As US President Trump delivered his inaugural address in 2017, a slight woman with feathered grey hair sat listening, bundled in a hooded white parka in a fenced-off VIP section. Her name was Rosemary T Vrablic. She was a managing director at Deutsche Bank and one of the reasons Mr Trump had just taken the oath of office.
It was a moment of celebration – and a moment of worry for Ms Vrablic’s employer. Mr Trump and Deutsche Bank were deeply entwined, their symbiotic bond born of necessity and ambition on both sides: a real estate mogul made toxic by polarising rhetoric and a pattern of defaults, and a bank with intractable financial problems and a history of misconduct.
The relationship had paid off. Mr Trump used loans from Deutsche Bank to finance skyscrapers and other high-end properties, and repeatedly cited his relationship with the bank to deflect political attacks on his business acumen. Deutsche Bank used Mr Trump’s projects to build its investment-banking business, reaped fees from the assets he put in its custody and leveraged his celebrity to lure clients.
Then Mr Trump won the 2016 election, and the German bank shifted into damage-control mode, bracing for an onslaught of public scrutiny, according to several people involved in the internal response. In the weeks before Ms Vrablic attended his swearing-in, the bank commissioned reports to figure out how it had gotten in so deep with Mr Trump. It issued an unusual edict to its Wall Street employees: Do not publicly utter the word ‘Trump’.
More than two years later, Mr Trump’s financial ties with Deutsche Bank are the subject of investigations by two congressional committees and the New York attorney general. Investigators hope to use Deutsche Bank as a window into Mr Trump’s personal and business finances.
Deutsche Bank officials have quietly argued to regulators, lawmakers and journalists that Mr Trump was not a priority for the bank or its senior leaders and that the lending was the work of a single, obscure division. But interviews with more than 20 current and former bank executives and board members, most of them with direct knowledge of the Trump relationship, contradict the bank’s narrative.
Over nearly two decades, Deutsche Bank’s leaders repeatedly saw red flags surrounding Mr Trump. There was a disastrous bond sale, a promised loan that relied on a banker’s forged signature, wild exaggerations of Mr Trump’s wealth, even a claim of an act of God.
But Deutsche Bank had a ravenous appetite for risk and limited concern about its clients’ reputations. Time after time, with the support of two different chief execs, the bank handed money – a total of well over $2bn – to a man whom nearly all other banks had deemed untouchable. Kerrie McHugh, a Deutsche Bank spokeswoman, said: “We remain committed to cooperating with authorised investigations.” The White House referred questions to the Trump Organization. A company spokeswoman, Amanda Miller, declined to comment.
In the late 1990s, Deutsche Bank, which is based in Germany, was trying to make a name for itself on Wall Street. Its investment-banking division went on a hiring binge. The bank recruited a handful of Goldman Sachs traders to lead a push into commercial real estate. One was Justin Kennedy, the son of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Another was Mike Offit, whose father was the writer Sidney Offit.
At Deutsche Bank, Mr Offit’s mandate was to lend money to big real estate developers, package the loans into securities and sell the resulting bonds to investors. He said in an interview that one way to stand out in a crowded market was to make loans that his rivals considered too risky.
In 1998, a broker contacted him to see if he would consider lending to a Wall Street pariah: Mr Trump, who was then a casino magnate whose bankruptcies had cost banks hundreds of millions of dollars. He was looking for a $125m loan to pay for gut renovations of 40 Wall Street, his Art Deco tower in Lower Manhattan. Mr Offit was impressed by the pitch, and the loan sailed through Deutsche Bank’s approval process. Mr Trump seemed giddy with gratitude, Mr Offit recalled. He took Mr Offit golfing. He flew him by helicopter to Atlantic City for boxing matches. He wrote a grateful note to Sidney Offit for having “a great son!”
Mr Trump soon came looking for $300m for the construction of a skyscraper across from the United Nations headquarters. The loan was approved. He wanted hundreds of millions more for his Trump Marina casino in Atlantic City. Mr Offit pledged to line up cash for that, too. Not long after, Edson Mitchell, a top bank executive, discovered that the signature of the credit officer who had approved the Trump Marina deal had been forged, Mr Offit said. (Mr Offit was never accused of forgery; the loan never went through). Mr Offit was fired months later.
When Mr Trump took a loan of $500m to build a 92-storey skyscraper in Chicago, the Trump International Hotel and Tower, he personally guaranteed $40m of it, meaning the bank could come after his personal assets if he defaulted. By 2008, the riverside skyscraper, one of the tallest in America, was mostly built. But with the economy sagging, Mr Trump struggled to sell hundreds of condominium units. The bulk of the loan was due that November. Then the financial crisis hit, and Mr Trump’s lawyers sensed an opportunity.
A provision in the loan let Mr Trump partially off the hook in the event of a force majeure, essentially an act of God, like a natural disaster. The former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan had called the financial crisis a tsunami. And what was a tsunami if not a natural disaster? One of Mr Trump’s lawyers, Steven Schlesinger, told him the provision could be used against Deutsche Bank. Days before the loan was due, Mr Trump sued Deutsche Bank, citing the force majeure language and seeking $3bn in damages. Deutsche Bank countersued and demanded payment of the $40m that Mr Trump had personally guaranteed. With the suits in court, senior investment-banking executives severed ties with Mr Trump.
