The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside the opulent Trump inaugural dinner designed as a glittery overture to foreign diplomats

President-elect Donald Trump delivers remarks at the Chairman’s Global Dinner at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington on Jan. 17, 2017. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Three days before Donald Trump was inaugurated president in January 2017, he arrived at a remarkable scene inside an auditorium in downtown Washington designed in the style of a Neoclassical temple. 

About 550 guests — diplomats, wealthy megadonors, members of Congress and Cabinet nominees — dined on filet mignon and black cod as they watched a performance by the country music band Alabama and a straight-from-Las Vegas musical extravaganza. Mounds of red roses were arranged on tables, and a calligrapher was on site to inscribe the names of last-minute guests on seating cards.

The gathering, which cost the inaugural committee about $8,000 per person, was one of the most opulent events of the five-day inaugural celebration — yet it was not designed to showcase the new president, who decided to attend at the last minute, according to internal documents and people familiar with the planning.

Dubbed the Chairman’s Global Dinner, it was the brainchild of billionaire Thomas J. Barrack Jr., Trump’s close friend and his inaugural committee chairman, who conceived of the night as a glittery overture to a diplomatic corps anxious about the change in Washington.

Paid for by donors to the inaugural committee, the event put Barrack’s style of global networking on display and gave foreign guests an unparalleled chance to mingle with the incoming vice president, other members of the new administration and lawmakers.

The dinner serves as an extrava­gant symbol of Trump’s inaugural festivities, which involved record fundraising, lavish spending and a large concentration of foreign guests. Now, state, federal and congressional investigators are scrutinizing those issues as part of five inquiries of activities related to the inaugural committee.

Federal prosecutors issue sweeping subpoena for documents from Trump inaugural committee

Barrack, a Los Angeles-based investor, has not been accused of any wrongdoing. But the investigations have put the longtime Trump friend in the spotlight and raised questions about oversight of the committee he helmed, an independent nonprofit organization that collected money from private donors for the January 2017 festivities.

The scope of the various inquiries remains unknown. But federal prosecutors in New York issued a wide-ranging subpoena last month to the inaugural committee indicating that they are investigating possible conspiracy, money-laundering and false statements. The subpoena sought all information related to the committee’s donors and vendors, as well as any information related to foreign contributors.

A separate federal investigation already has revealed that illegal foreign money was funneled into the inaugural committee. Last year, political consultant W. Samuel Patten admitted that he steered a donation from a Ukrainian politician to the committee through an American straw donor. The Ukrainian subsequently attended the inauguration, according to prosecutors in Washington. Patten agreed to assist the investigation as part of a plea deal.

Separately, the attorneys general of Washington, D.C., and New Jersey have opened their own inquires into whether the committee violated nonprofit rules. 

And the House Judiciary Committee last week asked Barrack, along with 80 other individuals and entities, for documents as part of a broad investigation of Trump’s presidency. The request to him sought materials related to any payments to the inaugural committee by foreign governments, as well as other topics. 

Barrack, 71, said he has provided information to investigators and would continue to do so.

“I don’t intend to parry and thrust on the reporting of unsubstantiated allegations because I have great respect for our nation’s investigatory process at all levels of government — Federal, Congressional or otherwise,” he said in a statement to The Washington Post. “I intend to continue to cooperate fully with relevant investigators who I am confident will appropriately establish the true facts and will do so in the venue in which they should be established.” He declined to comment further.

Details about the invitation-only Chairman’s Global Dinner, Barrack’s signature event of the week, have been largely out of public view. An examination of the event based on internal documents and attendees provides a window into how Trump’s upstart victory quickly drew influential figures eager to shape the new administration.

A long-standing friendship

When Barrack accepted Trump’s request to oversee the inaugural event, he did so at a time when he was trying to bring the president closer in line with his thinking on the Middle East, according to emails he sent during the campaign.

The grandson of a Christian emigre from what was once Syria and is now Lebanon, Barrack has long been Trump’s closest friend of Arab American ancestry. An Arabic speaker, he began conducting business deals in the Middle East in 1972. His investment company, Colony Capital, receives “less than 10 percent of [its] investor base,” from the regionspokesman Owen Blicksilver said.

Barrack met Trump in 1987, when he helped arrange the sale of part of a department store chain to the New York real estate investor. The following year, Barrack negotiated the deal in which Trump bought New York City’s Plaza Hotel for a price Trump said publicly he could “never justify.”

