DAN ALEXANDER: Some of the people renting in these buildings don't know that their own landlord is the President of the United States.
[SLOW, DRIVING MUSIC PLAYING]
ILYA MARRITZ: This is journalist Dan Alexander. He just wrote a book.
ALEXANDER: That other book is White House, Inc., which will be familiar to you. It sounds a lot like the name which you guys are doing.
MARRITZ: Amazing title, amazing title. How’d you come up with that?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. If you hadn't taken Trump, Inc., you know, then I might’ve used that. And the subtitle is “How Donald Trump Turned the Presidency into a Business.”
MARRITZ: And Dan, you also — for years — have worked on the “Forbes Billionaires” list, right?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, I was — I was working on the list for a long time and tracking all of these billionaire’s fortunes. And then, when Trump became president, then I narrowed my focus from [LAUGHS] covering hundreds of people, to covering just one billionaire.
MARRITZ: And Dan's reporting has led him to a bunch of Trump properties.
ALEXANDER: Uh, the ones that are missing are, like, the Trump Winery. I haven't seen all the golf courses. But I've definitely been to almost every commercial building, if not every one.
MARRITZ: Tell me about 555 California Street and why you were interested in that building.
ALEXANDER: I've been interested in that building for a long time, because although it doesn't get a whole lot of attention, it's actually the most important property for Trump's business that he has. But it's very difficult to figure out what exactly is going on inside of the building. Because, you know, unlike if you go to like a retail store or something like that, you know, you can see who's renting the space and you can figure out roughly what they would be paying in rent. In a large nondescript office building like 555 California Street, you can't really see very easily who's inside.
MARRITZ: One thing that I really enjoy about your reporting is you are always very candid about your methodology. And I was amused to learn that you used a method that I've used a bunch of times in [ALEXANDER LAUGHS] Trump, Inc. to get inside a building that I was curious about, which is to book a co-working space.
So tell me about the co-working space at 555 California Street and why you were interested in that building.
ALEXANDER: I've been interested in that building for a long time, because although it doesn't get a whole lot of attention, it's actually the most important property for Trump's business that he has. There's an enormous amount of rent flowing into that property, and we don't know who's paying that rent. And so it was a big question to me, you know. There's all this attention — which is great — on, you know, the properties that are easy to see: you know, the D.C. hotel or, uh, you know, Trump Tower and that sort of thing. But this was sort of this one that was kind of forgotten, even though it was so much money.
And I — as I was researching, I stumbled across this document that listed every tenant inside 555 California Street and how much space they leased.
ALEXANDER: It was, like, a, you know, total gold mine. Yeah. I was — I was very, very excited when I found it and I was so excited and I wasn't positive that it, like — it seemed too good to be true.
And so I booked a ticket to California and, as luck would have it, I found out that there was this co-working space that happened to be in the same elevator bank as the place that I was most curious about. And so I booked a spot in — in the co-working space, and then I could access what I needed to see.
[REPETITIVE KEYBOARD MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: So let's just pause on that fact for a moment, because I think if you asked a hundred Americans, “What is Donald Trump's biggest money-making building?” Not one of them would say, “It's an office tower in San Francisco.”
ALEXANDER: That's right. And I think that, um, you know, this is one of the things that has been difficult about, you know, Trump and his money, is that a lot of the properties that people are most interested in — just generally because they're overseas or because they're a D.C. hotel or whatever — are really important and have a lot of, you know, interesting connections and all of that, but they're not actually where he makes his money.
You know, Trump owns a lot of real estate in New York, and one really important building in California, and that commercial real estate is, always has been, likely always will be the core of his fortune. And this building in particular is so important because the rents that they're able to charge just keep climbing and climbing and therefore the amount of money that flows from it to Donald Trump keeps increasing every year to the point where now it’s by far — there's not even a close second. Like, it's like almost a hundred million dollars ahead of the next competitor, which is basically its — its compatriot building in New York, called 1290 Avenue of the Americas. It's by far his most valuable building. And those two buildings are by far — has been the most valuable holding. So there's not really a close third. And again, they're both sort of these anonymous buildings.
MARRITZ: The name Trump is, like, not on either one.
ALEXANDER: And there's a reason for that. No. He only owns 30% of those buildings. So you might say, “Oh, well it's only 30%. It can't be that much.” But because these buildings are so large and rent space for so much money, have so much square footage, that 30% means more money to Donald Trump than any of the things that he has a hundred percent of.
