Perhaps you’ve heard: Special counsel Robert Mueller . There’s plenty of analysis about who won and who didn’t. We’re skipping that part. Instead, on a special, speedy episode of Trump, Inc. we’re focusing on the few tidbits that were actually revealing and how it came to be that there weren’t more.
ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger and Heather Vogell talk with WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein about the many things we didn’t learn and why. They discuss potential mistakes during the investigation, avenues Mueller didn’t explore and witnesses — like the president — he decided not to try to question in person.
Mueller’s testimony is over. His report is done. And his office is closed. But there are plenty of critical yet unanswered questions remaining. And we’re still digging. Listen to the episode t o hear what we still want to know.
A New Kind of Influencer: Friend of the President’s Kid
Over the past two years, the Trump administration has been grappling with how to handle the transition to the next generation of mobile broadband technology. With spending expected to run into hundreds of billions of dollars, the administration views it as an ultra-high-stakes competition between U.S. and Chinese companies, with enormous implications both for technology and for national security. Top officials from a raft of departments have been meeting to hash out the best approach.
But there’s been one person at some of the discussions who has a different background: He’s Donald Trump Jr.’s hunting buddy. Over the past two decades, the two have trained their sights on duck, on multiple continents. (An email from another Trump Jr. pal characterized one of their joint duck-hunting trips to Mexico years ago as “muy aggresivo.”)
Tommy Hicks Jr., 41, isn’t a government official; he’s a wealthy private investor. And he has been a part of discussions related to China and technology with top officials from the Treasury Department, National Security Council, Commerce Department and others, according to emails and documents obtained by ProPublica. In one email, Hicks refers to a meeting at “Langley,” an apparent reference to the CIA’s headquarters.
Hicks’ financial interests, if any, in the matters he has discussed aren’t clear. The interests are much more apparent when it comes to at least one of his associates. Hicks used his connections to arrange for a hedge fund manager friend, Kyle Bass — who has $143 million in investments that will pay off if China’s economy tanks — to present his views on the Chinese economy to high-level government officials at an interagency meeting at the Treasury Department, according to the documents.
Hicks is hardly the first private-sector power broker to emerge in a presidential administration, but he may represent a new subspecies: The Friend of the President’s Kid.
In fact, Hicks’ influence and career overwhelmingly hinge on two people: Trump Jr., his friend of about two decades, and, first and foremost, Hicks’ father. In a roughly 20-year career, Hicks has spent 17 of them working for investment funds and sports teams owned by his wealthy financier dad, Thomas Hicks Sr., and the other three working for a client of his father.
The generally privileged life of the younger Hicks has been speckled with occasional instances of misbehavior, one of them serious. At age 18, he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor assault, reduced from an original charge of felony aggravated assault, after he and two others were arrested in the beating of a fellow high school student at a party. (The victim was also kicked in the face during the assault, according to people familiar with the case. He told police that one of the three assailants — he didn’t say which — asked him, “What is your name, faggot?”) The criminal conviction did not prevent Hicks from being admitted to the University of Texas, where his father was an alumnus, a member of the Board of Regents and soon thereafter the first chairman of the University of Texas Investment Management Company, which manages the school’s endowment and other assets.
As an adult, friends say, Hicks’ carousing ways and occasional belligerent outbursts led some in his circle to bestow a heavily ironic nickname: “Senator Hicks.” His tenure as a director of the soccer team his father owned in Liverpool, England, a decade ago ended right — “Blow me fuckface. Go to Hell. I’m sick of you.” — surfaced publicly.
Friends say Hicks has matured, particularly since he married and had three daughters. He has risen quickly in recent years. Hicks leveraged his Dallas financial network to become a top Trump campaign fundraiser in 2016 and a vice chairman of the inaugural finance committee; in January, he was named co-chairman of the Republican National Committee. His friends say he is motivated by patriotism.
Hicks also played a behind-the-scenes role, according to two people familiar with the matter and an account by a Turkish journalist , in the freeing last year of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who was detained for two years by the Turkish government on what the U.S. government viewed as phony charges of spying and helping terrorists.
Even before becoming the second highest-ranking GOP official, Hicks was a frequent White House guest. He liked to have lunch in the White House mess with his half sister, who worked for a time in the communications operation. (The family is not related to Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director.) Hicks would then stroll the halls, according to a former senior administration official, dropping in to offices for impromptu chats with various officials, including Jared Kushner.
Those sorts of connections have given Hicks a convening power, the ability to call together multiple officials. “He basically opened the door for having a conversation with people who I didn’t know but needed to know,” said Robert Spalding, a former senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council during the Trump administration.
The efforts, detailed in hundreds of pages of government emails and other documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that Hicks had access to the highest levels of government to influence policymaking in ways that could lead to painful economic outcomes for the Chinese — and a potentially lucrative result for Hicks’ hedge fund friend, Bass.
“When somebody comes in like this, a hedge fund manager who has an interest in the viability of China’s economy, you’re giving them an opportunity to influence policy,” said Virginia Canter, a former ethics lawyer at the Treasury Department who now serves as chief ethics counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. (CREW has sued Donald Trump for accepting emoluments from foreign governments.) “The question is why?”
Hicks’ unusual role as a nongovernment employee who opened doors on behalf of both industry and others, Canter said, put him in a gray zone of ethics and lobbying regulations. “He’s acting in a lobbyist role when he may fall outside the lobbyist disclosure rules, and it’s not clear how he benefits financially,” she said. “So the question is: What’s he getting out of it? What are his friends getting out of it? And is the government processing it in a way that ensures the public benefits?”
