A delegation from the country of Cyprus was looking for ways to influence the Trump administration when it came to Washington D.C. in late May. And so, it did what many savvy influence-peddlers in the nation’s capital would do. It booked its conference in the president’s hotel.
From May 22–25, delegates of the 34th annual International Coordinating Committee’s “Justice For Cyprus (PSEKA) Conference” convened at the Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C.
The purpose of the gathering was fairly explicit. As laid out in a report in the Cyprus News Agency, an editorially independent but semi-government-funded news outlet, members were looking “into ways of exerting influence on US President Donald Trump with a view to avert the Islamization of the Turkish occupied part of Cyprus.”
“This seems like a prime example of a special interest hoping that they can influence the president, in part, by bringing business to him,” said Noah Bookbinder, a former federal corruption prosecutor and executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an organization involved in two emoluments lawsuits against President Trump.
But whereas other entities have used the hotel as a lobbying vehicle before, the Justice for Cyprus jaunt at Trump International had several additional layers of political intrigue.
A deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state addressed paying guests from behind a Trump Hotels-branded lectern, mayors of occupied Cypriot towns and a Greek member of parliament attended under clouds of emoluments concerns, and the specter of Robert Mueller’s investigation weighed over the proceedings. Months before the gathering, officials with the Cyprus government had reportedly handed the special counsel bank records related to Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
There’s no evidence that the Mueller investigation had any connection to the Cypriot’s decision to host their conference at the president’s hotel. But their choice of venue still underscores the extent to which a second property on Pennsylvania Avenue—on top of the White House—has become the nexus of influence, power, and legal and political intrigue.
The Justice for Cyprus conference attracted around 100 representatives of Cypriot organizations from across the United States, per the Cyprus News Agency. Participants left Trump’s hotel for a briefing at the White House, meetings with members of Congress on Capitol Hill, and a reception at Cyprus’s ambassador’s residence per the conference’s registration. In addition to PSEKA, hosts included the American Jewish Committee and other Cypriot and Hellenic groups.
“Trump is not a politician, and we hope that he can get the message,” PSEKA president Philip Christopher said in the conference’s opening remarks, Parikiaki reported. “The geopolitical situation in the region is changing and there are hopes that we will be able to make use of it.”
One senior government official who definitely heard the message was deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state Jonathan Cohen. Cohen attended parts of the conference and was presented with an award there. A career member of the senior foreign service for now, he was nominated this February to be the deputy representative to the United Nations. Justice for Cyprus honored Cohen at its official dinner in the hotel’s presidential ballroom, where Cohen addressed attendees from behind a lectern bearing the Trump Hotels logo. (Cohen also was slated to deliver the group’s White House briefing.)
According to a State Department spokesperson, “[Cohen] did not spend any State Department funds at the hotel or any of its restaurants in association with his participation.”
Rep. Dina Titus (D–Nev.) also was honored with an award at the dinner—making her the rare elected Democrat spotted at Trump’s D.C. hotel. Titus too spoke from behind the Trump hotel lectern. Titus’ spokesperson said the congresswoman spent no government funds at the hotel.
But when U.S. government officials attend a conference and speak with Trump corporate logo in front of them, it can make it hard to tell where the president’s companies end and the presidency begins according to Bookbinder.
“Here it seems to at least give the appearance of an endorsement from the president,” he said. “Whether or not that’s what anybody intended, you’re going to have that kind of appearance problem when you have the president continuing to own his businesses.”
When the government officials are from another country though, the concerns aren’t about impressions but rather pertain to possible Constitutional violations. At least three foreign-government officials attended Justice for Cyprus (per Greek News Online): the mayors of two Cypriot towns (Nikos Hadjistephanou of Karavas and Zena Lyssandrou of Lefkoniko) and Greek member of parliament Haris Theocharis.
PSEKA’s president, Philip Christopher, did not respond to multiple requests to discuss why his group chose to host its conference at Trump’s D.C. hotel and if any foreign government funds were spent at the president’s business. The contact person on the conference’s registration page, who works for the D.C. lobbying firm Manatos & Manatos, also did not reply to a request for more information.
Earlier this year, the Trump Organization donated $151,470 to the U.S. Treasury for what it claimed were its profits from foreign governments in 2017. But it did not substantiate how it calculated that figure.
What makes Cyprus different from other foreign countries whose government entities have patronized the Trump hotel is its role in the Russia probe. Banks on the small island nation (population 1.2 million) have come under outsized scrutiny from Mueller. Bloomberg reported that the special counsel is investigating “flows of money into the Cyprus bank account of a company that specialized in social-media manipulation and whose founder reportedly met with Donald Trump Jr.” The FBI, additionally, has reportedly begun looking into how Russian oligarchs have been using of financial institutions on the island.
These predicaments gives champions of Cyprus a possible incentive to want to do business with Trump. They also give the president’s business associates a reason to be charitable when determining what to charge. For its conference, PSEKA advertised a reduced room rate at the hotel of $325 per night—below both the Trump hotel’s 2017 average of $652.98 a night and the $338 average rate 22 D.C. luxury hotels offered on the nights of Justice for Cyprus (per STR, a data and analytics specialist). For comparison, the Washington Post reported that last year the Trump Hotel DC had one of the highest room rates in the city.
Justice for Cyprus is far from the only entity advocating on behalf of foreign countries to do business at Trump’s D.C. hotel. The U.S. embassies of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, and Kuwait; Malaysia’s prime minister; Romania’s president; Saudi Arabian lobbyists; and the Turkey–U.S. Business Council have all patronized the Trump Hotel D.C. The Philippines’ embassy celebrated its country’s independence there this Tuesday night.
And, not previously reported, later in June the Trump Hotel D.C. is hosting a Vietnamese private company’s seminar to drum up Americans investment in Vietnam. Per its press release, “Present at the half-day event will be leaders of diplomatic agencies, financial institutions, fund management companies, investment funds, enterprises and individual investors, as well as global press agencies.”