The two remained close for decades, and Barrack was among the most vociferous supporters of Trump’s 2016 presidential bid and his biggest fundraiser.

‘He’s better than this,’ says Thomas Barrack, Trump’s loyal whisperer

When Trump called for a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and began espousing “America First” rhetoric on the campaign trail, Barrack’s friends and contacts in the Middle East expressed alarm.

Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States and a longtime friend who had once introduced Barrack to a potential investor, wrote in an August 2016 email that “confusion about your friend donald trump is VERY high,” according to copies obtained by The Post.

Barrack sought to reassure him. Trump “is the king of hyperbole and is searching through radical popularism [sic] to creating a dialogue in our region!” he wrote, adding, “We can turn him to prudence — he needs a few really smart Arab minds to whom he can confer.” 

Otaiba declined to comment.

A few months later, after Trump won the election, Barrack agreed to be the chairman of his inaugural committee — and began planning elaborate events.

Unlike campaign committees, the inaugural committee as a nonprofit organization could accept unlimited sums from individuals and corporations. Although presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama limited some donations at their first inaugurations, the Trump committee set no limits.

Free from restrictions, the 2017 committee hauled in $107 million, according to its public filings — more than twice the $53 million raised for Obama’s 2009 inaugural events.

Much of it came from some of the nation’s wealthiest families and largest corporations, including AT&T, Bank of America and Boeing, which were among the contributors that gave $1 million or more, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics

The biggest donors received perks that included tickets to a leadership luncheon with Cabinet nominees and members of Congress, a dinner held by incoming Vice President Pence, a dinner with Trump, the inaugural concert and the official Inaugural Ball.

Access to the Chairman’s Global Dinner was by invitation only, determined by Barrack and his associates, according to people familiar with the planning. And, unlike some events that week, this one was not broadcast to the public.

Some of Trump’s advisers, such as chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, objected to events such as Barrack’s dinner, saying they rewarded big donors at the expense of the populist message espoused during the campaign, according to people familiar with the discussions. But Trump signed off, instructing Barrack to throw the most spectacular inaugural event in history, an official said. 

Bannon declined to comment. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Barrack directed details of the night down to the type of wine (a donation of sauvignon blanc and merlot from his California vineyard), the music (a playlist created for the 50th birthday of casino mogul Steve Wynn’s wife), and the gray-and-black brocade table­cloths. 

He oversaw the guest list, a quarter of which were his invitees, including his business associates and foreign contacts, according to internal documents and people familiar with the details.

Of the roughly 600 invitees, 140 were foreign diplomats, according to a copy of the final invitation list obtained by The Post. 

The focus of the night was a notable departure from other inaugural events, which are typically celebrations by party leaders and financiers.

“It was very strange. I remember thinking, ‘Okay, who’s paying for this? And why?’ ” said one guest who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigations, adding: “Why have such a lavish event for the diplomatic corps?”

Associates of Barrack said the goal was to soothe jittery foreign diplomats and send a message that the new administration would value those relationships.

“Hosting an event specifically dedicated to the D.C.-based global diplomatic community was particularly important,” said Blicksilver, the Barrack spokesman, adding: “The intention of the dinner was to give the best foot forward of a newly elected and not well understood president to Washington’s diplomatic community — certainly a laudable goal.”

An ambassador from the Middle East, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the investigations, said Barrack told him that “we looked into this and realized there has never been an event [like this] for the diplomatic corps. It was a no-brainer.” 

A surprise appearance 

Providing entertainment for the event was a challenge. Many performers who didn’t want to appear at the Trump event turned down the invitation to do so, said several people familiar with the planning. 

In the end, Wynn, a longtime Trump friend who later was named finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, tapped the house act that had just wrapped up a two-year run at one of his Las Vegas hotels, a Broadway-quality revue of famous show tunes by professional singers and dancers known as Steve Wynn’s ShowStoppers.

Wynn Resorts, his Las Vegas company, paid $729,217 to help bring the show to Washington, according to the inaugural committee’s public filings. An attorney for Wynn declined to comment.

The committee spent $2.7 million for a custom stage and for the evening’s sound and light production, according to invoices and people familiar with the event.

By late afternoon on Jan. 17, a stream of limousines and buses began pulling up in front of Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, dropping off men in tuxedos and women in glittering dresses. 

Hours before the dinner, event planners learned that Trump would fly to Washington to attend, setting off a scramble to rearrange the seating, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

The president-elect arrived after the event had begun, making his way to the front and taking a seat with Barrack, attendees said.

