Trump’s presence also gave a boost to a property that, like some of his others, is suffering from financial decline.
Profits fell 89 percent from 2015 to 2018, from $16.7 million to $1.8 million, according to documents filed with Cook County, Ill. Trump’s hotel struggled even as other Chicago hotels held steady or thrived.
“Performance of [the Trump hotel] is clearly disassociated from that of its competitive set,” the company’s lawyers said in a letter to the county seeking to lower the hotel’s taxes.
The lawyers said the problem was a reaction to Trump’s politics. They even quoted a line from a 2018 Washington Post article, in which one small-time investor described the effect of Trump’s candidacy on his buildings thusly: “Then the Embarrassment came.”
Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago, which prides itself on indulgent luxury, is trying to keep up by cutting costs. In a presentation to investors, obtained by The Post, the company described leaving jobs open, cutting back on gifts for high rollers and children, and buying cheaper housekeeping supplies.
As Trump concludes the tumultuous third year of his presidency, it is becoming clear that the political environment he helped create is having consequences for the real estate empire he and his family built.
While his properties have benefited from his repeated visits and business from conservative customers, there are signs that at least parts of the company are struggling, beset by financial setbacks, regulatory and legal battles, and a tarnished brand name.
From the outside, it is not possible to gauge how serious those problems are for the company as a whole, and the Trump Organization declined to comment for this article. But, in recent days, the company has announced two other moves that seem sharply out of character.
In late October, the Trump Organization said it was considering selling the lease on its D.C. hotel, one of its marquee properties. The decision came despite the company’s previous reluctance to sell any Trump-branded real estate, and though the hotel opened only three years ago after a massive $200 million renovation.
In New York, the company recently redecorated two properties — a pair of ice rinks in Central Park — to remove or reduce in size uses of the name “Trump.” It was a small change with huge symbolism: A company built around Trump’s world-famous name was now seemingly trying to play it down.
“This is Donald Trump looking at the cold hard financial reality, that his name drags down the value of properties he controls,” said journalist Tim O’Brien, who wrote a book about Trump and has followed his company for decades. “And that — with his political prospects in question over the next year and a half — he understands that it means his financial prospects are in question.”
O’Brien said part of the difficulty stems from Trump’s decision to keep ownership of his businesses, defying White House precedent.
There are few rules governing presidents who have side businesses, though before Trump, presidents generally gave up any financial interests that could pose a conflict. After his election, Trump addressed that issue by promising to hand over day-to-day management to his sons Eric and Donald Jr., a response that many ethics experts criticized as inadequate.
Trump also promised not to pursue new overseas deals — a pledge that he and his sons have repeatedly complained about.
In an interview with Fox News last week, Donald Trump Jr. said the family was exploring the sale of the Washington hotel because the company was hampered by that promise and allegations of conflicts of interest.
“It’s D.C., it’s all international business, and we have chosen not to do that. And then every time we do, we get another lawsuit about this and another lawsuit about that. It’s almost easier to stay away from it,” he said.
The president also promised that the Trump Organization would give away the profits from any business with foreign governments. So far, the company says, it has donated about $343,000 to the U.S. Treasury. It has not given details about how that figure was calculated or who its foreign customers are.
Trump is still facing three lawsuits alleging that he has violated the Constitution by benefiting from payments from foreign governments.
In speeches, Trump has said the presidency has hurt his bottom line.
“This thing is costing me a fortune, being president,” he said at a speech in Pennsylvania in August.
But the Trump Organization has not provided figures to back up this claim. Trump’s tax returns might provide evidence — but Trump has declined to release them, unlike every other president since the 1970s.
As president, Trump has done one thing that has helped his bottom line. He and his traveling entourage have visited his properties more than 200 times, according to a Post analysis. That travel has brought at least $1.8 million in revenue to his businesses, according to a Post tally.
Trump has visited Mar-a-Lago, which he calls his “winter White House,” 24 times. Those trips have brought payments from the U.S. government — which paid the president’s company for hotel rooms and even for a $1,000 bar tab run up by White House aides.
At Trump’s Irish golf course — which has lost money consistently since he bought it in 2014 — a Trump visit this summer brought more than $100,000 in revenue from the Irish government, according to Irish government records. The reason: A presidential visit requires police, and police need to eat. Trump’s club charged Irish police more than $118,000 for food and rooms, according to an itemized bill released after a public-records request. (When Vice President Pence visited the same club in September, the Irish police paid Trump’s company an additional $3,800, according to Irish government documents.)
This fall, Trump awarded a much bigger event to his business, choosing his Doral club in Florida to host next year’s Group of Seven summit of world leaders — though he rescinded that decision after backlash from fellow Republicans. GOP officials say they expect he will return to Florida in early December to hold another fundraiser at a Trump property. He has held fundraisers at least seven of his properties.
A former senior administration official said Trump kept close tabs on his properties and often suggested them for events. This former official said the White House Counsel’s Office advised Trump that only political events should be held at his properties, not official ones.
The former official said the president is more likely to attend if an event is held at one of his properties — partly because it guarantees a friendly crowd and nonhostile staff. Like the Republican official who helped organize the Chicago lunch, this person spoke on the condition of anonymity to relay private conversations.
“We chose the Trump Hotel because it’s a great venue that fits our needs,” said Blair Ellis, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, in response to a question about the Chicago fundraiser.
These visits have given fodder to Trump’s critics, who say he has used his office to prop up his business.
“What’s terrible about this is that it continues the pattern of President Trump finding ways to use the presidency — or his campaign — to profit himself at somebody else’s expense,” said Walter Shaub, a former head of the Office of Government Ethics, who quit after Trump took office.