Not long after Mr Trump got the Chicago loan – but before it went south – Deutsche Bank was expanding its private-banking division, which served the super-rich. Executives said they set out to hire Ms Vrablic, whom they viewed as the best private banker in New York. She would bypass a layer of management to report directly to Thomas Bowers, the head of the American wealth-management division, sources said.
Ms Vrablic’s superiors encouraged her to make loans that rival banks dismissed as too large or complex. They saw it as a way to elbow into the hypercompetitive New York market. One of Ms Vrablic’s clients was Jared Kushner, who married Ivanka Trump in 2009. Shortly after the Chicago lawsuit was settled, Mr Kushner was told that Mr Trump was looking for a loan and introduced him to Ms Vrablic, according to people familiar with the relationship. Mr Trump flew Ms Vrablic to Miami to show her a property he wanted to buy: the Doral Golf Resort and Spa. He needed more than $100m for the 72-hole property.
Deutsche Bank dispatched a team to Trump Tower to inspect Mr Trump’s personal and corporate financial records. The bankers determined he was overvaluing some of his real estate assets by as much as 70pc, according to two former execs. By then, though, Mr Trump had become a reality-TV star, and he was swimming in cash from The Apprentice. Aside from his history of defaults, Trump was an attractive borrower.
Mr Trump also expressed interest in another loan from the private-banking division: $48m for the same Chicago property that had provoked the two-year court fight. Mr Trump told the bank he would use that loan to repay what he still owed the investment-banking division, the two former executives said.
Chain of command
Ms Vrablic and Mr Bowers tentatively agreed to both loans. Because these would be the private bank’s first transactions with Mr Trump, they needed approval up the chain of command. Investment-banking executives, including Anshu Jain, who would soon become Deutsche Bank’s co-chief executive, pushed back. Lending to Mr Trump again would be foolish, they argued, and signal to clients that they could default and even sue the bank.
Executives in the private bank countered that the proposed loans had Mr Trump’s personal guarantee and therefore were low risk. And the Chicago loan, they noted, would lead to the repayment of tens of millions of dollars that Mr Trump still owed the investment-banking division.
A top executive with responsibility for the private bank discussed the loans with Mr Ackermann, the chief executive, who supported them, according to two officials. A powerful committee in Frankfurt, which evaluated loans based on risks to the bank’s reputation, signed off. “There is no objection from the bank to proceed,” wrote Stuart Clarke, the chief operating officer for the Americas, in a December 5, 2011, email, according to a recipient.
Deutsche Bank wired the money to Mr Trump. The loans carried relatively low interest rates, executives said, but the business promised to be profitable: as part of the deal, Mr Trump would hold millions of dollars in a personal account, generating fees for the bank.
In early 2014, Mr Trump and his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, approached Ms Vrablic about more potential loans. The owner of the Buffalo Bills had died, and the NFL franchise was up for sale. Mr Trump was interested, and he needed to show the league he had the financial wherewithal to pull off a transaction that could top $1bn.
Mr Trump asked Ms Vrablic if the bank would be willing to make a loan and handed over bare-bones financial statements that estimated his net worth at $8.7bn. Mr Cohen testified to Congress last month that the documents exaggerated Mr Trump’s wealth. Mr Trump’s bid did not win, but another lending opportunity soon arose.
A federal agency had selected Mr Trump to transform the Old Post Office Building in Washington into a luxury hotel. Ms Vrablic was willing to help. A $170m loan to pay for the overhaul of the Old Post Office went through in 2015, and Mr Trump added more money to his brokerage account.
On August 6, 2015, Mr Trump participated in the first Republican presidential debate. Shortly after, he had used a black Sharpie to sign documents for another loan from Deutsche Bank: $19m for the Doral resort. That brought to more than $300m the total lent under Ms Vrablic. On the campaign trail, rivals assailed Mr Trump’s financial history. In response, he pointed to Deutsche Bank-funded successes like the Old Post Office project.
In early 2016, Mr Trump asked Ms Vrablic for one final loan, for his golf course in Turnberry, Scotland. Ms Vrablic said yes, but a fight soon erupted. Jacques Brand, who was in charge of Deutsche Bank’s American businesses, angrily objected. Ms Vrablic appealed the decision. Senior executives in Frankfurt, including Christian Sewing, who would become chief exec in 2018, were shocked that the private bank would consider lending Mr Trump money during the campaign, bank officials said. The bank’s reputational risk committee killed the transaction in March 2016.
After Mr Trump won the election, Deutsche Bank’s board of directors rushed to understand how the bank had become the biggest lender to the president-elect.
Two years after Mr Trump was sworn in, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. The chamber’s financial services and intelligence committees opened investigations into Deutsche Bank’s relationship with Mr Trump. Those inquiries, as well as the New York attorney general’s investigation, come at a perilous time for Deutsche Bank, which is negotiating to merge with another large German lender.
Next month, Deutsche Bank is likely to start handing over extensive internal documents and communications about Mr Trump to the congressional committees, according to people briefed on the process, while Ms Vrablic is expected to be called to testify publicly on Capitol Hill.
New York Times