Bass presented his views on China’s banking system in the office of Heath Tarbert, an assistant secretary at Treasury in charge of international markets and investment policy and a powerful intergovernmental committee that reviews foreign investments in the U.S. for national security concerns. Among the officials at the meeting with Tarbert were Bill Hinman, the director of the division of corporation finance at the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Ray Washburne, a wealthy Dallas restaurant owner and family friend of Hicks’ who was nominated by Trump to head the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
Hicks and Bass, both Dallas residents and longtime denizens of the financial community there, have invested together since at least 2011, according to securities filings and court records. They’ve owned shares of a publicly traded communications-technology manufacturer. And they were among the biggest creditors to the bankrupt law enforcement contracting company run by Chris Kyle, the ex-Navy SEAL portrayed by Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper.” The managing director of a new investment fund started by Hicks had previously advised Bass on the successful stock-shorting of a Texas real estate lender, according to corporate filings and court papers from a lawsuit in state court in Dallas.
But it’s not clear if Hicks or his family have an investment in Bass’ China-related funds. Reached twice on his cellphone, Hicks declined to be interviewed by ProPublica. In the second call, in June, Hicks didn’t dispute that he and his family have invested in Bass’ funds. But when asked to detail their business relationship, he cut the conversation short. “I’ve got to run. Let me see if I can get back to you,” Hicks said before hanging up. He didn’t call back.
Weeks later, after ProPublica followed up with questions to the RNC, a spokesman responded by emailing a “statement attributed to Tommy Hicks.” It read: “As a businessman, I passionately supported causes I believed in and, if appropriate, would sometimes meet with government officials to promote them. There is nothing wrong with that. I have taken every precaution during my time as Co-Chair of the RNC to ensure there is no conflict of interest between my job here and any personal businesses.” (The spokesperson also emailed a statement on behalf of the RNC: “Tommy has done an outstanding job working on behalf of President Trump and his agenda.”)
Bass, who made his name and fortune by betting against subprime mortgages before the crash and is known for large bets that economies or certain macro trends will turn downward, declined to comment. “I’m not interested in talking with you about my friends or any meetings I have or haven’t had privately with anyone,” he wrote in an email. In a subsequent message, Bass wrote that any suggestion “that we had corrupt intentions in meeting with Treasury officials... is categorically false and defamatory and could negatively affect our business.”
An administration official briefed on the Bass meeting at the Treasury downplayed it as “strictly a listening session.” He said Bass did not ask the attendees to take any actions, nor did the attendees divulge anything about U.S.-China policy. Government ethics officers vetted the federal employees for any conflicts and found none, the official said. He acknowledged that the review didn’t include an examination of any financial relationship between Hicks and Bass.
Spalding said the conversation centered primarily on Bass’ analysis of publicly available records on the Chinese financial system. “I think the thing that I’ve discovered over the past years is that the information in the private sector is better than anything we have in government,” Spalding said of Bass’ presentation. “You have to reach out to where the expertise is. In our country, that’s where the talent is.”
An SEC spokeswoman declined to comment. Washburne, now out of government, didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.
Bass has become a vocal advocate for an aggressive U.S. policy toward China. On Twitter and on cable business channels he’s denounced everything from the country’s Communist Party government to its business practices. Securities filings show Bass raised $143 million from about 81 investors in two funds — investments that would benefit if China’s currency were devalued or the country faced credit or banking crises. In April, in a letter to his investors, Bass wrote that his company, Hayman Capital Management, was positioned for coming problems in Hong Kong and was set up to “maintain a massive asymmetry to a negative outcome in Hong Kong and/or China.”
Hicks’ work on the 5G initiative was extensive.
Over just a few months in late 2017 and 2018, records show, he was part of an informal group led by then NSC official Spalding, that advocated for a strategy in which the federal government would plan out a national policy for 5G. One memo described their goal as the “equivalent of the Eisenhower National Highway System — a single, inherently protected, information transportation superhighway.”
The group conducted multiple meetings and briefings. For example, Hicks, Spalding and others traveled to Samsung Electronics’ Dallas-area offices for one meeting in January 2018.
That same month Hicks attended a 5G meeting that he’d arranged with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Commerce plays a key role in the future of 5G since a division within the agency manages government spectrum and another maintains a list of companies the government believes are, or will become, national security threats. Companies that end up on that list can be effectively shut out from global deal-making. The meeting with Ross focused heavily on the threat of China, said Ira Greenstein, who served as a White House aide and was part of Spalding’s 5G crew.
Hicks was one of a dozen nongovernment employees, including executives from Wells Fargo, Nokia, Ericsson and Google, that Spalding sent reading materials to ahead of a 5G discussion in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Copied on the email were top Commerce Department officials, a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor and a senior adviser for cybersecurity and IT modernization at the White House Office of Science and Technology. On the agenda? “Mid Band vs High Band” spectrum, “security,” “supply chain,” “financing” and other critical issues.
Hicks wasn’t just a passive observer. On Jan. 2, 2018, the managing director of OPIC, which provides financial backing to American companies expanding into foreign markets, emailed Spalding and others to say that the CEO of a satellite company called OneWeb had a plan to provide worldwide 5G coverage by 2027. Hicks fired back a note from his iPhone. “2027 is too late,” he wrote. “Let’s discuss as a smaller group tomorrow.”
Spalding was forced out of the West Wing in early 2018 after a draft 20-page briefing memo he authored proposing a government-organized national 5G network was leaked, then panned as an attempt to nationalize the wireless broadband industry. Trump has not pursued such an initiative, ultimately deferring to wireless carriers to bid on publicly maintained spectrum and develop their own networks as has traditionally been the case.
