Last April, telecom giant T-Mobile announced a mega-deal: a $26-billion merger with rival Sprint, which would more than double T-Mobile’s value and give it a huge new chunk of the cellphone market.
But for T-Mobile, one hurdle remained: Its deal needed approval from the Trump administration.
The next day, in Washington, staffers at the Trump International Hotel were handed a list of incoming “VIP Arrivals.” That day’s list included nine of T-Mobile’s top executives — including its chief operating officer, chief technology officer, chief strategy officer, chief financial officer and its outspoken celebrity chief executive, John Legere.
They were scheduled to stay between one and three days. But it was not their last visit. T-Mobile executives have returned to President Trump’s hotel repeatedly since then, according to eyewitnesses and hotel documents obtained by the Washington Post. By mid-June, seven weeks after the announcement of the merger, hotel records indicated that one T-Mobile executive was making his 10th visit to the hotel. Legere appears to have made at least four visits to the Trump hotel, walking the lobby in his T-Mobile gear.
These visits highlight a stark reality in Washington, unprecedented in modern American history. Trump the president works at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Trump the businessman owns a hotel at 1100 Pennsylvania.
Countries, interest groups and companies like T-Mobile — whose future will be shaped by the administration’s choices — are free to stop at both and pay the president’s company while also meeting with officials in his government. Such visits raise questions about whether patronizing Trump’s private business is viewed as a way to influence public policy, critics said.
Last week, a Post reporter spotted Legere in the Trump hotel’s lobby. In an impromptu interview, the T-Mobile chief executive said he was not seeking special treatment. He chose the Trump hotel, he said, for its fine service and good security.
“It’s become a place I feel very comfortable,” Legere said. He also praised the hotel’s location, next to one of the departments that must approve the company’s merger.
“At the moment I am in town for some meetings at the Department of Justice,” Legere said. “And it’s very convenient for that.”
The VIP Arrivals lists obtained by the Post — in which Trump hotel executives alerted their staff to foreign officials, corporate executives, long-term guests, Trump family friends and big spenders — provide an inside look at some of the hotel’s customers. The Post obtained lists for about a dozen days in 2018.
Those lists showed 38 nights of hotel stays by the T-Mobile executives; because the Post’s data are incomplete, the number could be higher.
Rooms at the luxury hotel routinely cost more than $300 per night.
The Post shared details about those stays — gleaned from the VIP Arrivals lists and eyewitness accounts — with both T-Mobile and the Trump Organization. Neither challenged the findings. After Legere’s brief interview at the Trump hotel, T-Mobile declined to comment further for this report.
Trump’s hotel also has hosted parties put on by the Kuwaiti and Philippine embassies, rented hundreds of rooms to lobbyists paid by Saudi Arabia, and hosted a large meeting of the oil industry’s lobbying group.
But the T-Mobile case stands out because the company’s executives were expected at the hotel so soon after announcing they needed a win in Washington.
“It’s currying favor with the president. It’s disturbing, because it’s another secret avenue for currying favor with the government,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
She said that even if they weren’t directly ordered by Trump, the president’s appointees might feel pressured to help Trump’s customers. That might undermine public confidence in the decisions that result, Krumholz said.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Eric Trump — who is running the family business while his father serves in the White House — said in an email that the hotel has “absolutely no role in politics.” Asked about the stays by Legere, Eric Trump said that his hotel offers extraordinary service: “It should come as no surprise that a CEO of a major corporation would want to stay with us.”
Before last year, Washington had been a place of disappointment for T-Mobile, the third-biggest of America’s four big cellphone providers, which has long sought a merger to grow bigger. In 2011 and in 2014, the Bellevue, Wash., company planned to combine with rivals: first AT&T, then Sprint. But both times, the Obama administration rejected the mergers on antitrust grounds, saying they would decrease competition and hurt consumers.
On April 29, T-Mobile announced it would try again with Sprint. The deal required approval from agencies including the Justice Department, which handles antitrust enforcement, and the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the airwaves that cellphones use. Those two agencies declined to comment.
Sprint, the market’s fourth-place player, is largely owned by SoftBank, a Japanese company whose founder, Masayoshi Son, has built his own relationship with Trump. After Trump’s election, Son was praised by the incoming president for a promise to invest $50 billion and create 50,000 jobs in the United States. Sprint declined to comment for this report.
Legere, the T-Mobile chief executive, also had a history with the president. But it wasn’t a good one.
“I will obviously leave your hotel right away,” Legere wrote on Twitter in April 2015, during a public spat that began with complaints about Legere’s stay at a Trump hotel in New York, and escalated when Trump called T-Mobile’s service “terrible.”
Later, Legere mocked Trump’s hotels after checking out. “I am so happy to wake up in a hotel where every single item isn’t labeled ‘Trump,’ ” he wrote, according to news coverage. Those tweets appear to have been deleted.
