Why Instagram is the best window into Trump-era corruption
During the week of April 16, 2018, at Mar-a-Lago, President Donald J. Trump hosted Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe. The founder and treasurer of Citizens for Restoring USA, “The First Political Action Committee to Support Donald J. Trump,” got access to their joint press conference. Trump also posed at the resort’s club for a selfie with the chief business development officer of a news website that aims to connect Alabama’s conservatives. The two heads of state fit in some golf at the Trump International Golf Club, West Palm Beach, as did the managing partner of a real estate investment firm who prominently displayed his company’s name.
Meanwhile, that week at the Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., a lobbyist for one of Japan’s auto makers paid a visit (“#working”), Indonesia’s deputy coordinating minister of maritime affairs (in town for the International Monetary Fund’s spring meeting) had breakfast, and the wife of a Republican candidate for county judge in Ohio praised the hotel’s beauty. No, the president and the Trump Organization haven’t made public his properties’ guest lists. We learned about all of these activities via Instagram.
If Trump’s Twitter account is his personal id, where he rants and raves and indulges every primal instinct, then Instagram reflects his presidency’s ego. In his tweets, the president sets his agenda, alternately praises and criticizes aides and allies, skewers his foes, and makes headlines. But it’s on Instagram where the ethos of the Trump administration and his global business empire—playing it loose with rules about conflicts of interest, the naked ambition, the impulse to create your own reality, the shameless salesmanship—is on full display. On Instagram, players in the president’s pageant tag themselves at Trump hotels and golf courses, validating with duck-face pouts and middle-distance gazes some of the biggest concerns about Trump’s presidency: the potential for undue foreign influence, access for sale, and kickbacks.
That the photo-sharing platform is the go-to app for Trump World’s plandids isn’t too much of a surprise: Trump has been a lifestyle brand for decades. And Instagram is our social media destination of choice for engaging with brands: the Facebook-owned platform claims 80% of its accounts follow a business, and in September 2017, its COO told Adweek, “In the last month there have been 180 million interactions with businesses.”
“With this presidency and the business potential, there seems to be a celebrity aspect to it,” said Jordan Libowitz, the communication director for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonprofit government watchdog involved in three lawsuits regarding Trump’s businesses. Researchers at CREW monitor Instagram to see who’s tagged at a Trump business, finding the most activity at the Trump International in D.C. and Mar-a-Lago. They’re looking for U.S. and foreign government officials, which could be violations of the U.S. Constitution’s emolument clauses (which prohibit the president from accepting money from other countries and receiving financial benefits from the federal or a state government beyond his or her salary), as well as to see who has access to the president at his properties.
“What I’ve been most surprised at has been how willing people have been to tag themselves, knowing the potential issues and potential firestorm that could come from it,” Libowitz said.
Capturing visits by foreign officials and lobbyists
Forget about Russian influence (seriously, you can do it, it’s only for a few minutes), foreign governments can try to sway Trump in ways far less titillating than pee tape kompromat. Book a room, host an event, or sip a cocktail at a Trump property, and the profits can go to the president: His trust is not blind, he’s allowed to withdraw money from his enterprises at any time, and while the Trump Organization claims it donates all profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury, it’s provided no documentation for how it calculated the $151,470 check it cut for 2017.
News reports, of course, reveal in advance many foreign dignitaries’ plans to visit a Trump property. But it’s Instagram where we uncover the details of their visits—like which Trump administration members are there to mingle with the Trump businesses’ guests. And Instagram is also where we can spot lower-ranking foreign government officials whose appearances at a Trump property have escaped media coverage.
An Instagram photo (no longer live but saved via a screenshot) shows then Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak strutting down a hallway at the Trump International D.C., backed by his dark-suited, four-man entourage. The caption: “Route to the White House . . . 12/9/2017.” While such a brazen double entendre in a caption is unusual, a post picturing a foreign government official at a Trump property is not. (Instagram posts, of course, can be fleeting. Throughout this story, links direct readers to the originals when still available, otherwise they lead to screenshots.)