Still, the administration has made significant efforts to counter Chinese influence in 5G and related technologies, which are said to be critical for industries such as driverless cars, artificial intelligence, machine learning and much more. In May the Commerce Department barred Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer Huawei from doing business in the U.S. for national security reasons. And the top Department of Defense official in charge of acquisitions also recently announced the creation of a government-approved private marketplace to pair American private equity firms with U.S. technology companies producing products with national security applications to keep Chinese money out of 5G.
It isn’t clear what influence, if any, Hicks had in those decisions. But his profile is only rising. In April, he led a Republican delegation to Taiwan alongside a U.S. government delegation. Hicks met with the country’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, who has lately been positioning her country’s corporations as safer providers of 5G equipment than those in China. Tsai thanked the U.S. for selling arms to Taiwan. She asked Hicks to convey her regards to the Trumps.
An Opportunity for the Rich
Under a six-lane span of freeway leading into downtown Baltimore sits what may be the most valuable parking spaces in America.
Lying near a development project controlled by Under Armour’s billionaire CEO Kevin Plank, one of Maryland’s richest men, and Goldman Sachs, the little sliver of land will allow Plank and the other investors to claim what could amount to millions in tax breaks for the project, known as Port Covington.
They have President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax overhaul law to thank. The new law has a provision meant to spur investment into underdeveloped areas, called “opportunity zones.” The idea is to grant lucrative tax breaks to encourage new investment in poor areas around the country, carefully selected by each state’s governor.
But Port Covington, an ambitious development geared to millennials to feature offices, a hotel, apartments, and shopping, is not in a census tract that is poor. It’s not a new investment. And the census tract only became eligible to be an opportunity zone thanks to a mapping error.
As the selection process was underway, a deputy chief of staff to Maryland's governor wrote in an that “Port Covington does not qualify” as an opportunity zone.
Maryland's governor chose the area for the program anyway — after his aides met with the lobbyists for Plank, who owns about 40% of the zone.
“This is a classic example of a windfall benefit,” said Robert Stoker, a George Washington University professor who has studied economic development in Baltimore for decades. “A major investment was already planned and now is in a zone where they are going to qualify for all kinds of beneficial tax treatment.”
In selecting Port Covington, the governor had to exclude another Maryland community from the opportunity zone program. In Baltimore, for example, the governor dropped part of a neighborhood that city officials recommended for the program — Brooklyn — with a median family income one-fifth that of Port Covington. Brooklyn sits just across the Patapsco river from Port Covington, in an area that suffers from one of the highest drug and alcohol death rates in Baltimore, which in turn has one of the highest drug fatality rates nationwide.
In a statement, Marc Weller, a developer who is Plank’s partner in the project, defended the opportunity zone designation. “Port Covington being part of an Opportunity Zone will attract more investors, foster more economic growth in a neglected area of the City, and directly benefit all of the surrounding communities for decades to come,” Weller said. Supporters say the Port Covington development could help several nearby struggling south Baltimore neighborhoods.
An official in the administration of Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, said, “The success of that project is really going to go a long way to providing benefits for the whole city of Baltimore.” The official added: “The governor is a huge supporter of the development.”
A spokesperson for the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which was involved in the selection process, said that “due to the time limits of the federal tax incentive, the state of Maryland did purposefully select census tracts where projects were beginning to increase the odds of attracting additional private sector investment to Maryland's opportunity zones in the near term.”
The Birth of a New Tax Break
In December 2017, Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, his signature legislative achievement. Much criticized as a giveaway to the rich, the law includes one headline provision that backers promised would help the poor: opportunity zones.
Supporters of the program argued it would unleash economic development in otherwise overlooked communities. “Our goal is to rebuild homes, schools, businesses and communities that need it the most,“ Trump at a recent event, adding, “To revitalize these areas, we’ve lowered the capital gains tax for long-term investment in opportunity zones all the way down to a very big, fat, beautiful number of zero.”
The provision has bipartisan support. “These cities are gold mines,” New Jersey real estate investors in October. “They’re domestic emerging markets that are more exciting than anything you’ll see overseas.”
Here’s how the program works. Say you’re a hedge fund manager, you purchased Google stock years ago, and are sitting on $1 billion in gains. If you sell, you’d send the IRS about $240 million, a lot less than ordinary income tax but still annoying. To avoid paying that much, you can sell the shares and put the $1 billion into an opportunity zone. That comes with three generous breaks. The first is that you defer that $240 million in capital gains tax, allowing you to invest more money up front. But if that’s not enough for you, you can hold the investment for several years and you’ll get a significant reduction in those taxes. What’s more, any additional gains from the new investment are tax-free after 10 years.
It’s impossible to predict how much the tax break will be worth to individual investors because it depends on several variables, not least whether the underlying project gains in value. But one investment pitch projected in tax breaks — money the federal government would have collected from taxpayers with capital gains but for the program.
The tax code already favored real estate developers like Trump, and his overhaul made it even friendlier. Investors can put money into a range of projects in opportunity zones, but so far most of the publicly announced deals are in real estate. The tax break has led to a marketing boom, with Wall Street pitching investors to raise funds to invest in the zones. Critics argue that the program is flawed, pointing out that there’s no guarantee that the capital investment will help community residents, that the selection process was vulnerable to outside influence, and that it could be a , two tracts already slated for a major development project were selected by the governor as opportunity zones even though city officials hadn’t initially recommended them.
Under the new law, areas of the country deemed to be “low-income communities” would be eligible to be named opportunity zones. The Treasury Department determined which census tracts qualified. Then governors of each state could select one quarter of those tracts to get the tax benefit.
That governor prerogative turned out to be very useful to Kevin Plank.