But because it's only 30% and he doesn't control the buildings, he can't name them Trump. And because they don't have his name on it, they haven't suffered from some of the negative afflictions that some of his other properties have where people say, “I don't want to be associated with the Trump name.”
MARRITZ: Okay. So take me inside 555 California Street. You have rented a co-working space. You're at the elevator bank, but you're there to see something else.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. So basically, uh, on the document, my eyes about popped out of my head when I saw that one of the tenants that I didn't know about was the Qatar Investment Authority, which is a sovereign wealth fund from Qatar. Basically, you know, if you were to come up with a list of entities that could be renting from Donald Trump, you know, this would be one of the most troublesome ones that you could possibly imagine. It's a huge sovereign wealth fund that has large investments all over the world, but no one knew that they were renting from Trump. And so, to confirm that that was the case, I needed to actually see the place for myself.
And so I got in the elevator and pressed the 43rd floor. And when I came off the elevator, I turned in on one side, you know, there was an office that looked kind of active. And then on the other side, it almost looked like something that you'd see in a magazine for an office — you know, not a real office.
ALEXANDER: It was just, like, perfectly pristine, you know, nothing had been touched. And so I walk up and there are glass doors so you can see into the front. And on the right side, there's a counter — really nice counter — that they have, and behind it … Or, I think there was two computers, one on each side, like — like if you had a busy office, you know, where assistants would sit, but there was no one sitting there and, you know, a lot of the other interior walls were glass. And so I could sort of see through the office a little bit and nobody was sitting anywhere else and everything looked, like, just perfect. [MARRITZ LAUGHS] And behind the desk, there's a sign that, sure enough, said, “Qatar Investment Authority.” And, um, I was like, “Oh my god, you gotta be kidding me. No. It's really right here!”
You know, it was, it was the document coming to life. And so I walked down the hall a little bit and there were some other things to get in. I sort of peered around, I didn't see anyone. Then it went back up to the front and I knocked as hard as I could. These are glass doors. You couldn't like bang, like it — it was a wooden door, but I was knocking about as hard as I could without fear of shattering the glass and, uh, waited, waited. No one came knocked again. No one came. And so then, you know, you're you really start thinking about it. This is a foreign government, leasing space in Donald Trump's most valuable holding, and nobody seems to actually be using the thing. So why would that happen?
But in order to make sure I booked the -- the co-working space upstairs for an extra day. So the next day I came back and I came at a different time. You know, I was like, “Well, maybe there's a chance that their hours are different, so nobody works in the morning,” or something like that.
So I came in the afternoon. Same exact thing: same perfect floors, counters, everything. Knocked, no one answered. Uh, and as I was looking at it, the thing that really struck me was that there was a plant — like an office plant — on the counter. It looked like a nice plant, but it looked like it had been dead for like five months. It was — and it was not, this wasn't a cactus, you know, this was a — a green plant that was the color of brown sand, or something like that. [MARRITZ LAUGHS] Um, and so it, uh, you know, it became pretty clear that that's what was going on.
So we're not sure the exact month or day that this was signed or when they moved in. But what we do know is that there's somebody who worked in the building who told me that it was after February of 2018. And he said he never saw anyone go into that office, but that there was construction going on sometime in 2018. The other reference point that we have is that there's a document that Trump's partner, Vornado, filed with the city of San Francisco — the sort of document that you file when there's construction going on. So as they're building out the — the space. And that document was filed in August of 2018. So those are sort of our two indicators. So, sometime in 2018, but we don't know the precise day.
MARRITZ: What is that lease worth to Donald Trump?
ALEXANDER: Oh, it's an amount of money that — for anybody who is worth as much as Donald Trump — probably wouldn't mean a whole lot. But Donald Trump is the kind of guy where small amounts of money do seem to matter to him, a bizarre amount, in some cases. So the space is small. It's only like 5,500 square feet. And if they're paying market rates — which, we don't know the rates that they're paying — but, you know, let's assume that they're paying market rates. That would mean that they're paying about $450,000 a year in rent. Now Trump only owns 30% of that building. So Trump's portion of it is only, like, $135,000.
So, the question is, does $135,000 matter to a guy who's worth $2.5 billion. Well, it shouldn't, but you know, Trump isn't a typical billionaire. And I always think back to either the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, when Spy Magazine thought that it would be kind of funny to do this test.
