Dozens of lobbyists, contractors and others who make their living influencing the government pay President Trump's companies for membership in his private golf clubs, a status that can put them in close contact with the president, a USA TODAY investigation found.
Members of the clubs Trump has visited most often as president — in Florida, New Jersey and Virginia — include at least 50 executives whose companies hold federal contracts and 21 lobbyists and trade group officials. Two-thirds played on one of the 58 days the president was there, according to scores they posted online.
Because membership lists at Trump's clubs are secret, the public has until now been unable to assess the conflicts they could create. USA TODAY found the names of 4,500 members by reviewing social media and a public website golfers use to track their handicaps, then researched and contacted hundreds to determine whether they had business with the government.
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The review shows that, for the first time in U.S. history, wealthy people with interests before the government have a chance for close and confidential access to the president as a result of payments that enrich him personally. It is a view of the president available to few other Americans.
Among Trump club members are top executives of defense contractors, a lobbyist for the South Korean government, a lawyer helping Saudi Arabia fight claims over the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the leader of a pesticide trade group that sought successfully to persuade the Trump administration not to ban an insecticide government scientists linked to health risks.
Members of Trump's clubs pay initiation fees that can exceed $100,000, plus thousands more in annual dues to his companies, held in a trust for his benefit.
The arrangement is legal, and members said they did not use the clubs to discuss government business. Nonetheless, ethics experts questioned whether it's appropriate for a sitting president to collect money from lobbyists and others who spend their days trying to shape federal policy or win government business.
"I think we're all in new territory," said Walter Shaub, who recently resigned as director of the Office of Government Ethics after repeated clashes with the White House. "We never thought we'd see anyone push the outer limits in this way."
Citing privacy and national security, the White House has moved to keep secret the president's interactions. Unlike the Obama administration, the Trump White House does not disclose the president's golf partners, or whether he played. The Trump team also ended an Obama administration practice of releasing White House visitor logs. In July, a federal court ordered the government to release visitor records from Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., to a watchdog group. The deadline is Friday.
Trump's U.S. golf clubs are among the most lucrative outposts in his empire, bringing in about $600 million in 2015 and 2016, according to his financial disclosure reports. It is unknown how much of that is profit because, unlike other recent presidents, Trump has not released his tax returns
Some members find themselves in close proximity to a president who has visited his golf clubs on about a quarter of the days that he has been in office. Many describe Trump as surprisingly approachable, welcoming advice on everything from the state of the tee boxes to the course of his administration.
Trump marked his 100th day in office by visiting a factory owned by a company run by a member of his New Jersey golf club.
Standing behind Trump as he signed two executive orders was Robert Mehmel, president of the company that owns the Harrisburg, Pa., factory and another company that sells radars and electronics to the military, including about $54 million worth of contracts last year.
Like millions of golfers, Mehmel registered his handicap on a public U.S. Golf Association website that golfers use to track their handicaps and check the scores of other players. The site requires golfers to sign up through a club and lists when and where they played. Only members are allowed to associate their handicaps with Trump's clubs, said Kyle Littlefield, a pro at Trump National Golf Club-Bedminster.
Mehmel registered his handicap there. He posted scores from seven rounds of golf at the club this year. Five were in days in May, June and August when Trump was visiting. Mehmel did not respond to phone calls or emails.
The White House and Trump's companies did not respond to questions about members' access to the president.
At the clubs Trump visits most often, the list of members reflects a cross-section of wealthy suburbanites: corporate executives, investment bankers, real estate agents, doctors, and their families.
The list includes dozens of people who either seek to influence the federal government or sell it things. It includes the chief executives of defense and technology contractors, the head of the Dell unit that sells information technology services to the federal government, the chief of a trade group representing rural utilities and lobbyists who represent energy companies and foreign governments.
One lobbyist for U.S. and Canadian airports mentioned his membership to Trump at a White House meeting in February. "I'm a member of your club, by the way," Kevin Burke said, in an exchange captured by C-SPAN. "Very good, very good" Trump replied.
Trump has long afforded his clubs, and their members, a unique status.
Before he took office, Trump told guests at a dinner at his Bedminster club that they were "the special people" and joked they "might want to come along" as his team interviewed potential Cabinet secretaries. Guests at Mar-a-Lago snapped photos in February as he huddled around an open-air dinner table with security aides and the Japanese prime minister after a North Korean missile launch.
In interviews, several dozen members described a president who remains the chief host and resident celebrity during his visits. He speeds through 18 holes of golf, then lingers in the clubs' restaurants and seldom refuses to shake a hand or pose for a photo, sometimes snapped by his Secret Service detail. Senior aides regularly accompany him. Advice flows freely.
"Access to this president has been different than it has been in the past, and everybody thinks they have an opportunity to provide information that could be helpful to the country," said Ed Russo, a longtime member of the Bedminster club who has worked as an environmental consultant for several of Trump's courses.
Others said the club was merely a place to play. "I've done zero business. I go there to play golf," said Thomas Spulak, a member of the Trump National Golf Club in Washington's suburbs and a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, who represents the Saudi government in its efforts to fight claims by families of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Experts on government ethics and federal contracting said there's no prohibition on executives from companies with federal contracts spending money at Trump's golf properties, as long they pay the going rate for their memberships and don't hand over money to seek an official favor or to thank the president for taking action on their behalf.
Lobbyists face no legal restrictions on golf memberships.
Jay Vroom, CEO of the pesticide trade group Crop Life America, said he had encountered Trump once since he became president. The group sought for months to keep the Environmental Protection Agency from banning an insecticide called chlorpyrifos that the agency's scientists linked to neurological delays in children and other health problems. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in March that the government would not impose new restrictions on the insecticide's use.
Vroom said in a statement that he had not spoken to Trump about the issue. Those fighting to ban the insecticide said they were troubled by the prospect of his having access to the president at all.
"Not surprising, I'm sad to say, especially with the current president. And I'm tempted to say — and oh, God help me — par for the course," said Kristen Boyles, a lawyer for the environmental non-profit group Earthjustice, which is suing to force the EPA to ban chlorpyrifos.
Shaub, the former Office of Government Ethics director, said even conversations that have nothing to do with the government can raise ethics concerns. The Washington lobbying and contracting worlds are built on access, and that makes any opportunity to meet the president valuable, he said.
"Face time is everything when it comes to Washington," Shaub said. "The president bopping around his properties gives them access to him."
Presidents have long socialized with the wealthy and well-connected, including campaign donors. But although the Kennedys visited country clubs in Palm Beach and the Roosevelts "were hobnobbing with the moneyed rich in the Hudson Valley or in Manhattan, the very people (Trump) is hanging out with are paying to be there in that setting with him," said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center.
"This is unprecedented on so many levels," she said.