The Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., commanded more than $40.4 million in revenue in 2017 and it did so with a simple business strategy. To overcome a low occupancy rate, it charged President Donald Trump’s supporters, and organizations hoping to curry favor, one of the highest room rates in the city.
One group, however, got a sweetheart deal. And it just so happened to be in Washington D.C. to lobby for a policy benefiting the president’s businesses.
The Seasonal Employment Alliance held its H-2B fly-in from February 14–16, 2018 during which members descended on Capitol Hill to push for an increase in the visas that allow businesses to import temporary foreign workers. The H-2B program is popular with landscapers and farmers. It’s also popular among golf course, resort, and hotel operators—like the Trump family—because it allows them to hire foreign workers to perform low-paying seasonal jobs that would often, otherwise, go unfilled.
Last year, the Trump administration raised the H-2B visa cap from 66,000-per-year to 81,000. Three days later, the Trump Organization, from which President Trump can still profit, applied for an additional 76 of those visas to use at its properties.
According to the Seasonal Employment Alliance’s fly-in Eventbrite page, Trump’s D.C. hotel gave the group a rate of $245-a-night. In conjunction with the fly-in, the Seasonal Employer PAC also held a $250-per-person fundraising dinner with special guest Rep. Tom Cole (R–Okla.) at the Trump Hotel D.C. The PAC paid the Trump Hotel D.C. $15,000 for the event, although the hotel’s name is missing in FEC filings as the line item just shows SEPAC reimbursing the alliance’s director for that expense.
The $245-a-night rate offered to SEPAC was an extraordinarily low price for the hotel. The Daily Beast found group rates for 11 other events hosted at the Trump Hotel D.C. The average for those was $394-a-night—61 percent greater than what the alliance paid. After the Seasonal Employment Alliance’s $245-a-night rate, prices ranged from $285 for the Vapor Technology Association’s “Vape and the FDA 2” conference, which Rep. Duncan Hunter crashed, to $584 for the Sovereign Nations Conference, during which Jordan Peterson addressed “the Marxist lie of white privilege.”
Good-government ethicists say that the low rate given to a group with legislative interests that overlap the president’s own private business interests raises numerous red flags.
"This apparent gratuity to representatives of an organization in Washington lobbying on an issue that directly goes into the president’s pocket raises the legitimate inquiry: Did President Trump have anything to do with this?,” said Norm Eisen, White House ethics czar under President Obama and a senior fellow at Brookings, chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an organization involved in two emoluments lawsuits against President Trump. “Even if the president wasn’t directly involved, you still have the appearance issue of a presidential business financially supporting a cause on which the president has one set of interests in his personal capacity (a set of financial interests) and a second set of interests in his official capacity. The question of conflict of interest looms over these allegations."
When asked why he chose the Trump Hotel D.C, Gray Delany, the executive director of the Seasonal Employment Alliance and organizer of the fly-in, said he used a third-party company to find a location for the fly-in. That company then presented the offers it collected to him.
“I was shocked when I saw it,” Delany said of the Trump Hotel D.C.’s rate.
“We got a very good, favorable group rate and they do a great job at the hotel,” he added. ”It really didn’t have anything to do with [president] Trump. But also, the added benefit of [the] Trump [hotel] is that you can run into people who do have influence. That’s always a possibility."
Delany later said he ran into no such people.
The White House referred questions about any communication between the president and his businesses regarding discounted rates to the Trump Organization. The Trump Organization did not respond to questions about how it determines group rates.
Hoteliers consider numerous factors when determining rates and can charge as little as they want to. The Trump Hotel D.C. doesn’t usually charge a little. It charges a lot.
In 2017, the Trump Hotel D.C.’s average nightly rate was $652.98, compared to $495 at other D.C. luxury hotels, which “probably makes it the most expensive hotel in the city,” according to the Washington Post. Per STR, a data and analytics specialist, on the nights of the H-2B fly-in, the average rates of 22 D.C. luxury hotels were $281.21 (Feb. 14) and $265.33 (Feb. 15). While the Trump Hotel D.C.’s average rate was 32 percent greater than its competitors’ last year, the Seasonal Employment Alliance was offered a rate 27 percent lower than the average for the nights it was in town.
Seasonal workers and H-2B visas are politically tricky issue for Trump. While the president’s company and some of his supporters rely on them, increasing the cap flies in the face of the president’s pledges to crack down on immigrant labor.
Recently, however, Trump has softened his rhetoric on H-2Bs visas. "The unemployment picture is so good, it's so strong, that we have to let people come in,” Trump said at an April 2018 rally in Michigan. "They're going to be guest workers. They’re going to come in, they’re going to work on your farms. We’re going to have the H-2Bs come in.”
He was met with a smattering of applause—until he added, “But then they have to go out.”
White House spokesperson Kelly Love referred questions on Trump’s position on H-2B visas to the Department of Homeland Security. DHS declined to comment.