17/ “Route to the White House.” Pic of the Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak at the Trump Hotel DC (original photo no longer available). pic.twitter.com/C1FqKfJ5kW
— Zach Everson (@Z_Everson) October 20, 2017
Razak—who was, in fact, staying at the Trump International D.C.–was in town to visit Trump at the White House, despite being under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for possibly diverting more than $1 billion from a Malaysian-government development fund to his personal bank accounts. And if you were looking for a picture (and caption) that summed up concerns about Razak’s White House invite, behold Instagram.
Within weeks of the 2016 presidential election, Kuwait’s embassy in the U.S. backed out of plans to host its 2017 national day reception at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C., instead opting to celebrate at the newly elected U.S. president’s hotel. Apparently pleased with the Trump hotel experience, the Kuwaitis returned in 2018. While the location of both functions was well reported, Instagram affords a peek at all the guests who partied at the reception. And for 2018, that included seeing counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway mingle with guests; Saudi Arabia’s defense attaché to the United States, a major general, posing with a dentist from Virginia; and the host, Kuwait’s ambassador, smiling next to a Syrian journalist (“#goodvibes”) and shaking hands with a Philadelphia-area real estate developer. Also, a photo was posted that evening of First Son Donald Trump Jr. in his hotel (although it’s unclear whether he stopped in to check on his Kuwaiti patrons).
— Zach Everson (@Z_Everson) February 27, 2018
Turkey got the jump on Kuwait: The Instagram account of its foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavusoglu, posted a photo of him in the Trump International Hotel D.C.’s presidential ballroom on January 19, 2017—a day before Trump was inaugurated. In one pic, Çavusoglu is seated next to Governor Scott Walker (WI-R) and in another, he seems to be focused on Walker in the way one looks when you’re pretending to pay attention. But it’s the photo of Çavusoglu sharing a laugh with then incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn that provides a crisp visual accompaniment for one Trump scandal plot line—namely, Flynn later confessing to a felony for “materially false statements and omissions” regarding his lobbying work on behalf of Turkey.
And the visitors include some foreign moguls with political ambitions. Indonesian billionaire Hary Tanoesoedibjo, Trump’s partner in a massive hotel/resort development in Indonesia that recently made headlines over the $500 million in loans it’s due to receive from a Chinese state-owned enterprise, has expressed his desire to run for the presidency of his country. Tanoesoedibjo and his wife, Liliana, attended Trump’s inauguration and Instagrammed their stay at the Trump International D.C., posing alongside Eric Trump and his wife, Lara.
It’s not just high-ranking foreign government officials that are popping up on Instagram to show off their visits to Trump properties. The mayor and deputy mayor of the Greek island of Mykonos were all smiles as they celebrated Greek Independence Day in the Trump International D.C.’s atrium with Andrea Catsimatidis, the billionaire heiress who chairs Manhattan’s GOP. (Asked to explain his visit, Mayor Konstantinos Koukas says that he was invited to visit the hotel by one of Trump’s associates after a White House gala, but he declined to identify the associate, calling it “private information.”)
And the vice president-elect of the Municipal Committee of Nagua, Maria Trinidad Sanchez province in the Dominican Republic, dined with a U.S. lobbyist at the Trump Hotel D.C.’s steakhouse. A crew for the government-owned Royal Jordanian Airlines enjoyed a meal together at the Trump International Golf Club Dubai.
And then there’s Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States: in an Instagram post on the account of Eleonora Movsisian, the founder of a Russian nail-art chain, Antonov stands next to her in the Trump Hotel D.C.’s lobby, hands by his side and staring at the camera, almost as if he’s posing for an official portrait to hang in the embassy. But the corners of his mouth just hint at a smirk and the hotel’s four-story American flag dips into the background. While this gem was popular when shared on Twitter, it only proves something we already know: Russians excel at internet trolling.
Whether any of these Instagram posts—none of which show who picked up the tab at a Trump property—exhibit unlawful behavior at all is unclear for now. Three lawsuits accusing the president of violating the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause are making their ways through the courts. But it could take a few years for the legal system to render a final verdict on them, by which time Trump could well be out of office and back (full-time) in the private sector. But what these Instagram posts do demonstrate is the strong appeal for foreign officials of spending money at the president’s hotel and resort empire, which in turn is all too willing to let them do it. Unless noted, none of the foreign officials or businessmen reached for comment responded to Fast Company‘s inquiries.