But — as big as a president’s entourage is — a few visits are unlikely to balance out a broader loss of business, if Trump’s politics drive his old customers away.
“A night or two? Not so much,” said Mark Eppli, a University of Wisconsin business professor who reviewed financial data on Trump’s hotel in Chicago at the request of The Post. “It’s one night out of 365.”
In Chicago, Trump’s hotel has fallen out of step with its competitors in the luxury market, according to documents that the company filed with Cook County tax assessors. The Post obtained those documents from the county through a public-records request.
At Trump’s hotel, the documents show, profits, revenue per available room and banquet business all fell behind competitors after 2015, Eppli said. That was the year Trump entered the 2016 presidential race, with a speech in which he denounced undocumented Mexican immigrants as “rapists.”
Earlier this year, the Trump Organization issued a statement blaming its struggles on Chicago itself.
“Chicago . . . is down as a market,” the company said in a statement to The Post in May. “It’s sad to say, but the perceived threat of gun violence has harmed visitation to the destination.”
But in its private appeal to the county, the company told a different story. The problem was not Chicago. In fact, Trump’s competitors in the city’s luxury market were seeing increases in room revenue, even while his hotel saw a drop.
“Unfortunately, [the hotel is] suffering from unfair political backlash,” the Trump Organization’s lawyers wrote.
“If you are a company having a conference at a hotel in Chicago, are you going to stay at the president’s hotel? My sense is no. You would want to stay away from that. You could go to the Four Seasons, you could go to the Ritz and not endure that political divisiveness,” Eppli said.
At the Chicago hotel, former employees said they saw the decline up close. It began in 2015, when Trump’s rise as a hard-right politician began to alienate the rich, urban customers to whom the hotel catered.
Then came election night.
“A [supervisor] walked by me real fast and said: ‘Oh, my God, he just won Michigan. It’s over,’ ” said Connor Buhagiar, a waiter who worked in the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Sixteen. Inside the bar, Trump supporters were cheering. Outside, however, “I looked out the window and looked back down Michigan Avenue, and I saw a line of protesters coming, already,” to picket the hotel, Buhagiar said.
“My thoughts were, ‘I’ve got to get the [expletive] out of here,’ ” he said. After that, he said, the restaurant became “just a mortuary” on most days. Buhagiar left. Sixteen closed, replaced with a lower-cost restaurant. Overall, the hotel’s food-and-beverage business declined sharply: In 2016, that line of business produced $3.2 million in profits. Last year, it had a $679,000 loss, according to the documents filed with the county.
Another former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships in the hotel business, said the lobby’s atmosphere of quiet luxury began to be disrupted — by protesters, curious drunks and Trump fans asking the staff to convey letters to the president.
Despite being down the street from a flagship Apple store that opened two years ago, the hotel’s street-level retail space — about the size of two Whole Foods stores — remains vacant. A firm hired by the Trump Organization to fill the space told the county that it had contacted 81 prospective tenants, including restaurants, cafes, a food hall operator and a gym, according to the documents provided to Cook County.
None said yes, the documents showed.
Earlier this year, The Post reported a similar decline at Doral, where tax filings show that the company’s profits fell almost 70 percent between 2015 and 2017. The reason given by the Trump Organization’s tax consultant: “There is some negative connotation that is associated with the brand.”
Doral still made $4.3 million in profits in 2017, the most recent year for which data was available. Revenue rebounded slightly from 2017 to 2018, according to Trump’s financial disclosure forms.
In the past few days, however, the company has made surprising changes — at properties that look, from the outside, like some of its best-performing.
In Central Park, for instance, Trump operates a pair of ice rinks under a contract with the city. On paper, they are a bright spot in his portfolio: Revenue at the rinks has increased 18 percent since 2015, according to figures filed with New York City.
But this year, the Trump Organization still decided to redecorate them in a way that downplays the Trump name. The company didn’t respond to questions about that decision.
In Washington, company officials made a decision that was even more striking: They would put the lease of their D.C. hotel up for sale.
Before he took office, Trump often vowed never to sell real estate, sometimes likening himself to an art collector who would pass his collection to his children. Since his inauguration, his adult sons have repeatedly touted their interest in holding their real estate portfolio long-term. And the Trump International Hotel in Washington had become a well-known magnet for Republican fundraisers, corporate clients and visiting dignitaries.
The president’s annual financial disclosures, which he is required to submit, show that the D.C. hotel brought in $40.8 million in revenue for him last year. Unlike the data available on the Chicago and Doral hotels, however, those disclosure forms don’t show whether the hotel made a profit.
Under the terms of the company’s lease with the federal government, which owns the building that houses the hotel, the Trumps were not allowed to sell it until at least Oct. 26, 2019.
The company is seeking $500 million for its lease interest, according to the Wall Street Journal, equating to more than $1.9 million per room.
The sale could be tricky. The General Services Administration has to approve the buyer, and any potential bidders could come under scrutiny because of concerns that they might be trying to curry favor with the White House.
Trump also carries a $170 million loan on the property, from Deutsche Bank.
Some buyers could pursue the Pennsylvania Avenue landmark for bragging rights and not worry about whether they will turn a profit. Marc Magazine, an executive at the services firm Savills, said that it will fetch one of the highest prices in the city but that $500 million is probably too high for a regular hotel company. “They’re not going to get that.”
Last week, Trump added a little revenue of his own: He attended a Republican fundraiser at his Washington hotel, serving again in the dual role of candidate and caterer.
“I wonder who built this beautiful place,” he said, according to one attendee — drawing laughs from donors with the same joke as in Chicago.
Philip Bump, Alice Crites and Gordon Deegan contributed to this report.