In 2012, Plank-connected entities quietly began buying up waterfront property on a largely vacant and isolated peninsula south of downtown Baltimore. Often using to shield the identity of the true buyer, they ultimately spent more than $100 million acquiring much of the peninsula. Plank’s privately held Sagamore Development now controls roughly 40% of the area that would later be named an opportunity zone.
In early 2015, more than two and a half years before Trump’s tax law passed, Plank revealed himself as the money behind the purchases. He planned a new development and headquarters for Under Armour, the sports apparel company he started after coming up with the idea as a University of Maryland football player. Today, Under Armour employs 15,000 people. Plank has a net worth of around .
Though the Port Covington area was cut off from downtown by I-95, Plank said he likes the location because of the visibility. “When people drive through Baltimore [on I-95] I literally want them to drive through and go, 'There's Baltimore on the right. There's Under Armour on the left,’” he told .
A year later, Plank’s firm took his vision to the general public, running TV and print ads touting the new project. One of the ads, reminiscent of the Democratic presidential primary spots airing at that time, was filled with a diverse cast sharing their dreams for a new city within a city.
“We will build it. Together,” , before running through a glittering digital rendering of contemporary urban design features. Office towers, shops, transit, parks, jobs — all of it to be anchored by a new world headquarters of the city’s most visible brand name, Under Armour. Sagamore would spearhead the project and sell land to others who would build businesses and housing.
Even before qualifying for the opportunity zone break, taxpayers were going to subsidize the development. Days after the ads touting togetherness, Plank proposed that the city float in bonds to help build what the company has said would be a $5.5 billion development. Opponents contended Plank’s proposal amounted to corporate welfare that would exacerbate the city’s stark economic and racial divides. But the company agreed to provide millions of dollars to the city and a group of nearby low-income neighborhoods to gain support for the project, and the City Council passed the measure that fall.
As Under Armour’s stock plummeted in 2017 amid slowing sales growth and progress on the Port Covington project lagged. That September, Goldman Sachs stepped in to commit $233 million from its Urban Investment Group. Hogan, himself a .
Meeting With the Governor’s Office
In the weeks after the 2017 federal tax overhaul passed, Plank’s team spotted an opportunity.
Nick Manis, a veteran Annapolis lobbyist who has also represented the Baltimore Ravens, reached out to Hogan’s chief of staff about Port Covington, according to emails obtained by ProPublica through a public records request. The developers and their lobbyists had given at least $15,000 to Hogan’s campaigns in recent years. A meeting was set for early February.
But the developers had a problem.
The Friday before the meeting, a deputy chief of staff to the governor wrote in an that “Port Covington does not qualify” for the coveted tax breaks.
The Port Covington tract, which includes a gentrified corner of South Baltimore north of the largely empty peninsula, was too wealthy to be an opportunity zone. There is a second provision of the law for wealthier tracts: A tract can qualify if it is adjacent to a low-income area. But Port Covington failed that test, too. Its median family income — nearly 160% of Maryland’s — exceeded the income cap even for that provision.
Port Covington was out — unless the tract could somehow be considered low-income in its own right.
On Feb. 5, the Port Covington development team arrived at the second floor of the statehouse in the opulent governor’s reception room to meet with top Hogan aides. The for the meeting included opportunity zones, as well as transit and infrastructure issues. The developer’s team requested that the Port Covington tract be made an opportunity zone. The state officials “acknowledged their interest in receiving that designation,” a Hogan administration official said.
Bank Error in Your Favor
Three days after that meeting, Plank and the Port Covington developers got bad news. The Treasury Department released a list of census tracts across the country that were sufficiently poor to be included in the program. Port Covington was not included in that list.
Three weeks later, however, things turned around. The Treasury Department issued a revised list. The agency said it had left out some tracts in error. The revised list included 168 new areas across the country defined by the agency as “low-income communities.”
This time, Port Covington made the cut.
It couldn’t have qualified because its residents were poor. It couldn’t qualify because it was next to some place that was poor. But the tract could qualify under yet another provision of the law. Some tracts could make the cut if they had fewer than 2,000 people and if they were “within” what’s known as an empowerment zone. That was a Clinton-era redevelopment initiative also aimed at low-income areas.
Port Covington wasn’t actually within an empowerment zone, but it is next to one. So how did it qualify? The area met the definition of “within” because the digital map files the Treasury Department used showed that Port Covington overlapped with a neighboring tract that was designated an empowerment zone, Treasury officials told ProPublica.
That overlap: the sliver of parking lot beneath I-395. That piece of the lot is about one .
There are no regulations or guidance on how to interpret the tax law’s use of “within,” said a spokesman for the Treasury Department’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, which compiled the maps. The agency made what it called a “technical decision” that any partial overlap with an Empowerment Zone would count as being “within” that zone — no matter how small the area, or if anyone lived there.
Or, if the overlap was even real.
Turns out, no part of Port Covington actually overlapped with the empowerment zone.
Treasury’s decision ignored a well-known problem in geographic analysis known as misalignment, mapping experts said.
Misalignment happens when the lines on digital maps made by two sources differ slightly about where things like roads and buildings lie, according to Henry Luan, a professor of geography at the University of Oregon.
For example, if a tract ends at a highway, one file might show the border on the near side of the highway while another — when zoomed all the way in — might show it a few feet away on the far side. When laid on top of each other, the two files end up with minuscule differences that don’t mean anything in the real world.
Except in this case, it had big real world consequences for Port Covington. The mapping error allowed the entire tract to qualify as an opportunity zone.
“That area of overlap is a complete artifact of” the map files Treasury used, said David Van Riper, director of spatial analysis at the Minnesota Population Center. “It’s not an actual overlap.”