Just blocks from White House, Trump hotel income skyrockets
It’s worth noting that the Trump International D.C., just a few blocks from the White House and a property that seems to attract the most activity from foreign officials and corporate lobbyists, is raking in money like never before. According to recent financial disclosures filed with the Office of Government Ethics, Trump took in more than $40 million in income from Trump International D.C. hotel last year. That’s compared to less than $20 million he reported from January 2016 through April 2017. Those date ranges don’t exactly align, but measured on a monthly basis, Trump’s reported income from the hotel appears to have skyrocketed 174%, per The Daily Beast. That’s compared to a 10% decline in monthly income from Mar-a-Lago, and a 14% decline from Trump Doral in Miami.
For all of Trump’s rhetoric about draining the swamp, the Trump International D.C. might as well be Swamp Central. There have been 25 corporate lobbying and industry events, seven events or stays paid for by foreign governments, and 59 fundraisers and receptions by political campaigns and PACs held at the venue since Trump’s election, according to the Washington Post.
But the biggest increase was for Trump’s golf club in Dubai: The president’s monthly income from that club skyrocketed by more than 1,350% last year. And that property has seen its share of influencers, including this lobbyist for DynCorp—”a [self-proclaimed] leading global government solutions provider in support of the U.S. and allied stability objectives.” (Earlier this month, Trump appointed the head of DynCorp’s parent company as head of the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board.)
Trump “always proud” of clients who visit his properties
Similarly, Instagram offers a snapshot of Americans who toe that line, raising concern that they may be influencing the president’s decision-making or administration policy by patronizing a Trump business–via hopes of a quid pro quo, or talking with the president himself. “As to what their internal motivations are, we can’t speak for them,” Libowitz said. “If you look at all these campaigns that have started spending at Trump properties that never spent at Trump properties before, you have to wonder if there’s a particular reason for that.”
Asked whether Trump has expressed an interest in the people who patronize his properties, longtime Trump friend, Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, told Fast Company that Trump has never discussed his businesses with him since becoming president. But he added that, “as a private businessman,” Trump was “always proud of his properties and the level of clients who visited them.”
Spokespersons for the White House and Trump Organization did not return requests for comment.
For example, the Trump International D.C. hosted the Vaping Technology Association’s conference in July 2017. It’s not clear how much the group paid the hotel to host that particular event, though rates for events at the facility range from four to six figures. During the event, attendees posted on Instagram pictures of Senator Ron Johnson (R–WI) delivering the keynote and Representative Duncan “The Vaping Congressman” Hunter (R–CA) stopping by to, well, vape. Ten days after the conference ended, “an Obama-era regulation requiring stricter government oversight of e-cigarette products was put on hold by the Food and Drug Administration,” according to the Washington Post.
And on December 11, 2017, retiring Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA) met with Trump at the White House for what both sides called a “productive” discussion about infrastructure. Campaign finance reports filed on January 31, 2018, show that just 12 days before Shuster met with the president, his campaign cut a $19.571.91 check to the Trump International D.C. On Instagram, Shuster’s senior legislative aide shared a pic of the congressman and his staffers posing by the Trump International D.C.’s Christmas tree on December 15, 2017—just three days after Shuster’s meeting and six weeks before the campaign finance reports were filed.
“There was a big series of domestic officials and government members when they had the big Christmas tree,” Libowitz said. “Everyone wanted to be pictured in front of the Christmas tree at the D.C. hotel.”
Instagram affords a look at individuals getting access to Trump in exchange for a club membership or a steak sandwich, too. Posing with Trump at Mar-a-Lago this March: the prince and princess of Bourbon Two Sicilies—the heads of a European royal family that’s been without a realm since 1861. (If the U.S. State Department suddenly expresses support for a breakaway monarchy in parts of southern Italy, don’t be too surprised.)
Perhaps the most iconic photograph of Trump’s presidency was an Instagram post taken by a guest at Mar-a-Lago in February 2017: President Trump, chin in hand, smiles, seemingly lost in himself and motionless amid a whirl of activity as aides (including former senior adviser Steve Bannon and since-indicted former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn) and Japan’s prime minister react to the news of a North Korean missile launch. If you’re concerned about the president’s ability to focus, or the risks of conducting defense meetings in a Trump property’s dining room, this picture isn’t going to set you at ease. But it is a great viral shot from this Trump patron!