“I remember the band telling me that he was seated at a table at the front of the stage and he actually watched them perform,” said Tony Conway, the manager of the group Alabama. He said band members had been told earlier that they should not expect to see Trump.

At some point, Trump took the stage, wearing a dark blue suit and tie. “One hundred and forty-seven diplomats and ambassadors, never been done before, never had that,” he said, according to a two-minute video of his remarks posted by the Daily Mail.

Trump pointed to Rex Tillerson, his nominee to be secretary of state, and said, “He’s going to be so incredible.” Trump would fire Tillerson 14 months later.

Mingling with the diplomatic visitors were many invitees who had connections to Barrack. According to the list, 135 tickets were reserved for guests of the chairman. They included incoming Cabinet officials, members of Barrack’s family, corporate employees and foreign associates.

Mohamed Alabbar, the chief executive of a Dubai-based real estate company that built the world’s tallest building, was invited as Barrack’s guest, assigned with his wife to Table 20, along with Rick Perry, the incoming energy secretary, internal documents show. In an interview with CNN in June 2016, Barrack called Alabbar “a good friend” who was “one of the brightest young Arabs I’ve ever met.” An Alabbar spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Another Barrack guest was assigned to Table 42: Rashid Al Malik, the chairman of Hayah Holdings, a real estate company in the United Arab Emirates that partnered with Barrack on a 2014 bid to redevelop Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The deal never was consummated. Al Malik could not be reached to comment.

Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador who had emailed with Barrack, was also among the guests — assigned to a table with the Israeli ambassador, incoming deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland and incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the guest list shows. 

Some in the room would later become embroiled in controversy because of their interactions with the administration.

Two of the RNC’s biggest fundraisers were in attendance: Wynn and Elliott Broidy, a Los Angeles-based venture capitalist. Both men were later linked to an effort to push the Trump administration to extradite a Chinese dissident to his home country, a move sought by Chinese President Xi Jinping, The Post has reported. The Justice Department has investigated whether Broidy sought to sell access to the Trump administration, including in connection to an investigation of a Malaysian development fund, and has subpoenaed Wynn for related records.

Wynn, who stepped down from his positions at his company last year amid sexual harassment reports, is cooperating with the inquiry, The Post reported last year.

An attorney for Broidy previously told The Post that Broidy was never “compensated by any foreign government for any interaction with the United States Government.” Broidy and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment about the inauguration.

GOP fundraiser Broidy under investigation for alleged effort to sell government influence, people familiar with probe say

Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who was assigned to Table 4 with Otaiba, gave $5 million for the inauguration, more than any other donor. Many of his top goals have been achieved under the Trump administration, including the transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Last year, the Justice Department released a legal opinion that further restricted Internet gambling, a move Adelson had long sought. Congressional Democrats and several state attorneys general are now seeking information about whether Adelson played a role shaping the opinion. 

A spokesman for Adelson declined to comment.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors in Manhattan have asked the inaugural committee to produce all documents related to Imaad Zuberi, a venture capitalist from California who had been a major Democratic donor until he gave $900,000 to the committee in late 2016. 

The guest list shows that Zuberi was assigned to sit at Table 19, along with the ambassador from Cameroon and Howard Lorber, a New York real estate executive and longtime Trump friend. Zuberi, who has denied any wrongdoing, told The Post last month that at the time, he was trying to start a real estate fund in New York, including soliciting investment from Qatar, and had attended the inaugural dinner eager to network with Trump’s associates. He declined to comment on the event. 

A Lorber spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was sentenced this month to 7½ years in prison for financial crimes related to his work as an international consultant, was also in attendance and working the room, according to another attendee. Barrack has known Manafort for years and recommended that Trump hire him in 2016.

Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, was assigned to be seated with Wadie Habboush, a Washington lawyer whose father, R.W. Habboush, donated $666,000 to the inauguration, according to records. Wadie Habboush, who at the time worked with his father in energy consulting, was listed in internal documents as a guest of “DJT.” It is unclear whether the designation referred to Trump or his son Donald Trump Jr.

Neither Habboush responded to requests for comment. An attorney for Trump Jr. declined to comment. Priebus also declined to comment.

A few weeks after the inauguration, Wadie Habboush arrived unannounced to see National Security Council officials at the White House with Gentry Beach, a Texas businessman who is a college friend of Trump Jr., according to two people familiar with the event.

The two told NSC staff members that they were business partners of the president’s son and wanted to pitch a plan to build new relations between the United States and Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s socialist leader. Mic and Politico Magazine first reported the episode.