Sometime in the mid-2000s, the Census Bureau used GPS devices to make its map files more accurately represent the country’s roads. One of the maps used by Treasury appeared to be based on the older, less accurate Census maps, Van Riper said.
Even accepting Treasury’s misaligned maps, the entire Port Covington tract receives tax benefits, even though less than 0.3% of it overlaps with the neighboring tract.
“Only a minimal overlap, but you make the whole Census tract benefit from the policy?” Luan said. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”
Port Covington is one of just a handful of tracts in the country that ProPublica identified that qualified through similar flaws in Treasury’s process.
Taking the Break
There is no evidence that Plank or the Port Covington developers influenced the Treasury Department’s revision.
But the lobbying of the governor before the Treasury change appears to have paid off.
As they were lobbying, Baltimore officials were working out which parts of the city would benefit most from being opportunity zones. They petitioned the governor to low-income city neighborhoods to get the tax break, all of them well below the program’s maximum income requirements.
The city’s list remained largely intact when the governor made his selections in April. Hogan made just four changes, three of which qualified under the main criteria without the benefit of the mapping error. But the fourth didn’t: Port Covington.
Plank’s team cheered the revision. The very thing that made Port Covington a poor candidate to be an opportunity zone — that it wasn’t a low-income area — could make it exceptionally attractive to investors. In January, they convened an opportunity zone conference at their Port Covington incubator called City Garage featuring state officials and executives from Goldman, Deloitte and other firms.
“Port Covington kind of fits all the needs,” said Marc Weller, Plank’s partner, at the conference. “It has all the entitlements, and it has a financial partner in place as well. It’s probably the most premier piece of land in the United States that’s in an opportunity zone.”
The opportunity zone program has restrictions intended to prevent already-planned developments from benefitting. But the Port Covington developers . A Port Covington spokesman denied that Plank’s family members are potential investors.
To get the maximum benefit, investments need to be made in 2019, though investments made through 2026 can take advantage of growth tax-free. Only a portion of the Port Covington project is expected to be underway by then.
A Goldman spokesman said it is “likely” that the firm will take advantage of the opportunity zone benefits in Port Covington, adding that it has “made no firm decisions about how each component will be financed.”
Margaret Anadu, the head of Goldman’s Urban Investment Group and the lead on the Port Covington investment, of the opportunity zone program: “These are the same neighborhoods that have been suffering since redline started decades and decades ago, pretty much eliminating private investment. … And so we simply have to reverse that. And the only way to reverse that is to start to bring that private capital back into these neighborhoods.”
The Port Covington tract is just 4% black. For it to be included in the program, another community somewhere in Maryland had to be excluded. The ones that the city suggested that were excluded by the governor, for example, are 68% black and have a poverty rate three times higher than Port Covington’s.
There is some evidence suggesting being named an opportunity zone has already been a boon for property owners. An found that sales of developable sites in the zones rose 24% in the year after the law passed.
Under Armour has said it’s still committed to building its new headquarters on the peninsula, but it’s when that will happen.
Still, other aspects of the once-stalled project finally started moving forward in recent months. After presenting plans for the first section inside the opportunity zone this winter, the project finally got underway on a rainy day in early May of this year.
"The project is real,” Weller said at the kickoff event, which included Anadu, the Goldman Sachs executive, and city and state officials. “The project is starting. We're open for business."
Pay Day at the Trump Doral
In mid-March, the payday lending industry held its annual convention at the Trump National Doral hotel outside Miami. Payday lenders offer loans on the order of a few hundred dollars, typically to low-income borrowers, who have to pay them back in a matter of weeks. The industry has been long been reviled by critics for charging stratospheric interest rates — typically 400% on an annual basis — that leave customers trapped in cycles of debt.
The industry had felt under siege during the Obama administration, as the federal government moved to clamp down. refuse to take the industry’s ads.
On the edge of the Doral’s grounds, as the payday convention began, a group of ministers held a protest “pray-in,” denouncing the lenders for having a “feast” while their borrowers “suffer and starve.”
But inside the hotel, in a wood-paneled bar under golden chandeliers, the mood was celebratory. Payday lenders, many dressed in golf shirts and khakis, enjoyed an open bar and mingled over bites of steak and coconut shrimp.
They had plenty to be elated about. A month earlier, Kathleen Kraninger, who had just finished her second month as director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, had delivered what the lenders consider an epochal victory: Kraninger that had been passed under her Obama-era predecessor.
Payday lenders viewed that rule as a potential death sentence for many in their industry. It would require payday lenders and others to make sure borrowers could afford to pay back their loans while also covering basic living expenses. Banks and mortgage lenders view such a step as a basic prerequisite. But the notion struck terror in the payday lenders. Their business model relies on customers — 12 million Americans take out payday loans every year, according to Pew Charitable Trusts — getting stuck in a long-term cycle of debt, experts say. A study found that three out of four payday loans go to borrowers who take out 10 or more loans a year.
Now, the industry was taking credit for the CFPB’s retreat. As salespeople, executives and vendors picked up lanyards and programs at the registration desk by the Doral’s lobby, they saw a message on the first page of the program from Dennis Shaul, CEO of the industry’s trade group, the Community Financial Services Association of America, which was hosting the convention. “We should not forget that we have had some good fortune through recent regulatory and legal developments,” Shaul wrote. “These events did not occur by accident, but rather are due in large part to the unity and participation of CFSA members and a commitment to fight back against regulatory overreach by the CFPB.”
This year was the second in a row that the CFSA held its convention at the Doral. In the eight years before 2018 (the extent for which records could be found), the organization never held an event at a Trump property.
