WASHINGTON — It became such a central slogan of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign that at rallies his supporters would chant the three words representing his pledge to take on big donors and special interests: “Drain the swamp.”
But as President Donald Trump ramps up his 2020 reelection bid, it is clear that he has tolerated if not fostered a swamp of his own in Washington, granting up-close access to deep-pocketed supporters and interest groups willing to write six- and seven-figure checks to his political operation. Some have used the opportunity to plead their cases directly to him.
The latest evidence came over the weekend, with the release of a secret recording of an April 2018 dinner for major donors and prospective donors to a super PAC supporting Trump.
While news of the recording primarily focused on Trump’s call for the removal of Marie L. Yovanovitch as ambassador to Ukraine after a donor claimed she had disparaged the president, the recording revealed that Trump engaged in policy discussions with many other donors pushing their own agendas.
There was the New York real estate developer whose company’s project in South Korea was proposed to Trump as a possible site for his summit with Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea.
There was the Canadian steel magnate who pushed the president to further limit steel imports to the United States, and whose companies donated $1.75 million to the super PAC.
Other attendees discussed government policies that could benefit their businesses, including building a highway for self-driving trucks and regulations that would help make trucks powered by gas compressors to be more competitive with electric-powered vehicles.
The recording is a glimpse into a broader pattern in which the administration appointed industry lobbyists to key policymaking jobs, heeded the deregulatory wishes of big corporations and granted regular access to donors and influential political supporters. Some of the policies sought by the donors at the 2018 dinner have been subsequently introduced in Congress; it is unclear in those cases whether the president or the White House intervened.
In other cases, Trump has directly championed the businesses of some of his biggest donors, as he did in the weeks after his inauguration when he reportedly discussed with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan an effort by the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to build a casino there.
Trump’s assiduous courtship of major donors closely mirrors behavior for which he chastised his opponents in 2016, when he cast himself as a billionaire whose ability to finance his own campaign would ensure that he was not beholden to financial backers.
In the months after starting his presidential campaign, Trump branded his Republican rivals, as well as his eventual Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, as “puppets” of major donors who funded their campaigns and supportive super PACs.
In one characteristic broadside at his rivals in late 2015, he assailed Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, and Sen. Marco Rubio, also of Florida, both of whom were seeking the Republican nomination at the time, for their embrace of super PACs funded by major donors.
“And you look at Hillary — let’s go to the other side — they have super PACs, where they control the candidate just like you control a puppet,” Trump said. “We don’t want anybody to form super PACs for me. We sent legal notices: ‘Please give all the money back.’ We don’t want it.”
It was not long before Trump reversed himself.
His campaign began aggressively courting donations to supplement the personal money he was spending on his 2016 bid, and his team eventually blessed the formation of a super PAC that solicited large checks from major donors to air ads attacking Clinton.
Once elected, Trump’s team signaled that he did not intend to spend his own money on his reelection. His allies formed a pair of political groups using variations of the name America First that could accept unlimited donations. He began appearing at events for donors, the most generous of whom were invited to the White House for briefings with top administration officials.
He has attended many donor gatherings and fundraisers have been held at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, including the dinner that was the subject of the recording released over the weekend. Held in a private suite on April 30, 2018, it was for donors and prospective donors to America First Action, a super PAC that has raised nearly $50 million to support Trump and allied candidates.
The recording, which includes video at times, shows Trump entering the suite and posing for some photographs before joining donors in a dining room with 16 plush chairs around an ornately set table accented with rose centerpieces.
Trump updated the donors on some of the most pressing issues facing his administration, including its ongoing negotiations with China over trade and North Korea over nuclear weapons. He seemed to encourage the donors to share their concerns.
Trump mentioned to the donors that his administration had selected a date and a location for his first meeting with Kim, which would be held in Singapore in the weeks after the dinner. One of the dinner attendees suggested a different site for the summit: a so-called smart development outside Seoul, South Korea, called Songdo, featuring a convention center, apartments and a golf course designed by the golfer Jack Nicklaus.
A leading stakeholder in the development was a company run by Stanley C. Gale, a donor to Republican campaigns and committees who attended the dinner, according to people familiar with the event. It was also attended by the golfer’s grandson and namesake, Jack Nicklaus III, who works for Gale’s company, according to a LinkedIn profile. Gale did not respond to a request for comment.
During the discussion, Trump told the guests, “You know that Kim Jong Un is a great golfer.” His remark prompted laughter and led another guest to suggest that Kim’s scores were recorded as all holes-in-one in his authoritarian country.
Another guest was Barry Zekelman, a Canadian citizen who owned a U.S.-based steel-tube manufacturing company that donated $1.75 million to America First Action, avoiding running afoul of a ban on foreign donations in American politics. He used the dinner to push the president on two challenges facing his company: cheap steel tube imports from Asia and new federal rules that made it harder to find truck drivers.
He urged Trump to go further in his effort to limit steel imports to the United States and questioned the rules intended to prevent fatal truck accidents by using electronic monitoring systems to limit the hours drivers could be on the road.
“Say someone is half an hour from home on their long-haul truck — they literally have to pull over on the side of the road and stop,” Zekelman said. “They can’t go home.”
Trump did not seem to be aware of the new federal rules that required those monitoring systems.
“They have a method that you shut down a truck?” Trump said, after Zekelman questioned the effect the new rules had on his ability to move the steel erw pipe he manufactured. “Wow.”
Since that dinner, legislation has been introduced in the House with the cosponsorship of 12 Republicans, including the brother of Vice President Mike Pence, to allow smaller trucking companies to get exemptions from the rule.
Legislation has also been introduced to help natural gas vehicles compete with electric ones. It was applauded by an Ohio company that makes gas compressors, Ariel Corp. One of its executives, Thomas Rastin, was on the invitation list for the April dinner. He and a woman resembling his wife, Karen Buchwald Wright, who owns Ariel Corp., are briefly visible in the video of the event. Together, the couple have donated a combined $875,000 to America First Action. He did not respond to questions about whether he was the voice on the recording urging the president to take steps to help the industry.
Another invitee was Wayne Hoovestol, who owns trucking companies in the Midwest, including one that works with the U.S. Postal Service. On the recording, a male voice says he runs a company that does business with the Postal Service and urges Trump to consider supporting the construction of a 500-mile section of highway to be used exclusively by self-driving trucks.
Paying truck drivers, the voice said, was one of his company’s biggest costs.
“All the technology is there, right now,” he said. “It is absolutely safe.”
A limited liability company that shared an address and personnel with one of Hoovestol’s companies donated $250,000 to America First Action on the day of the dinner.
Hoovestol did not respond to a request for comment.
The recording was made by a dinner attendee, Igor Fruman, and was released by the lawyer for another, Lev Parnas, an associate of Fruman.
The two, both Soviet-born American businessmen, would go on to play central roles in the pressure campaign against Ukraine that led to Trump’s impeachment.
During the dinner, Parnas and Fruman discussed with Trump a natural gas venture they were pursuing in Ukraine. Parnas also asked the president to consider changing banking regulations to aid another business venture they would soon pursue: a plan to win marijuana retail licenses in Nevada and elsewhere.
The month after the dinner, they donated $325,000 to America First Action through Global Energy Producers, a company they had recently formed to pursue energy deals.
The men have since been indicted on campaign finance charges related to their business ventures and have pleaded not guilty.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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