And they wanted to figure out who — who was the cheapest rich person in New York. And so they sent checks to a bunch of really rich people, you know: athletes, business people, it's all these different folks. And I forget the exact number, but let's say it was, you know, a $10 check or something like that.
They created an LLC, sent it from this random LLC to all of these people, just to see who would cash it, who would bother to take the minute to cash, a $10 check that wasn't going to have any impact on their life.
And only two people cashed it. One was a Saudi arms dealer, and the second was Donald Trump. So this is a guy who, when he was, you know, running massive casinos and already owned huge stretches of land, was taking the time to cash a check for literally cents.
MARRITZ: So we at Trump, Inc. have been really interested in the question of foreign governments, or foreign political actors paying the president. So, you know, we, we actually witnessed it when a Nigerian politician showed up at Trump's hotel. We also broke some news about the Romanian leader booking rooms at Trump's hotel. Explain to me why Qatar, in particular, having secret office space and paying rent to the President is problematic.
ALEXANDER: The sorts of examples that you just mentioned are, of course, troublesome. And people wonder, “Why is he booking that hotel versus booking the Hilton?” or something like that. But they could always argue — and whether it was a fair argument or not is a different question — but the Trump Organization's argument was always that, “Well, it's a value-for-value exchange,” you know?
So the people who are renting the space in the Trump Hotel, they get a ballroom for the night. And sure, the Trump — you know, the president gets paid, but that's how business works. You know, it's a fair exchange. Or if you're buying a hamburger or if you're staying in a suite or whatever, you're going to pay money for that. And yeah, he's going to get money in return, but that's how business goes.
What's different about this is that this is not how business goes. People don't rent spaces in high-priced buildings that they don't use. And we don't know why that's happening, but man, it sure doesn't look good.
ALEXANDER: And so that argument of it's a value-for-value exchange just doesn't hold any water anymore.
MARRITZ: Right. And then on top of this, I'm remembering back to early in Trump's administration — uh, actually his first foreign visit as president. Donald Trump went to Saudi Arabia, and, shortly after that, um, began this extraordinary effort by Qatar's neighbors to isolate it diplomatically. So how does that line up with this leased office space?
ALEXANDER: So at the start of his presidency, as you said, he goes to Saudi Arabia — his first foreign trip.
And in that trip, you know, it looks like the leaders of Saudi Arabia and perhaps some of its neighbors are sort of picking on Qatar a little bit. Now these are all allies of the United States, but they don't get along internally. And so they're saying, you know, “Qatar is funding terrorists.” And Trump, you know, who basically comes in as sort of a blank slate on, you know, foreign policy in the Middle East and the intricacies between countries and all of that, seems to buy it.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.
ALEXANDER: And he comes back and he, uh, Tweets out that Qatar is a funder of terrorism and it causes this whole big uproar because people are like, “Whoa, you're saying that about one of our allies, you know. Do you realize what you're saying?”
PRESIDENT TRUMP: And in the wake of that conference, nations came together and spoke to me about confronting Qatar over its behavior.
ALEXANDER: It was one of these classic moments where, you know, Trump’s … “Well, I'm taking a new approach.”
PRESIDENT TRUMP: So we had a decision to make. Do we take the easy road or do we finally take a hard but necessary action?
ALEXANDER: But then the odd thing is that around the time that the Qatari start building out this office space, Trump's position toward them seems to change. And he invites the leader of Qatar to Washington, and they're sitting in the Oval Office.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: [OVER CAMERAS] So, Emir, thank you very much for being here for sure.
EMIR OF QATAR: [OVER CAMERAS] Thank you very much, Mr. President. I'm very happy and honored to be here.
ALEXANDER: And he says, you know, that he's really happy with him for changing their ways — for no longer being funders of terrorism.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: We're making sure that terrorism funding is stopped in the countries that we are really related to.
ALEXANDER: And the Qatar leader basically cuts him off.
EMIR OF QATAR: I want to make something very clear, Mr. President.
ALEXANDER: And he's like, “I just want to be clear. We were never funders of terrorism.”
EMIR OF QATAR: We do not — and we will not — tolerate with people who fund terrorism. We've been cooperating with the United States of America to stop, uh, funding terrorism around the region. We do not, uh, tolerate with people who support and fund terrorism.
ALEXANDER: And Trump sort of nods along. Um, but it's clear that at that point, Trump has taken a different position. And there were other things going on, you know, the Qataris have been lobbying in Washington.
