Trump Signals a Brewing Battle Over School Reopenings

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President Trump during an event about school reopenings at the White House yesterday.

The Trump administration this week published details on all the businesses that have received $150,000 or more from the business loan program set up under coronavirus relief legislation passed in March.

Our investigative reporter Kenneth P. Vogel has been digging through the newly public data, trying to make sense of how this money has been spent — and who has benefited. What he’s found: a lot of small businesses, a good number of bigger ones, and a few conspicuously well-connected Washington insiders. Ken agreed to answer a few questions about it.

The Paycheck Protection Program was purportedly built as a benefit to small businesses. Has it lived up to that?

We have certainly heard frustration from small businesses that have had trouble accessing the loans, or have raised concerns that the program’s rules make it difficult to use the money in a manner that will help the businesses survive long term. And we’ve heard from banks that have had trouble processing applications.

Then, on the flip side, we have seen examples of big, troubled or politically connected companies that have been able to access the loans seemingly with much more ease.

Most of these examples were anecdotal, however, and we haven’t had much data to allow us to comprehensively assess the degree to which the program is living up to its mission of helping small businesses.

The Small Business Administration says 4.9 million loans have been issued through the program, with an average size of $107,000.

The Trump administration wasn’t exactly volunteering to release information on where these loan funds were going. Take us through the ways that the administration — along with allies in Congress — has sought to suppress transparency here. And how did the public overcome this, ultimately gaining access to the list of loan recipients?

The administration has been all over the place on this. It initially signaled it would release individual loan data, then seemed to reverse itself, calling the data proprietary and confidential. But under pressure from congressional Democrats, and in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by The Times and other news outlets, the administration released details of all loans issued that were larger than $150,000. That’s a small fraction of the total loans issued, 86.5 percent of which were for less than that amount.

A lot of lobbyists and political consulting firms received forgivable loans under the Paycheck Protection Program. To what degree does that simply reflect the fact that lobbyists know the details of laws that are passed (it’s their job, after all) and were therefore better about applying for these loans? And to what degree might it reflect lobbyists and their allies in government truly gaming the system?

There is no hard evidence of political favoritism in the loan processing, though certainly there have been a number of stories about well-connected businesses getting loans. That seems at least partly because of the ability of those businesses to get to the front of the line with their banks, rather than because they got preferential treatment from the Trump administration.

More than a few loan recipients had conspicuous ties to the president or members of Congress. Do any stand out in particular?

One example that shows the power of transparency and public perception is that of the Trump megadonor Monty Bennett, who hired two lobbyists with ties to the president, Jeff Miller and Roy Bailey, to help pursue loans for hotels and subsidiaries overseen by his firm, Ashford Inc. They received at least $70 million, making him among the biggest beneficiaries of the program, but when the loans were revealed in corporate filings, it prompted a backlash that led the companies to pledge to return the funds.

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