Asked whether the choice of venue had anything to do with the fact that its owner is president of the United States and the man who appointed Kraninger as his organization’s chief regulator, Shaul assured ProPublica and WNYC that the answer was no. “We returned because the venue is popular with our members and meets our needs,” he said in a . The statement noted that the CFSA held its first annual convention at the Doral hotel more than 16 years ago. Trump didn’t own the property at the time.
The CFSA and its members have poured a total of about $1 million into the Trump Organization’s coffers through the two annual conferences, according to detailed estimates prepared by a corporate event planner in Miami and an executive at a competing hotel that books similar events. Those estimates are consistent with the CFSA’s , which reveals that it spent $644,656 on its annual conference the year before the first gathering at the Trump property. (The Doral and the CFSA declined to comment.)
“It’s a way of keeping themselves on the list, reminding the president and the people close to him that they are among those who are generous to him with the profits that they earn from a business that’s in severe
danger of regulation unless the Trump administration acts,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of consumer group Americans for Financial Reform.
The money the CFSA spent at the Doral is only part of the ante to lobby during the Trump administration. The payday lenders also did a bevy of things that interest groups have always done: They contributed to the president’s inauguration and earned face time with the president after donating to a Trump ally.
But it’s the payment to the president’s business that is a stark reminder that the Trump administration is like none before it. If the industry had written a $1 million check directly to the president's campaign, both the CFSA and campaign could have faced fines or even criminal charges — and Trump couldn’t have used the money to enrich himself. But paying $1 million directly to the president’s business? That’s perfectly legal.
The inauguration of Donald Trump was a watershed for the payday lending industry. It had been feeling beleaguered since the launch of the CFPB in 2011. For the first time, the industry had come under federal supervision. Payday lending companies were suddenly subject to exams conducted by the bureau’s supervision division, which could, and sometimes did, lead to enforcement cases.
Before the bureau was created, payday lenders had been overseen mostly by state authorities. That left a patchwork: 15 states in which payday loans were , a handful of states with strong enforcement — and large swaths of the country in which payday lending was mostly unregulated.
Then, almost as suddenly as an aggressive CFPB emerged, the Trump administration arrived with an agenda of undoing regulations. “There was a resurgence of hope in the industry, which seems to be justified, at this point,” said Jeremy Rosenblum, a partner at law firm Ballard Spahr, who represents payday lenders. Rosenblum spoke to ProPublica and WNYC in a conference room at the Doral — filled with notepads, pens and little bowls of candy marked with the Trump name and family crest — where he had just led a session on compliance with federal and state laws. “There was a profound sense of relief, or hope, for the first time.” (Ballard Spahr occasionally represents ProPublica in legal matters.)
In Mick Mulvaney, who Trump appointed as interim chief of the CFPB in 2017, the industry got exactly the kind of person it had hoped for. As a congressman, Mulvaney had famously derided the agency as a “sad, sick” joke.
If anything, that phrase undersold Mulvaney’s attempts to hamstring the agency as its chief. He froze new investigations, dropped enforcement actions en masse, requested a budget of $0 and seemed to mock the agency by attempting to officially re-order the words in the organization’s name.
But Mulvaney’s rhetoric sometimes exceeded his impact. His budget request was ignored, for example; the CFPB’s name change was only fleeting. And besides, Mulvaney was always a part-timer, fitting in a few days a week at the CFPB while also heading the Office of Management and Budget, and then moving to the White House as acting chief of staff.
It’s Mulvaney’s successor, Kraninger, whom the financial industry is now counting on — and the early signs suggest she’ll deliver. In addition to easing rules on payday lenders, she has continued Mulvaney’s policy of ending supervisory exams on outfits that specialize in lending to the members of the military, claiming that the CFPB can do so only if Congress passes a new law granting those powers (which isn’t likely to happen anytime soon). She has also proposed a that will allow debt collectors to text and email debtors an unlimited number of times as long as there’s an option to unsubscribe.
Enforcement activity at the bureau has plunged under Trump. The amount of monetary relief going to consumers has fallen from $43 million per week under Richard Cordray, the director appointed by Barack Obama, to $6.4 million per week under Mulvaney and is now $464,039, according to an updated analysis conducted by the Consumer Federation of America’s Christopher Peterson, a former special adviser to the bureau.
Kraninger’s disposition seems almost the inverse of Mulvaney’s. If he’s the self-styled “right wing nutjob” willing to blow up the institution and everything near it, Kraninger offers positive rhetoric — she says she wants to “empower” consumers — and comes across as an amiable technocrat. At 44, she’s a former political science major — with degrees from Marquette University and Georgetown Law School — and has spent her career in the federal bureaucracy, with a series of jobs in the Transportation and Homeland Security departments and finally in OMB, where she worked under Mulvaney. ( , she hailed her Jesuit education and cited Pope Francis as her “dream dinner guest.”) In her previous jobs, Kraninger had extensive budgeting experience, but none in consumer finance. The CFPB declined multiple requests to make Kraninger available for an interview and directed ProPublica and WNYC to her public comments and speeches.
Kraninger is new to public testimony, but she already seems to have developed the politician’s skill of refusing to answer difficult questions. At a hearing in March just weeks before the Doral conference, Democratic .
A while later, the session recessed and Kraninger and a handful of her aides repaired to the women’s room. A ProPublica reporter was there, too. The group lingered, seeming to relish what they considered a triumph in the hearing room. “I stole that calculator, Kathy,” one of the aides said. “It’s ours! It’s ours now!” Kraninger and her team laughed.
Triple-digit interest rates are no laughing matter for those who take out payday loans. A sum as little as $100, combined with such rates, can lead a borrower into long-term financial dependency.