Three years later, on the day after the T-Mobile merger was announced, Legere was scheduled to arrive at the Trump hotel in Washington.
That day’s VIP Arrivals list included 39 names. There were executives at a Defense Department contractor called AxleTech; a spokesman said they chose the hotel because they had a meeting at a corporate office across the street. Two other VIPs were connected with the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action, which was hosting a dinner with the president at the hotel that night. A spokeswoman said one room was for the event photographer, the other for staff preparations.
And there were the nine T-Mobile executives. Of them, only Legere was listed with an “R” next to his name — signaling to Trump hotel employees that he was a repeat Trump customer.
Inside the hotel’s busy, soaring lobby, Legere was noticed quickly.
“Everybody knew. You couldn’t miss it,” said Jake Loft, who was in the lobby for a regularly scheduled networking event. He spotted Legere by his outfit, which was — as usual — a walking billboard for T-Mobile. Legere wore a black-and-magenta hoodie with a T-Mobile logo over a bright-magenta T-shirt with another T-Mobile logo. “He wasn’t dressed appropriately,” Loft said.
“It was essentially like a track suit,” said Tim Briseno, who was there with Loft. Briseno remembered Legere giving out business cards, with an offer of a discount. “He was like, ‘If you guys switch, you’ll get 40% off for the rest of your life.’” T-Mobile did not respond to a query asking whether that offer was legitimate.
They asked Legere for a photo. “I didn’t look at the photo until after I left,” Loft said. Legere had given them both bunny ears. “I was like, ‘That was good.’”
Legere wound up in several photos on Instagram, giving bunny ears in every one.
On that first visit, the T-Mobile executives were expected to stay between one and three days apiece, according to the VIP Arrivals list.
In late May, the Trump hotel expected T-Mobile’s general counsel, David Miller, for a return visit, staying two days. Then, on June 17, the VIP Arrivals list showed that Legere, Miller and T-Mobile Executive Vice President David Carey would be returning for five-day stays.
By that time — just six weeks after the merger was announced — the list shows that the T-Mobile executives were already experienced Trump customers. Legere and Carey were members of the “Trump Card” program. Carey’s entry also contained the notation “R(10).”
That — according to Trump hotel staffers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t permitted to speak to the media — was an indication that Carey was making his 10th visit to the hotel. The listings also contained the words “Long Term” because of the length of their stays. Carey and Miller did not respond to requests for comment.
After that, Legere came a few days later. On June 27, the same day that Legere testified to Congress about the merger, he was spotted at the hotel by independent journalist Zach Everson, according to an account Everson posted on Twitter. Everson said he saw Legere in the hotel lobby, talking to former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who has advised T-Mobile during the merger talks.
Lewandowski is a frequent patron of the Trump hotel: He has held two book parties there and often appears in social-media photos mingling in the lobby. Lewandowski did not return requests for comment this week.
The visits by T-Mobile executives cumulatively are probably worth tens of thousands of dollars to the Trump Organization, the president’s company, which he still owns despite criticism from government ethics experts.
Since Trump was elected, his hotel has been patronized by other groups with lobbying interests in Washington: foreign embassies, industry associations, religious groups. Lobbyists working for the Saudi government — a close U.S. ally that has grown closer under Trump — paid for 500 hotel rooms in the first four months after Trump was elected.
Opponents of the T-Mobile merger say they believe the executives’ repeated stays are an effort to influence policy.
“I can’t believe this is a coincidence. In mergers, companies look for any potential advantage they can find,” said Gene Kimmelman, who was chief counsel for the antitrust division at the Justice Department under President Obama. He now leads the good-government group Public Knowledge.
Kimmelman said he doubted that the career Justice Department officials would be moved by it but said it could “sway others in government” appointed by Trump.
Daniel Schuman, of the liberal group Demand Progress, is part of a coalition opposing the merger, arguing that it would reduce choice for consumers. The coalition, called the 4Competition Coalition, also includes labor unions and some smaller cellphone providers.
“This isn’t justice with a blindfold on, right?” he said. “It creates a fundamental corruption in the way that the work of the American people is done.”
Legere’s own T-Mobile shares are valued at $16.5 million, a fortune that analysts say would probably grow if the merger is approved.
In the interview at the Trump hotel last week, Legere said that although the hotel was clearly a place to be seen, he did not believe the president knew about his staying there. Did he expect that his staying there might earn his company any special treatment?
“Certainly not. I don’t know why it would,” he said.
Sometime after that interview, Legere apparently checked out of the Trump hotel. By the next evening, Legere was tweeting about the great bar at “my current DC hotel” — the Four Seasons in Georgetown.
O’Connell and Fahrenthold write for the Washington Post.