Washington Mystics owner Sheila Johnson pursuing Trump hotel lease

The owner of Salamander resort in Virginia is one of the country’s wealthiest black women

Washington Mystics owner Sheila Johnson pursuing Trump hotel lease
Courtesy: Jonathan O' Connell | News Source: washingtonpost.com

Virginia business executive Sheila Johnson, owner of luxury resorts and the Washington Mystics WNBA team, is among the bidders trying to acquire the lease to President Trump’s hotel in downtown Washington, according to two people familiar with the proposal.

In a brief phone conversation Johnson acknowledged being interested in the project but declined to discuss it.

“I don’t want to comment on any of that right now,” she said.

The two people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized by Johnson’s firm to discuss the bid. Interested bidders also signed nondisclosure agreements.

It is unclear how many companies are pursuing the lease, which Trump signed with the federal government before his election. Trump’s adult sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, announced in October they planned to sell the lease and set a Jan. 23 deadline for initial bids.

D.C. developer Brian Friedman submitted a bid but said Wednesday he is now out of the running. Another company, the Indian Hotels Company Limited, owner of the Taj hotel brand, confirmed to The Washington Post that it was interested in the project but said it has withdrawn, as well.

“We are no longer participating in this process,” said spokeswoman Rakhee Lalvani.

Industry experts say the lease could sell for between $300 million and $350 million. Although that’s less than the $500 million the Trumps said they were seeking for the 263-room hotel, such projects typically include multiple investors. It is unclear if Johnson has any outside backing for her bid.

JLL, the real estate company hired by the Trump Organization to market the lease, declined to comment.

Johnson, 71, co-founded the BET cable channel with her then-husband, Robert Johnson. She is president and managing partner of the Mystics, where she is part-owner, and she also owns stakes in the Capitals and the Wizards. Johnson has an estimated net worth of about $800 million, making her one of the country’s wealthiest black women.

ohnson’s career owning hotels began when she bought a 340-acre farm in Middleburg, Va., and developed it into the Salamander Resort & Spa, which opened in 2013. The property includes a 168-room hotel and a 22-stall horse stable. Her Salamander chain also owns a resort in Tampa and manages resorts for other owners in St. Augustine, Fla.; Charleston, S.C.; and Jamaica.

One of Johnson’s former employees at Salamander, Patricia Tang, is a top executive at the Trump D.C. hotel.

Johnson is a Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and Mike Bloomberg for president this year until he dropped out of the race Wednesday. She has made political contributions to business-friendly Democrats and Republicans.

In Virginia, she has supported Democrats as well as Barbara Comstock, the Republican who won two terms in the House before being defeated in 2018. Johnson earlier endorsed Republican Robert F. McDonnell when he was elected Virginia governor in 2009.

It’s unclear whether Johnson and the president have met. When Johnson was given an award by Ford’s Theatre in 2018, first lady Melania Trump served as honorary chair and congratulated her. Johnson reportedly attended a charity fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s estate in Palm Beach, Fla., in 2014.

Trump leased the federally owned Old Post Office Pavilion from the government in 2013 and spent an estimated $210 million redeveloping it from a partially vacant office building into a marble- and gold-trimmed hotel, using a $170 million loan from Deutsche Bank. The lease stipulates he may sell his interest, subject to approval by the General Services Administration.

Trump’s hotel has become a center of controversy because he maintained his ownership of the business when he became president. In three lawsuits moving through federal court, plaintiffs argue Trump has violated the Constitution by maintaining ownership of his business and leasing rooms to foreign governments, including Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The hotel is popular among Republican politicians and a frequent stopping point for members of Trump’s Cabinet and inner circle. Trump personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani used one of the tables in the hotel restaurant as his private office and a place to plan his outreach to Ukraine, actions that contributed to Trump’s impeachment by the House.

Trump-supporting clients, however, haven’t made up for the wide array of potential clients who don’t patronize the hotel, often for political reasons. At the hotel, which charges some of the highest rates in the city, guest rooms are running nearly half empty this year, according to information provided to prospective bidders.

“People are objecting to us making so much money on the hotel, and therefore we may be willing to sell,” Eric Trump said in a statement announcing the proposed sale.

This story has been corrected to clarify the first lady’s role at the Ford Theatre event.