That’s what happened to Maria Dichter. Now 73, retired from the insurance industry and living in Palm Beach County, Florida, Dichter first took out a payday loan in 2011. Both she and her husband had gotten knee replacements, and he was about to get a pacemaker. She needed $100 to cover the co-pay on their medication. As is required, Dichter brought identification and her Social Security number and gave the lender a postdated check to pay what she owed. (All of this is standard for payday loans; borrowers either postdate a check or grant the lender access to their bank account.) What nobody asked her to do was show that she had the means to repay the loan. Dichter got the $100 the same day.
The relief was only temporary. Dichter soon needed to pay for more doctors’ appointments and prescriptions. She went back and got a new loan for $300 to cover the first one and provide some more cash. A few months later, she paid that off with a new $500 loan.
Dichter collects a Social Security check each month, but she has never been able to catch up. For almost eight years now, she has renewed her $500 loan every month. Each time she is charged $54 in fees and interest. That means Dichter has paid about $5,000 in interest and fees since 2011 on what is effectively one loan for $500.
Today, Dichter said, she is “trapped.” She and her husband subsist on eggs and Special K cereal. “Now I’m worried,” Dichter said, “because if that pacemaker goes and he can’t replace the battery, he’s dead.”
Payday loans are marketed as a quick fix for people who are facing a financial emergency like a broken-down car or an unexpected medical bill. But studies show that most borrowers use the loans to cover everyday expenses. “We have a lot of clients who come regularly,” said Marco (he asked us to use only his first name), a clerk at one of Advance America’s 1,900 stores, this one in a suburban strip mall not far from the Doral hotel. “We have customers that come two times every month. We’ve had them consecutively for three years.”
These types of lenders rely on repeat borrowers. “The average store only has 500 unique customers a year, but they have the overhead of a conventional retail store,” said Alex Horowitz, a senior research officer at Pew Charitable Trusts, who has spent years studying payday lending. “If people just used one or two loans, then lenders wouldn’t be profitable.”
It was years of stories like Dichter’s that led the CFPB to draft a rule that would require that lenders ascertain the borrower’s ability to repay their loans. “We determined that these loans were very problematic for a large number of consumers who got stuck in what was supposed to be a short-term loan,” said Cordray, the first director of the CFPB, in an interview with ProPublica and WNYC. Finishing the ability-to-pay rule was one of the reasons he stayed on even after the Trump administration began. (Cordray left in November 2017 for what became an unsuccessful run for governor of Ohio.)
The ability-to-pay rule was announced in October 2017. The industry erupted in outrage. Here’s how CFSA’s chief, Shaul, described it in his statement to us: “The CFPB’s original rule, as written by unelected Washington bureaucrats, was motivated by a deeply paternalistic view that small-dollar loan customers cannot be trusted with the freedom to make their own financial decisions. The original rule stood to remove access to legal, licensed small-dollar loans for millions of Americans.” The statement cited an analysis that “found that the rule would push a staggering 82 percent of small storefront lenders to close.” The CFPB estimated that payday and auto title lenders — the latter allow people to borrow for short periods at ultra-high annual rates using their cars as collateral — would lose around $7.5 billion as a result of the rule.
The industry fought back. The charge was led by Advance America, the biggest brick-and-mortar payday lender in the United States. Its CEO until December, Patrick O’Shaughnessy, was the chairman of the CFSA’s board of directors and head of its federal affairs committee. The company had already been wooing the administration, starting with a $250,000 donation to the Trump inaugural committee. (Advance America contributes to both Democratic and Republican candidates, according to spokesperson Jamie Fulmer. He points out that, at the time of the $250,000 donation, the CFPB was still headed by Cordray, the Obama appointee.)
Payday and auto title lenders collectively donated $1.3 million obtained by “Trump, Inc.” President-elect Trump spoke at the dinner.
In October 2017, Rod Aycox and O’Shaughnessy met with Trump when he traveled to Greenville, South Carolina, to speak at a fundraiser for the state’s governor, Henry McMaster. They were among 30 people who were invited to discuss economic development after donating to the campaign, according to the . That included developing “strategies and policies,” providing a “link between the industry and regulatory decision makers” and efforts to “educate various state policy makers” and “support legislative efforts which are beneficial to the industry and the public.”
The ability-to-pay rule technically went into effect in January 2018, but the more meaningful date was August 2019. That’s when payday lenders could be penalized if they hadn’t implemented key parts of the rule
Payday lenders looked to Mulvaney for help. He had historically been sympathetic to the industry and open to lobbyists who contribute money. (Jaws dropped in Washington, not about Mulvaney’s practices in this regard, but about his candor. . “If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”)
But Mulvaney couldn’t overturn the ability-to-pay rule. Since it had been finalized, he didn’t have the legal authority to reverse it on his own. Mulvaney announced that the bureau would begin reconsidering the rule, a complicated and potentially lengthy process. The CFPB, under Cordray, had spent five years researching and preparing it.
Meanwhile, the payday lenders turned to Congress. Under the Congressional Review Act, lawmakers can nix federal rules during their first 60 days in effect. In the House, a bipartisan group of representatives filed a joint resolution to abolish the ability-to-pay rule. , led the charge in the Senate. But supporters couldn’t muster a decisive vote in time, in part because opposition to payday lenders crosses party lines.
By April 2018, the CFSA members were growing impatient. But the Trump administration was willing to listen. The CFSA’s Shaul was granted access to a top Mulvaney lieutenant, according to “ ” in The New York Times Magazine, which offers a detailed description of the behind-the scenes maneuvering. Shaul told the lieutenant that the CFSA had been preparing to sue the CFPB to stop the ability-to-pay rule “but now believed that it would be better to work with the bureau to write a new one.” Cautious about appearing to coordinate with industry, according to the article, the CFPB was non-committal.