Winning over the boss
And Instagram shows which U.S. government officials—many of whom serve at the pleasure of the president—support his businesses, either directly or as an honored guest at a function (think of it as possibly a more refined version of Tony Soprano putting a guy in charge of trash pickup and then getting a cash-stuffed envelope once a month in return).
Seven members of Trump’s cabinet have showed up at the Trump Hotel D.C. via Instagram: Vice President Mike Pence chatted up three U.S. senators at a lunch for donors, Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin and Chief of Staff John Kelly dined with Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions celebrated the American Spectator, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos smiled alongside Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. at the Museum of the Bible’s opening gala, HUD Secretary Ben Carson “introduced a new opera project,” and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke posed with Instagrammer snortyjordy after the State of the Union address.
— Zach Everson (@Z_Everson) July 30, 2017
“He’s the vice president. He spends up to several hours a day with the president,” Pence’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, told Fast Company when asked via email if Pence was hoping his visit to a Trump property would curry favor with the president. “If he wanted to influence him or convey an opinion, he would simply speak directly to the president.”
When asked about Carson’s visit to his boss’s hotel, HUD public affairs specialist Brian Sullivan wrote, “It’s impossible to respond to a picture taken by somebody else and posted onto their Instagram site without any context” and dismissed the idea that Carson’s visit to the hotel financially benefited the Trump Organization.
As for whether the other Cabinet members hoped to influence Trump by visiting his properties, spokespeople for Kelly, Mnuchin, and DeVos did not respond to our inquiries. The U.S. Department of Justice’s director of public affairs pointed out that Sessions had been invited to an event, the location of which was beyond their control. And the press secretary of the Department of the Interior, Heather Swift, replied, “The Department cannot speak to what private citizens do with their own social media accounts.”
This tendency among Trump staffers’ tendencies to pop up at his properties on Instagram seeps down to lower levels of the administration, too. Executive branch staffers, ranging from names you recognize to anonymous twentysomethings who got their jobs because their parents donated to the campaign, turn up often at the Trump International D.C. via Instagram.
Remember the outrage last year when Trump appointed Lynne Patton, a Trump family staffer who previously coordinated celebrity golf tournaments and planned Eric Trump’s wedding, to be in charge of New York and New Jersey’s housing programs for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development? Before leaving for her new job, Patton posted to Instagram from her farewell D.C. party on the Benjamin Terrace, accompanied, according to her captions, by Conway and then-White House aide Omarosa Manigault (her #FarewellParty pics have accumulated more than 700 likes).
Speaking of the former Apprentice contestant, photos of her Trump Hotel D.C. wedding were scarce until her cake decorator showed off her handiwork on Instagram. And while Manigault was fired from the White House before she’d even been married a year, it wasn’t for trying to curry favor by throwing a wedding from which the president could profit.
A year ago today, we had the pleasure of creating this cherry blossom themed wedding cake for The Newman’s (@omarosa and John) at the @trumpwashingtondc! Happy 1 Year Anniversary! (SWIPE LEFT) For additional behind the scenes footage and information on the creation of this cake, check out our blog post. Link in Bio.
Look at me!
On April 30, I tweeted a freshly posted Instagram pic that the president of the Turkish American Business Association/American Chamber of Commerce in Turkey, Ali Osman Akat, shared of himself standing proudly in the Trump International D.C.’s lobby. If he posted the photo in real time, it was within an hour of Trump himself visiting his hotel for a dinner with unidentified supporters. The next day, Akat sent me a direct message on Twitter, which I was reluctant to open, lest it contain accusations of trolling. But he wasn’t mad–after all, if you’re going to post that picture on Instagram, you want it seen. Instead, Akat thanked me for sharing his photo and hoped we could meet the next time I’m in Istanbul or he’s in D.C. or New York.
And over the next two days, he shared four more pictures of himself in the Trump International D.C. on Instagram, posing with Trump and Paul Manafort confidant Tom Barrack; CEO of the National Diversity Coalition for Trump (Barrack’s rep declined to comment if he was there in hopes of influencing the president), Darrell Scott; and Trump’s daughter-in-law/host of Real News Update Lara Lea Trump.