.
MARRITZ: We asked Colony about this document. Here’s their statement: “This memo was simply an outline of a proposed potential business plan which was never acted upon or implemented. Colony at no time has maintained a D.C. office.”
ELLIOTT: There is one thing that we do know, which is that we have calendars from Steve Mnuchin — Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury — that show in the weeks and months after this memo was written, Tom Barrack and Rick Gates — who was a Colony consultant at the time — were having a series of meetings with Secretary Mnuchin, one of which included a bunch of ambassadors from Middle Eastern countries like Qatar and the UAE, at a fancy restaurant in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington.
MARRITZ: It was in a private space called the Mermaid Room, with seven ambassadors. A Barrack spokesman told us, quote, “Tom has meetings with Mnuchin all the time: before, during, and since the election.” End quote.
ELLIOTT: And so you look at that calendar event — we don't really know what was discussed there — but it looks a lot like what they're describing in this memo, which is putting Colony in-between meetings of the Trump administration and foreign officials. So, one big question is: Was Colony somehow trying to profit from those meetings? And we don't really know what was discussed — and they wouldn't tell us, frankly.
MARRITZ: We do know that around this time, Barrack was promoting a private company’s plan to export US nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. He discussed leading a White House initiative in the Middle East. And Barrack told our ProPublica colleague Isaac Arnsdorf that he considered buying a stake in Westinghouse, the only American manufacturer of large-scale nuclear reactors. Whistleblowers raised concerns about the nuclear plan, and the House Oversight Committee is investigating.
[A SLIGHT PAUSE]
MARRITZ: Since Trump took office, more than $7 billion has flowed into Colony Capital's investment funds, a quarter of that from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
[INTRIGUE MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: We started our reporting with a question: Where did all that Inaugural cash go? We found some answers — the Trump Organization was paid — which led to bigger, more troubling questions: Did the Inaugural Committee break the law? Were people taking part in this cash bonanza to benefit themselves, and buy access?
Now, federal prosecutors in New York have opened a criminal probe that’s separate from the Mueller investigation. They’ve subpoenaed documents. And it’s Tom Barrack, and lawyers for the Inaugural Committee, who have to respond.
In the past, Presidential Inaugurations got maybe one line in the history books.
Two years out, this one keeps making news.
[MUSIC PLAYS IN THE CLEAR FOR A MOMENT]
MARRITZ: As you know, we love tips. Tell us what you know about the Inaugural Committee, Colony Capital, or Tom Barrack’s relationship with Donald Trump. Find out how to share information securely at TrumpIncPodcast.org, and, while you’re there, sign up for our newsletter. This week, we have Tom Barrack’s “Tips for Success.”
And one update: In an earlier version, we overstated the fundraising target of the Inaugural Committee. In state-level filings, the committee said it aimed to raise $50 million.
Coming up on Trump, Inc., the room where it happens: the lobby of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
PERSON 1: What do you think of it?
PERSON 2: Uh. It’s luxurious — is that what Trump would say? — huge. It’s big. I like it.
MARRITZ: We go there.
This episode was produced by Katherine Sullivan. The senior producer of Trump Inc. is Meg Cramer. Bill Moss is the technical director. Charlie Herman and Eric Umansky are the editors. Special thanks this episode to ProPublica’s Peter Elkind, Nick Varchaver, Jake Pearson, Jesse Eisinger, and Isaac Arnsdorf. Thanks also to Aaron Glantz, senior reporter at Reveal. Robin Fields is ProPublica’s Managing Editor. Jim Schachter is the Vice President for News at WNYC, and Steve Engelberg is the Editor-in-Chief at ProPublica.
Original music composed by Hannis Brown.
ERIK SCHATZKER: What do you say to somebody who looks at this, and says, “That guy Tom Barrack, he’s raising Pola ponies, he’s growing wine, but he’s not doing it for a living. He’s just a rich dilettante.” What do you say to that person?
BARRACK: I say, “Come and live with me for a week. If you can keep up with me doing what I do to make a living for a week, you can then be here and think that you’re a rich dilettante.”