That Time Trump Got $18.3 Million in Palm Beach
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A series of hurricanes tore through Florida in 2005, and Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s business and residence in Palm Beach, was apparently very beaten up because Trump collected about $18.3 million in insurance payments that year from a carrier whose services were brokered by Aon Plc.
When my attorney asked Trump during a 2007 deposition if he ever plowed all of those funds back into his club, he pointed out that “under the insurance plan you didn’t have to” even though “the hurricane really did tremendous damage.”
“What kind of damage specifically did you have to the property from these hurricanes?” my lawyer asked.
“I don’t remember that; I really don’t,” Trump replied. “They did appraisals.”
But Trump also said he didn’t review the appraisals or anything, really, pertaining to the insurance claim. Instead, he told my lawyers, he left all of those details to a Trump Organization executive, Matthew Calamari. (Trump was being deposed as part of a libel lawsuit he filed against me for a 2005 biography I wrote, “TrumpNation”; Trump lost the suit in 2011.)
In 2016, the Associated Press scoured Palm Beach property records for damage reports, interviewed the adjuster who assessed Trump’s insurance claim, met with the man who oversaw Mar-a-Lago and spoke with several former Palm Beach officials about possible hurricane damage to the club. There was “little evidence” of “large-scale damage,” the AP concluded. When the AP wrote about Trump’s club again in 2017, it noted that “strikes by four major hurricanes have done little damage to Mar-a-Lago in the 90 years since” it was built.
Questions about the president’s dealings with insurers and banks over the years occupy center stage again. Last week, Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, testified that the president provided inflated valuations of his assets to insurers. He said that Calamari, along with the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, and another Trump executive, Ronald Lieberman, all had knowledge of the practice – and that the president’s tax records and financial statements would substantiate his testimony. (Cohen also said in his testimony that Trump routinely exaggerated and lied about his wealth, both to snare a spot on the Forbes 400 list of America’s wealthiest billionaires and to secure hefty bank loans, something that I know to be absolutely true.)
On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the New York State Department of Financial Services, which regulates insurers, banks and other financial enterprises, has “issued an expansive subpoena to the Trump Organization’s longtime insurance broker, the first step in an investigation of insurance policies and claims involving President Trump’s family business.” Aon, the same company that had brokered the services of Mar-a-Lago's insurance carrier, is the London-based firm that received that subpoena.
Scrutiny of Trump’s insurance dealings is just the beginning of what is going to be a long, meandering and possibly harrowing experience for the president, his family, longtime employees of the Trump Organization, many of Trump’s business partners and the White House. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan, attorneys general in Virginia, New York and the District of Columbia, five committees within the House of Representatives and, now, banking and insurance regulators, are all putting the Trump Organization and the president’s financial and political dealings under a wide array of microscopes.
On Monday, the House Judiciary Committee alone uncorked 81 letters seeking information from the White House, individuals, agencies and others that have all intersected with the president. Recipients included the Trump Organization, the Trump Campaign, the Trump Transition, the Trump Foundation, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Jared Kushner, Weisselberg, Calamari, Lieberman, two Trump attorneys (Alan Garten and Sheri Dillon) and Trump’s longtime business assistant, Rhona Graff. The list of recipients didn’t include other current or former high-ranking Trump Organization executives such as Jason Greenblatt and Jeffrey McConney, or the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump; the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Jerrold Nadler, said that the current list isn’t exhaustive. Nadler, a New York Democrat, said he plans to focus on Trump’s possible obstruction of justice, corruption and abuse of power.
Meanwhile, Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, wants to hold a future public hearing with Weisselberg. An upcoming hearing is also planned with Felix Sater, a career criminal who partnered with the Trump family on the former Trump SoHo Hotel and worked with Cohen and the Trump Organization to pursue a property development in Moscow before and during Trump’s 2016 presidential bid. Asked recently by Bloomberg News for comment about his upcoming congressional appearance, Sater waxed patriotic. “Till the day I die, I stand ready to serve my country that I love,” he said. “God bless America.”
Maxine Waters, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is planning an examination of Trump’s dealings with Deutsche Bank AG, a troubled German lender that has been mired in scandal. She said that she plans to look into possible money laundering, among other things, and will do “whatever is necessary” to get an accurate picture of Deutsche’s ties with Trump.
Trump and everyone in his orbit saw most of this coming, of course, but that doesn’t make it any easier now that it’s arrived. If, indeed, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe is winding down at the Justice Department, then the center of gravity of the investigations has moved to Congress and New York, and will therefore take on a more explicitly financial air. And that will make all of them intruders in a world the president particularly prizes: his business.
The White House appears to be on an offensive footing as it responds to all of this. Trump said he may not cooperate with Nadler’s document request. He may also choose to use tools like “executive privilege” to keep some of his senior presidential advisers from testifying before Congress, but that affords him little broad protection given the nature of the investigations, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Feldman has pointed out. Congress, and certainly law enforcement, will issue subpoenas for testimony and documents.
So a clash is coming, across multiple jurisdictions, states and authorities. The president hinted at some of this in his State of the Union address when he warned that if “there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.” Well, investigations are underway and the president will discover the weight of his armor, particularly the protection afforded by some of those closest to him.
“Everybody’s job at the Trump Organization was to protect Mr. Trump,” Cohen said in his testimony last week. If Cohen is any indication, however, many, if not everybody, at the Trump Organization and elsewhere may decide to protect themselves before they protect the president. Investigators have landed on the money trail.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
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