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Trump fundraiser puts billionaire host Stephen Ross on defensive

Equinox customers threaten boycott
Equinox customers threaten boycott over Trump fundraiser 00:50

The billionaire New York investor and owner of the Miami Dolphins is facing a wave of bad publicity over a high-dollar Hamptons fundraiser he hosted for President Trump on Friday. Stephen Ross' private equity firm Related Companies is facing pressure from members of Equinox, the upscale athletic club, and the indoor cycling studio SoulCycle, both of which are owned by Related Companies.

Some celebrities and activists, Chrissy Teigen and Billy Eichner, have called for a boycott of Equinox and SoulCycle and said they're canceling their own memberships. Tiegen's tweet showed a screenshot of an Equinox message saying the clubs were experiencing "extremely high volumes of emails."

Representatives for the chains said, "Neither Equinox nor SoulCycle have anything to do with the event later this week and do not support it."  

CBS San Francisco reported a small group of protesters had gathered at the SoulCycle gym in San Francisco. "We want current members to cancel their memberships," said well known LGBTQ activist Michael Petrelis. "And if they can't cancel their memberships, then don't renew their memberships."

Kenny Stills, a Dolphins wide receiver, also criticized Ross' decision to hold the fundraiser. He tweeted a screen capture from the website for Ross' anti-racism initiative RISE which says the program "educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations."

"You can't have a non-profit with this mission statement then open your doors to Trump," he tweeted.

In a statement published by CBS Miami, Ross said he has known the president for 40 years. "While we agree on some issues, we strongly disagree on many others…I have been, and will continue to be, an outspoken champion of racial equality, inclusion, [and] diversity," Ross said. "I always have been an active participant in the democratic process," Ross said. "While some prefer to sit outside of the process and criticize, I prefer to engage directly and support the things I deeply care about."

President Trump also weighed in, acknowledging Friday that "the controversy makes Steve Ross hotter — he'll figure that out in about a week." He called Ross "a great friend" and "a very successful guy." And he told reporters at the White House that he and Ross used to be "competitors" in real estate. Mr. Trump added that he thinks Ross is "probably more inclined to be a liberal, if you want to know the truth. But he likes me. He respects me."

Republican Party chair, Ronna McDaniel, said that the controversy had only made Friday's fundraising haul for the president and the party more successful.

"Thanks to the unhinged mob on the left, @realDonaldTrump raised $12M today, $2M more than originally expected," she tweeted about the Hamptons fundraisers. Joe Farrell, a New York real estate developer hosted the other fundraiser. "The support for our President is unprecedented and growing!"

In addition to Ross' political support for the president, he also has a financial interest in Mr. Trump's business empire — including his iconic Manhattan tower. Shortly after the 2016 elections, Ross tried to take over Ladder Capital, one of Mr. Trump's biggest creditors, which also holds a mortgage on Trump Tower. Though the takeover failed, Ross' private equity firm Related Companies purchased an $80 million stake in Ladder, which is still owed more than $100 million by Trump, records show.

The campaign fundraiser at Ross' home in the Hamptons, with tickets costing up to $250,000, provides another stark example of the intersection between Trump's business and political interests, the sort of co-mingling of wealth and power that Mr. Trump crusaded against during the 2016 race when he derided politicians for taking money from special interests.

"It's another reminder of how the president's refusal to divest from the Trump Organization continues to present potential conflicts of interest," said Brendan Fischer, an attorney with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. "We don't know what they might want, or what they might be getting in return."

Unlike other presidents, Mr. Trump has refused to divest himself from his business holdings, and he is not legally required to do so. His campaign did not respond to repeated request for comment on Thursday.

Daniel I. Weiner, a former attorney for the Federal Election Commission, said concern about the influence big donors may wield over a president is not unique to Trump.

"It's not that this is some completely new universe that we're living in. It's that longstanding problems with our political system are now on steroids," said Weiner, who is now senior counsel at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. "It becomes very hard to know where a president's personal and political interests end and his service to the public interest begins."

Since 2012, Mr. Trump's companies have taken out loans from Ladder Capital and currently owe anywhere between $110 million and $150 million, according to a debt range included in the president's 2019 financial disclosure. That includes at least $50 million he owes on a 2012 mortgage on Trump Tower, the building where he lives, and represents one of his most successful real estate investments.

Before its takeover attempt was rejected, Related Companies purchased an $80 million share in Ladder Capital and Richard O'Toole, the company's vice president and general counsel, was installed on the board of directors, filings show.

Related sold off some of its stock earlier this year and O'Toole recently stepped down from the board, but the company continues to hold 5.1 million shares in Ladder, filings show. Related spokeswoman Joanna Rose said the firm "now owns less than 5% of the shares of Ladder" and added that "any allegation or speculation beyond a simple investment strategy is patently false."

Ladder did not respond to a request for comment.

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