And so there are other possible reasons why he could have changed position. Maybe you just learned a little bit more about the region and all of that sort of thing. But he does change his mind.
And then you fast forward about a year after that — so this is in July of 2019 — and Hamad Al Thani, the leader of Qatar, comes back to Washington.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: It's a great honor to be with the Emir of Qatar, a highly respected man, a real leader in a large part of the world and a very important part of the world.
ALEXANDER: And this time they've got, you know, full red carpet rolled out for him.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: We've been friends for a long time and, uh, we're doing a lot of work now. They're investing very heavily in our country.
EMIR OF QATAR: We trust the economy here. We do a lot in the infrastructure. And we're planning to do more investments.
ALEXANDER: The backdrop of all of this is, of course, that the Qataris are now leasing one of his buildings and no one knows about it.
[ROCK-ISH MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: What do the Trump Organization and the Trump White House say about this?
ALEXANDER: Not much. The White House basically responded to questions about this and about lots of other things for the book saying, you know, “These are all questions for the Trump Organization.” The Trump Organization, which has engaged with me over the years, um, did not respond to any questions sent directly for this book, including ones about the Qatari lease.
The Qatar Investment Authority declined to comment, or NATO declined to comment. So, uh, everyone is basically totally silent on it.
MARRITZ: More from Forbes author Dan Alexander after the break.
[SLOW PLUNKY MUSIC]
SHERI DILLON: Good morning. It's my honor and privilege to be here today at President-elect Trump's request.
MARRITZ: And we’re back.
DILLON: He’s asked me, as you just heard, to speak about the conflicts of interest and the steps he's taking,
MARRITZ: So I've been thinking back to about three years ago — three and a half years ago — right around the time Trump was taking office, and he made the decision not to divest from his business.
DILLON: President-elect Trump wants the American public to rest assured that all of his efforts are directed to pursuing the people's business and not his own.
MARRITZ: Trump said his sons were going to be running the business separately and they were going to have an outside advisor telling them what deals they could and couldn't do.
DILLON: Some have asked questions: Why not divest? Why not just sell everything, form a blind trust?
MARRITZ: But a lot of ethicists saw a problem that just really couldn't be resolved if you were going to have foreign governments and corporations and who-knows-who-else paying the president. And, of course, we in the press were like, “How are we going to cover this? How are we going to even know who's paying the president?”
So now it is 2020, uh, we're just two months out from an election. And I wonder what you think we have learned in that time.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
ALEXANDER: When Trump decided that he was going to hang on his business and basically bring it with him into the White House, he was really launching a big experiment.
You know, what happens to a business that large, when the person who has built around becomes President of the United States? And it was — it was kind of anybody's guess. I mean, is he gonna make a ton of money on this thing? Is it going to be bad for the business? What's going to happen? And I think that what we've learned is that, first of all, it was bad politics. But that, we probably knew at the start. You know, we knew that the ethics of it weren't going to look good, that there would be all these thorny questions. We kind of knew that. But the surprising thing is that it was also bad business.
At a lot of his properties, particularly his golf clubs and his hotels, those are kind of consumer-facing properties. And if you're a consumer-facing business and more than half of the country doesn't want anything to do with you, then you lose a lot of potential customers. And you also lose customers who might like you themselves, but they might not want to offend someone.
So if they're hosting an event that invites a ton of people, are they really gonna book it at a Trump hotel? So if they book it at a Trump hotel, then 40% — 50% — 60% of the people that they're inviting are going to be angry about it. It's going to be the topic of discussion the whole time at the business conference or whatever it is.
And you can see this in the numbers. I mean, the profits and revenues at Doral plunged. The numbers and the Trump Hotel in D.C. don't look great either. He's lost a bunch of his licensing partnerships that he had. You know, companies saying, “We don't want to pay you for this name anymore. In fact, we'll pay you so that then we don't have to use the names, so we can break the contract.”
And so if you look at his net worth, you know, it's down. He started the presidency worth $3.5 billion. You know, right now we've got him at $2.5 billion. If he had just invested everything, put it in the S&P 500, he'd be far richer today than if he had kept all this stuff and brought all of it in.
So it's sort of a lesson, I think, to future presidents who might be wealthy and thinking about whether they should divest or not. You know, if you care about politics, you should probably divest, but also if you care about your money, you should probably divest too.
