In the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District, a few blocks from the Transamerica Pyramid Center that defines the city’s skyline, sits a 52-story tower, the kind you might find in any major city. Its name, 555 California Street, is as forgettable as its appearance, all brown and black and boring. Inside, a team of security guards watches over the elevator banks in the lobby, checking IDs.
To get past them and into the heart of the building, I signed up for a desk in a coworking space on the 49th floor. Once there, I rode down to a different floor, the 43rd, and walked off the elevator. Before me stood a pristine office with shiny concrete floors, subdued gray couches, empty chairs, and a sign that read, “Qatar Investment Authority Advisory (USA) Inc.” and, in smaller type, “A subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority.” Nothing inside the place looked as if it had been touched. There was a marble welcome desk but no one to welcome visitors. On top of the counter sat a plant that looked like it had been dead for months.
I rapped my knuckles on the glass doors. No one answered, even though it was the middle of the afternoon. The next day, in the morning, I returned. Again I knocked. And again no one answered.
Why would anyone, much less an entity that serves as an arm of the Qatari government, bother outfitting an empty office space in an expensive San Francisco skyscraper? Consider who owns the building. The lobby features signs for Vornado Realty Trust, the publicly traded firm, with innumerable shareholders, that has a 70% stake in the tower. The other 30% belongs to a single man: Donald J. Trump, the president of the United States. His interest here is worth an estimated $442 million after debt—making it the most valuable holding in his entire portfolio. It’s worth more than twice as much as Trump Tower, more than seven times as much as Trump’s property in Vegas, 16 times as much as his Doral golf resort in Miami.
The amount Qatar pays in rent remains a mystery. Odds are, it adds up to a sum most billionaires not named Trump would hardly notice. According to a Vornado document, the office is just 5,557 square feet. If the Qataris are paying the average rate in the building, that would amount to $450,000 a year, and Trump’s 30% would total $135,000.
The money does not flow directly. Instead, it appears to go from the U.S. subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority, a sovereign wealth fund, to HWA 555 Owners LLC. According to filings Trump sent to federal ethics officials, the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust owns 30% of HWA 555 Owners LLC. And that trust, according to documents the Trump Organization submitted to authorities in Washington, D.C., was set up “to hold assets for the exclusive benefit of Donald J. Trump.” Trump, in other words, personally holds 30% of the space the Qataris are leasing. Strip away the layers and it boils down to just the sort of arrangement the founding fathers feared. A foreign government, it seems, has been paying the president of the United States for more than a year. With so many other scandals brewing, this one has managed to go entirely undetected—until now.
In order to understand why Qatar might want to funnel cash to the president, it’s important to first understand U.S.–Qatari relations. A peninsula hanging off Saudi Arabia, smaller than the state of Connecticut, Qatar has played an outsize role in global politics for one reason: money. There are 77% more natural gas reserves sitting under Qatar than under the entire United States, helping to make Qatar, on a per capita basis, the second-richest nation on earth.