Trump's Small Business Chief Gave Speech at His Hotel, but Aides Tried to Keep Location Quiet

President Donald Trump greets Small Business Administration head Linda McMahon during an event on March 29. McMahon spoke at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., on September 13. Mark Wilson/Getty

About a month after media outlets stirred controvery by reporting that Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch would be speaking at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., the head of the Small Business Administration (SBA), Linda McMahon, spoke to an industry group there. Though the group did not keep secret the location of its event, McMahon's aides tried to keep it quiet, newly obtained documents show.

The Trump Hotel, which opened in September 2016, has raised concerns among ethics watchdogs because guests who stay or host events there are in theory giving money to the family of the president of the United States. Analysts have also pointed out that the Trump Organization is leasing the property from the General Services Administration, a federal agency under President Donald Trump. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), a business lobbying group, chose the spot for its Federal Outreach Tour, an annual event during which board members meet with government insiders that took place in September. In July, LABI invited McMahon to speak at the event. In its earliest communications with the administrator and her team, LABI said the event, a breakfast with 30 or so board members, would take place at the Trump Hotel.

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During the event, McMahon spoke for about 20 minutes at a podium with a "Trump Hotels" sign. The topics included hurricane relief, SBA initiatives in Louisiana and tax reform.

While LABI said publicly on its website it was holding the event at the Trump Hotel, the SBA seems to have worked to keep quiet about McMahon's having appeared there, according to documents that the nonpartisan group American Oversight obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and provided exclusively to Newsweek.

During the event in September, an SBA staffer whose title is special adviser texted the agency's deputy press secretary. The messages contained several photos of McMahon speaking, the documents show. In response to the photos, the deputy wrote, "Can you try to get the portrait mode one without the 'Trump hotel' sign in it?"

A text conversation released under the Freedom of Information Act shows that a Small Business Administration employee directed a colleague to avoid photographing a “Trump Hotels” sign. American Oversight

The staffer who sent the photos replied, "I know Trying to avoid it. Will try again."

The deputy responded, "Lols." Then the first staffer sent a photo of McMahon without the sign.

At one point, someone texted the deputy, "I'll tweet with excerpts from speech...and crop the opulence out!" That person's full name is not visible in the released document, and in the reply to that text, the deputy thanked the person by a name different from the one visible in the other messages. The documents contain the names of two of the staffers involved in the exchange.

Sharing goals with Louisiana business owners about #taxreform & how @SBAgov is working to help entrepreneurs succeed. @LABI_biz #LABIinDC

— Linda McMahon (@SBALinda) September 13, 2017

Louisiana has been affected by hurricanes & massive flooding in past year. Explaining to @LABI_biz how @SBAgov helps with disaster recovery.

— Linda McMahon (@SBALinda) September 13, 2017

Speaking to business owners from Louisiana about how resources from @SBAgov can help them grow. @LABI_biz #LABIinDC

— Linda McMahon (@SBALinda) September 13, 2017

The photos without the hotel sign wound up on McMahon's Twitter feed. In two of them, heads of attendees appear in front of where the sign is situated. The tweeted photos do not appear to have been altered from the versions the staffer sent, except that in one, a large chandelier is cropped out.

Terry Sutherland, the director of the SBA's press office, said by email: "Our focus for social media was not to promote a location but rather what they asked her to speak on—flooding, disaster assistance, regulatory reform and what resources SBA has at its disposal to help small businesses. Our social media posts reflected those distinct messages." He pointed out that LABI selected the location of the event.

But in photographs of McMahon from other events, the signs on podiums are visible. The day before the Trump Hotel event, McMahon's Twitter account posted a photo of her at a podium with a sign for the Westin, and days later, it posted one of her with the sign for the Union League Club.

LABI did not widely publicize the event, but Camille Conaway, the group's senior vice president, tweeted photos of McMahon with the Trump sign visible. The SBA does not appear to have publicized that the event took place at that particular location, and no media outlets seem to have reported on it. The agency appears to issue press releases in advance of some speaking engagements, but not all. Those releases have included the locations of the events.

Bright and early morning for #LABIinDC with @SBAgov Administrator Linda McMahon #lagov #SmallBusiness #jobs

— Camille Conaway (@CamilleConaway) September 13, 2017

The SBA might have been trying to avoid the backlash that Gorsuch faced in the leadup to his speaking at a September 28 event at the hotel. Groups including Planned Parenthood sent a letter to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts about the Gorsuch event, writing, "To the public, the Trump Hotel appears simply as what it is: a paid gateway to presidential influence that operates under the color of presidential approval." The event drew protesters. The group that hosted it, the Fund for American Studies, a right-leaning educational nonprofit, has said it selected the event prior to Trump's election.

It is unclear if LABI chose the venue before the election, too. The group, which represents 2,000 Louisiana employers, has been supportive of Trump. Stephen Waguespack, its president and CEO, called the January executive order that promised to slash business regulations "long overdue." A spokesperson for the group was unavailable to comment Tuesday morning. It was unclear if the 30 or so attendees of the LABI event stayed overnight at the Trump Hotel.

Ethics watchdogs have monitored the Trump Hotel. In lawsuits, plaintiffs have claimed that Trump's involvement in the hotel violates the "emoluments clauses" of the Constitution. Those clauses restrict gifts that U.S. officials can receive from foreign governments. In response to one lawsuit, the Department of Justice argued, "Neither the text nor the history of the clauses show they were intended to reach benefits arising from a president's private business pursuits having nothing to do with his office or personal service to a foreign power."

Watchdogs aren't buying that defense. "No matter how hard they try to hide it, it's clear the administration is turning Washington into an extension of the Trump Organization, with cabinet secretaries playing the role of concierge to lobbyists seeking influence—all while they enrich themselves and the president's family," Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, said in a statement about the released documents. "Linda McMahon's title may be Small Business Administrator, but it's obvious which business she's most concerned about."

McMahon, the co-founder and former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, was a controversial appointment. She reportedly lived at the Trump Hotel for a time, one of several people in the administration who did so. Her husband is wrestling promoter Vince McMahon, and Trump has been close with the couple for decades. She ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2010 and 2012.