MARRITZ: I think there's at least one other lesson in your reporting, and that’s that I think it just really illustrates the gaps in our ethics program. So, you know, the Office of Government Ethics requires the president to file a detailed financial disclosure every year. And Donald Trump's is really long, because he has so many business entities and he draws income from so many sources.
But it doesn't include rent rolls, for example. And so, that's what makes your news about Qatar having a lease in a Trump building so very surprising and intriguing. And, in my mind, it just opens up the possibility that any number of other parties might also be paying rent to Donald Trump.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, and they are. I mean, you know, there are hundreds of millions of dollars that have flowed to Donald Trump in rent since he's been in office and then we'll continue flowing to him. And many of those are, you know, from large corporations, some of them are from foreign governments. So that’s — that’s true.
And I think that a lot of people have commented on the fact that we're now finding where the weaknesses are in our institutions, because Trump tests those things. And, uh, it's definitely true from an ethics perspective — the fact that, you know, they've got all of these particular rules.
If you literally take in $202 from someone, you have to disclose that. But if you take it in through a shell company, it could be $201 million, and you don't have to say who's paying. It’s simple stuff like that, that it's just — you know, the rules were not designed for a billionaire real estate mogul.
They were designed for somebody, you know, who was a classic politician. Maybe they'd written a book or two, or they, you know, worked in consulting or in lobbying around their political career here. They're not meant for somebody who has billions of dollars. You know, if you look at history — you know, if you look after Watergate, that's when they instituted the rules and the restrictions that we do have, you know, that they do have to disclose what their assets are are, and they have to say something about who's paying them and tracked all of the money flowing into campaigns. And, you know, here now we are this new moment where, you know, billionaires are increasingly going to be not just influencing people in office, but seeking out office themselves.
You can look at the 2020 election if you have any questions about that. I mean, Tom Steyer, Mike Bloomberg, even Howard Schultz: you got four billionaires, but there are only, like, 500 billionaires in the United States. That’s, like, 1% of the billionaire population. [MARRITZ LAUGHS] Compare that to the — to the overall population of the country, just 330 million, and there were only, like, 20 serious contenders.
So, obviously, there are going to be more examples of people like this, whether it's next election, or in, you know, two elections, or in five, or whatever. And we're at this moment, I think, where there's going to be a lot of hard thought about “How do we make sure that future presidents are ethical, and that people understand when they're not ethical?”
The fact that it is taking us almost up until the reelection to find out that Donald Trump is leasing, you know — that one of his buildings is leasing space to the Qatar Investment Authority. It doesn't make any sense.
MARRITZ: I want to ask you about one more — I think — very important thing that's in your book and in this — in this Vanity Fair article that's a book extract, and that is: you do the math on Trump's pledge to turn over profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury. And you find that his math does not add up. So explain to me, in brief, what you learned.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. I mean, it's not that complicated. On the 20th floor of Trump Tower the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China is renting space from Donald Trump. That lease was going to expire in the middle of 2019, and they ended up renewing part of the lease. But even if you just count the money that flowed in in 2017 and 2018, we know how much rent they were paying, because Trump's lenders disclose it on some documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And if you just add up the amount of money that was going in through rent, and you look at what the margins are in that property, then you can see roughly how much the profits for that they were getting from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. And it adds up to — just from that one lease — about three times as much money as the Trump Organization has turned over to the U.S. Treasury in 2017 and 2018 as part of its promise to give back all profits from foreign governments. So it’s — it’s clear that that promise just isn't happening. They're doing something, but it's not what they said they were doing.
MARRITZ: And did they respond to when you ask questions about that?
ALEXANDER: No. No comment on questions from the book, including how they explained that they were taking in larger profits from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China than they were giving back to the U.S. Treasury.
MARRITZ: Right, because these checks that they cut to the U.S. Treasury, they're not itemized. They do not detail all of the sources of those foreign profits at all.
ALEXANDER: Right? Nor are they audited. You know, it took a long time for anybody to figure out just even if they were counting profits from their hotels and how they went about doing that. And they said, ultimately, in some documents that they weren't actually really doing that either.
[MUSICAL FLOURISH PLAYS AND CONTINUES SOFTLY UNDER CREDITS]
MARRITZ: Dan Alexander, senior editor at Forbes and author of the new book, White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned the Presidency into a Business. Great talking with you.
ALEXANDER: Great talking with you. Thanks for having me.
MARRITZ: This episode of Trump, Inc., was produced by Matt Collette, with engineering by Ed Haber. I'm Ilya Marritz. Thank you for listening.