Days later, the CFSA sued the bureau. The organization’s lawyers argued in court filings that the bureau’s rules “defied common sense and basic economic analysis.” The suit claimed the bureau was unconstitutional and lacked the authority to impose rules.
A month later, Mulvaney took a rare step, at least, for most administrations: He sided with the plaintiffs suing his agency. Mulvaney filed a joint motion asking the judge to delay the ability-to-pay rule until the lawsuit is resolved.
By February of this year, Kraninger had taken charge of the CFPB and proposed to rescind the ability-to-pay rule. Her official announcement asserted that there was “insufficient evidence and legal support” for the rule and expressed concern that it “would reduce access to credit and competition.”
Kraninger’s announcement sparked euphoria in the industry. proclaimed, “It’s party time, baby!” with a GIF of President Trump bobbing his head.
Kraninger’s decision made the lawsuit largely moot. But the suit, which has been stayed, has still served a purpose: This spring, a federal judge agreed to freeze another provision of the regulation, one that limits the number of times a lender can debit a borrower’s bank account, until the fate of the overall rule is determined.
As the wrangling over the federal regulation plays out, payday lenders have continued to lobby statehouses across the country. For example, a company called Amscot pushed for a new state law in Florida last year. Amscot courted African American pastors and leaders located in the districts of dozens of Democratic lawmakers and chartered private jets to fly them to Florida’s capital to testify, . The lawmakers subsequently passed legislation creating a new type of payday loan, one that can be paid in installments, that lets consumers borrow a maximum $1,000 loan versus the $500 maximum for regular payday loans. Amscot CEO Ian MacKechnie asserts that the new loans reduce fees (consumer advocates disagree). He added, in an email to ProPublica and WNYC: “We have always worked with leaders in the communities that we serve: both to understand the experiences of their constituents with regard to financial products; and to be a resource to make sure everyone understands the law and consumer protections. Educated consumers are in everyone’s interest.” For their part, the leaders denied that Amscot’s contributions affected their opinions. As one of them told the Tampa Bay Times, the company is a “great community partner.”
Kraninger spent her first three months in office embarking on a “listening tour.” She traveled the country and met with more than 400 consumer groups, government officials and financial institutions. Finally, in mid-April, she at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. The CFPB billed it as the moment she would lay out her vision for the agency.
Kraninger said she hoped to use the CFPB’s enforcement powers “less often.” She alluded to a report by the Federal Reserve that 40% of Americans would not be able to cover an emergency expense of $400. Her suggestion for addressing that: educational videos and a booklet. “To promote effective approaches to savings and particularly emergency savings,” Kraninger explained, “the Bureau recently launched our Start Small, Save Up initiative. It offers tips, tools and information to help consumers build a basic savings cushion and develop a savings habit. Later this year, we will be launching a savings ‘boot camp,’ a series of videos, and a very readable, informative booklet that serves as a roadmap to a savings plan.”
Having laid out what sounded like a plan to hand out self-help brochures at an agency invented to pursue predatory financial institutions, she then said, “Let me be clear, however, the ultimate goal for the bureau is not to produce booklets and great content on our website. The ultimate goal is to move the needle on the number of Americans in this country who can cover a financial shock, like a $400 emergency.”
Back at the Doral the month before her speech, $400 might not have seemed like much of an emergency to the payday lenders. Some attendees seemed most upset by a torrential downpour on the second day that caused the cancellation of the conference’s golf tournament.
Inside the Donald J. Trump Ballroom, the conference buzzed with activity. The Bush-era political adviser Karl Rove was the celebrity speaker after the breakfast buffet. And the practical sessions continued apace. One was called “The Power of the Pen.” It was aimed at helping attendees submit comments on the ability-to-pay rule to the government. It was clearly a matter of importance to the CFSA. In his statement to ProPublica and WNYC, Shaul noted that “more than one million customers submitted comments opposing the CFPB’s original small-dollar loan rule — hundreds of thousands of whom sent handwritten letters telling personal stories of how small-dollar loans helped them and their families.”
A couple of months after the Doral conference, Allied Progress, a consumer advocacy group, that were submitted to the CFPB in response to Kraninger’s plans. Because, the group said, the industry had been accused of submitting “duplicative comments” in the past, it searched for such repetitions in the latest round. In one sample of 26,000 comments, the group discovered that 27% of the statements submitted by purportedly independent individuals contained duplicative passages, all of which supported the industry’s position, and also included identical personal anecdotes. (Payday opponents have encouraged people to submit preprinted comments to the CFPB, but there’s no indication that they include matching personal details.) For example, Allied Progress reported that 221 of the comments stated that “I have a long commute to work and it’s better for me financially to borrow from Cash Connection so that I can still make it to work than to not take care of my car and lose my job because of absences.” There were 201 asserting that “I now take care of my parents and my children” and I “want to be able to enjoy life and not feel burdened by the additional expenses that are piling up.” Allied Progress said it doesn’t know “if these are fake people, fake stories, or form letters intentionally designed to read as personal anecdotes.” (Cash Connection couldn’t be reached for comment.)
Taking account of public comments is the final task before Kraninger officially determines whether to put the ability-to-pay rule to death. Whatever she decides, it’s a likely bet that decision will be challenged in court, the CFSA will weigh in and the payday lenders will still be talking about it at next year’s annual conference. A spokesperson for the CFSA declined to say whether the event will be held at a Trump hotel.
Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify the methodology Allied Progress used in searching for duplicative comments to the CFPB and to explain how duplicative pro-payday-lender comments differed from efforts by anti-payday-loan advocates to encourage people to submit prewritten comments.
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