Habboush showed the staff members a photo of himself standing with Maduro, and the two men placed a call from the hallway to the country’s foreign minister, the people said. 

NSC staff members reported the visit to White House lawyers, concerned that they were promoting a proposal in their own interests, the people familiar with the episode said.  

In an email, Beach said he has “never been involved in any talks to help the country of Venezuela, lift sanctions or otherwise.” He did not answer other questions about the episode.

The costs are 'way too high'

The ultimate cost of the dinner: at least $4.3 million, according to people familiar with the budget.

The money being spent on inaugural events sparked tension inside the committee — particularly around the Chairman’s Global Dinner, whose expenses included thousands of dollars just to furnish the Green Room, according to internal emails reviewed by The Post.

“The costs are way too high. . . . Oscars, Grammy’s, VMA’s etc doesn’t even cost this much for set build even during crunch time,” one person who worked on the inauguration wrote, referring to elaborate Hollywood productions such as the Video Music Awards.

Those who had been involved in past inaugurations said they could not recall any event comparable to the chairman’s dinner during the Bush or Obama festivities and questioned its purpose.

“This just doesn’t look good,” said Greg Jenkins, who served as executive director of Bush’s inauguration in 2005. “Cobbling together something where one could reasonably conclude, correctly or incorrectly, that one of the purposes is to impress your friends and potential business interests with your connections and your ability to put them in front of diplomats and Cabinet members . . . it just invites criticism.”

He said he was skeptical of the idea that Trump needed to be introduced to diplomats. “The man had international interests. He’s been around the world,” he said, adding: “There are plenty of opportunities for that to happen during the administration. You don’t need to hold a fancy dinner to do that.”

A business partner of Barrack who attended the dinner defended his decision to put on the event.

“Tom is well known as a vocal globalist and has based his business and personal reputation on building long lines with varying cultures and countries around the world,” said the partner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “It was Tom’s way of acknowledging their importance without any official visibility from the president and also allowed the president to choose to attend or not.”

Barrack declined to comment beyond his written statement. People familiar with the situation said that around the time of the inauguration, he was being vetted for a job as a Middle East envoy.

Barrack told The Post in September 2017 that Trump offered to give him a senior administration position, noting his work as a prolific campaign fundraiser and running the inauguration.

“Yeah, I raised the most money for him,” Barrack said. “The inauguration in itself was over $100 million that we had to raise from scratch. So of course he said, ‘Would you like Treasury? What would you like to do?’ ”

Barrack said he decided to remain in private business.

Days before the dinner, Barrack had completed a merger between his investment company, Colony Capital, and NorthStar, which managed a variety of assets, to create a new firm called Colony NorthStar.

He chose as a consultant Rick Gates, who had been Trump’s deputy campaign manager and Barrack’s deputy on the inaugural committee. Two years later, Gates pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI. Since then, he has been cooperating with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. 

Gates was closely involved in planning the dinner, according to internal documents.

Weeks after the inauguration, he wrote a strategic plan for Barrack’s firm, recommending that Colony NorthStar take advantage of its relationships with the incoming administration and foreign officials. 

The eight-page internal memo, first reported by ProPublica, proposed that the company’s new Washington presence could be used to “expand Colony NorthStar’s global footprint and build a bridge to where government and business intersect globally.”

“The key is to strategically cultivate domestic and international relationships while avoiding any appearance of lobbying,” the memo said.

A Barrack spokesman said that Gates’s proposal was never acted upon and that Barrack never saw it. An attorney for Gates declined to comment.

Since the inauguration, Barrack’s company, now known again as Colony Capital, has plummeted in value, with its share price dropping from $13.82 in January 2017 to $5.32 this week, a drop the company has attributed to problems with the merger.

Last month, Barrack was in Abu Dhabi at a Milken Institute meeting when he defended Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. U.S. intelligence officials have said that the killing, at the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul in October, was directed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The prince has denied responsibility.

“Whatever happened in Saudi Arabia, the atrocities in America are equal, or worse,” Barrack said.

He apologized the next day.

Barrack’s relationship with Trump, meanwhile, has suffered. His hopes of brokering Middle East policies were outstripped by the influence of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Barrack told The Post in 2017 that he had many concerns about Trump’s tone and policies, saying, “He’s better than this.”

The two men once spoke regularly, according to people familiar with their relationship. But now, they said, their conversations are sporadic.

Alice Crites, Ellen Nakashima and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.