For developers trying to influence the president, the White House is no Trump Tower
Getting face time with Donald Trump and Jared Kushner is proving harder than expected
In the weeks and months after Nov. 8, Donald Trump’s door always seemed open. Old friends and celebrities walked in and out of his namesake tower in Manhattan or hobnobbed with him at his New Jersey golf course – and so did real estate executives. Howard Lorber, Jonathan Gray, Thomas Barrack, the Hinneberg family (owners of 40 Wall Street), and others landed meetings with the president-elect, soon to be the most powerful man in the world.
“Initially it seemed Trump was very willing to meet with people” one lobbyist told The Real Deal, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “Someone actually made the comment to me that the president-elect met with more people than de Blasio in three years.”
Many real estate bigwigs may have believed they’d have similar access to the West Wing as they did at Trump Tower, and perhaps hoped to replicate the kind of sway they hold in Albany. When Greenberg Traurig publicly disclosed in January the institutions it is lobbying on behalf of Related Companies, the law firm, apart from naming the usual suspects of the Senate and House of Representatives, added the White House to its list for the first time since 2015.
But so far, the industry hasn’t got its day in the sun it hoped for. Preoccupied with border control, foreign policy and a constant feud with judges and journalists, White House staffers have been reluctant to meet with real estate executive and lobbyists, sources say. And if New York’s real estate kingpins and their lobbyists are lining up to see the president and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, they sure are being discreet.
“I don’t see them very often,” said Jonathan McCollum, director of federal government affairs at the Davidoff, Hutcher & Citron law firm in Washington. “It seems like they would have these pre-existing relationships with Trump and some of his closest advisers,” McCollum said, “and if they are talking regularly, it’s certainly been kept quiet.”
Most of the facetime seems to happen at Mar-a-Lago. Trump’s regular trips to his 128-room private club in Palm Beach have raised concerns over inappropriate levels of access to the president, and real estate developers such as Lorber, Richard LeFrak, Bruce Toll and the South Florida mogul Jeff Greene are all said to be frequent visitors. LeFrak, who is advising the president on infrastructure, told the New York Times that during a February visit to Mar-a-Lago, Trump directly asked him if he would like to build the Mexican border wall, and Toll told the paper that although he had discussed the economy with the president, it was never his own personal business or that of any specific Toll Brothers project.
Steve Witkoff, another developer pal of Trump’s, insists he’s not discussing his personal business interests either.
“Friends don’t lobby,” Witkoff said, “and I’m a friend of the president.”
“I’ve spent time with the president,” Witkoff added, “I do not talk about the real estate business.”
As for Kushner, who holds the title of Senior White House Adviser, he is still keeping ties to parts of his family’s expanding real estate empire. Some who know him say he has made himself unavailable to the property bigwigs in New York.
“He [Kushner] has completely removed himself from everything,” said Nicholas Mastroianni, the head of U.S. Immigration Fund, a major EB-5 regional center that arranged $50 million in foreign capital (likely mostly Chinese money) for Kushner’s Trump Bay Street tower in Jersey City. “We had a farewell meeting in January where he made his position very clear, which is that he’s working for the president and he’s going to be in the White House and he’s not going to get entangled in any specific issues, especially EB-5. He will not meet about EB-5 under any circumstances.”
A spokesperson for the White House told TRD Kushner would recuse himself from “any particular matter concerning the EB-5 program.”
Greenberg Traurig and Related, who are both lobbying for an extension of the EB-5 investor visa program, declined to comment.
The fact that right-wing ideologues Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller play a dominant role in policymaking hasn’t made things easier. “How many [real estate] people do you know that actually know Bannon and have a relationship with Breitbart?” the lobbyist said. To the dismay of some in the industry, this isn’t Kushner’s White House.
Since taking office, Trump has met openly with leaders of other industries, including titans of finance such as Blackstone Group’s Stephen Schwarzman and JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon. He shared with them his frustration that Dodd-Frank regulations were making it difficult for his “friends” to get loans. In February, Trump and members of his cabinet held a “listening session” with 24 CEOs of American manufacturing companies, including Ford Motors. Nothing of that sort has happened yet for real estate.
“We have not been able to speak to them,” Mastroianni said of the administration in a February interview. “They don’t want to interact on anything, any policy at all.”
If a similar sit-down were planned for leaders of the real estate industry, a likely candidate to arrange it might be the Real Estate Roundtable, a body of 17 national trade associations that has close ties to the top brass at the Real Estate Board of New York (a group, it should be noted, that Trump has never been part of). The Roundtable’s President and CEO, Jeffrey DeBoer, anticipates that once issues that more directly affect real estate, such as tax reform and financial deregulation, move up the White House’s agenda, “then we [real estate] will become more high profile.”
“I would anticipate that any president or any person involved significantly in the policy making process would want to meet with all the industries affected by the policies, so I would expect there would be meetings with the manufacturing industry and the airline industry and the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry and the real estate industry,” DeBoer added. “I would expect that in the natural course of business such a meeting would happen and I’d be a little surprised if it didn’t.”
As for the Trump White House being difficult to access, DeBoer says that has not been his experience. “To the extent that we have felt that it was timely and necessary to communicate on an aspect of an issue with the administration, we’ve experienced nothing unusual,” he said.
For now, Mar-A-Lago, dubbed by some as the “Southern White House,” seems the best bet for a well-connected developer trying to catch the currently health care-focused president’s attention, one-on-one. One former lawmaker described it thus: “If you know the president, and you’re seeing him on the golf course or you’re playing basketball with him… then you’re not going to have a 10-second conversation with him, you might have a five-minute conversation in which you can really explain the issue, get him excited about it or interested, and if he knows you really well, he might say ‘you really care about this issue and I like you and you’re my pal or you’ve contributed $2 million,’ and then respond. But the number of people who are going to be able to have that kind of contact with the president is usually small.”