WASHINGTON (RNS) — A new report from the New York Times citing Donald Trump’s tax information alleges the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association paid nearly $400,000 to the president’s Washington hotel in 2017, raising questions about the potential conflicts of interest in making money off his religious allies while in office.
The Times reported that the BGEA paid the Trump International Hotel at least $397,602 in 2017, noting that the group held an event there that year during its World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians.
The event, which was covered by The Intercept at the time and images of which were posted online by people in the room, was reportedly a reception attended by “800-plus” conferees. It was convened in the hotel’s “Presidential Ballroom,” a 13,000-square-foot facility, where guests were treated to a banquet of filet mignon, potatoes au gratin, and asparagus.
Payment for the event was reportedly given to Trump Old Post Office LLC, a holding company.
It is unclear whether the $397,602 payment was only for the dinner, although the summit — which mostly took place at a different hotel — cost around $4 million overall, according to the Intercept.
The BGEA — which is run by Graham’s son Franklin Graham, a vocal supporter of Trump — responded to requests for comment on the expenditure, but only to confirm that the event occurred.
“We hosted the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in May 2017 in the same room at The Mayflower Hotel where my father, Dr. Billy Graham, preached at the National Prayer Breakfast in February 1961,” read a statement from Franklin Graham sent to Religion News Service. “There wasn’t enough space for the summit’s closing banquet at the Mayflower, so we moved to another hotel in the area that was available and could accommodate our needs.”
The summit itself was a politically charged event. It was originally scheduled to take place in Moscow in 2016, and two Russians — Alexander Torshin, a Russian politician sanctioned by the U.S. government in 2018, and Maria Butina, a Russian national who was charged by the Department of Justice for lobbying without registering as a foreign agent that same year — reportedly proposed a meeting between Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin at the gathering.
Neither the meeting nor the planned 2016 event occurred. While Putin had told Graham during a 45-minute meeting in 2015 that he would assist with a proposed summit on persecuted Christians in Moscow the following year, the event was eventually rescheduled to take place in Washington in May 2017.
Vice President Mike Pence addressed the 2017 event at the Mayflower Hotel the day before the dinner at the Trump International Hotel, and met with a Russian Orthodox official and “other religious leaders,” according to Time magazine.
Pence’s press secretary told the Intercept at the time that she had “no information that we knew anything about a banquet at the Trump hotel.”