Their Father Was a Refugee in India. Now They’ve Teamed Up With the Trumps.
Posted July 22, 2018 8:27 p.m. EDT
Updated July 22, 2018 8:31 p.m. EDT
CLEVELAND, Miss. — Dinesh Chawla has long run his family’s hotel business from a high-top table at a Hampton Inn on the edge of this out-of-the-way Mississippi Delta town. It used to be the kind of work that usually involved friends and neighbors.
But in the year since Chawla and his brother signed a hotel deal with President Donald Trump’s family business, he has been courted by strangers. Goldman Sachs dispatched a wealth manager in hopes of signing him as a client. And on a recent afternoon, a businessman from Florida came to discuss hotel developments, including a potential location in the shadow of Universal Studios.
“I’m the same person, but people look at me in a different way,” said Chawla, whose corner office consists of a bar stool between the free coffee and the complimentary breakfast counter. “I never wanted the spotlight.”
Chawla is an immigrant from India and the son of a refugee. He treated his staff to celebratory pizza when President Barack Obama was first inaugurated. He and his family own the Hampton Inn and 16 other hotels in the Mississippi Delta, a Democratic and heavily African-American pocket of deeply Republican Mississippi. And, he said, he has become so disillusioned with politics over the last decade that he doesn’t plan to vote at all in the 2020 presidential election — not for Trump, or anyone else.
Yet it is the Trumps who have turned his padded stool into one of the hottest business hubs in the Mississippi Delta, catapulting Chawla to relative fame — he appeared last summer on an episode of the HBO series “Vice News Tonight” — and, with some luck, fortune.
His business profile “went nuclear,” he said, after the president’s elder sons, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., announced last June that the Trump Organization had become partners with Chawla and his younger brother, Suresh, on four hotels in the Mississippi Delta.
“There are 7 billion people on Earth, and next to maybe Jesus and Muhammad, this is probably the most talked about name there is,” he said of the Trumps, hastening to add that he meant no disrespect to Christians or Muslims.
The Chawlas are in an exclusive club of one: Since Trump was elected, his family business has not announced hotel deals with any other new partners. That realization had Suresh Chawla crowing — with the kind of hyperbole befitting the president — to the Republican governor of Mississippi.
“The future of the Trump hotels company depends on how they do with their four hotels in the Mississippi Delta,” he wrote in a previously unreported email exchange with the governor last year. “Unreal!!!”
The governor, Phil Bryant, cheered the Chawlas on and extended an invitation to Trump hotel executives to visit the governor’s mansion, emails obtained through a records request show. In 2016, the governor had introduced Suresh Chawla to Trump, then a presidential candidate, during a campaign stop in Mississippi.
The Chawlas, who arrived in the United States as children and are naturalized citizens, shrugged off questions about their politics, saying they play by the rules and focus on projects that will uplift their economically depressed region. Dinesh Chawla said that their company had had no contact with Trump since he became president — “I didn’t think he had a chance in hell of winning,” he said — and that their dealings with the president’s sons were largely limited to business and pleasantries.
“The ups and downs of President Trump are just theater,” said Dinesh Chawla, in his work attire of black slacks and a checked shirt unbuttoned at the collar. “I have my family’s finances at stake here. I cannot worry about Twitter postings and investigations.”
For the Trump Organization, the unconventional partnership with the Chawlas signals a sharp turn from its heady days of global expansion and five-star luxury; the nearest Trump hotel to Mississippi is in a skyscraper in Chicago, and room rates there can be multiples of what the Chawlas are likely to charge.
The company, which the president still owns, has said it will not pursue new foreign deals and will subject many domestic ones to outside ethics vetting, shrinking the pool of potential partners. The Chawlas signed a deal to open three budget-friendly properties under the Trump Organization’s new American Idea brand and one four-star hotel here in Cleveland as a Scion, the company’s other new brand.
At the construction site for the Scion, the only building on the property was erected before the Trumps got involved. Trump hotel executives, Dinesh Chawla said, have second-guessed just about everything about the project, even the chosen furniture, which has been relegated to storage trailers. And while Chawla is careful not to point fingers, the Chawlas are clearly no longer the sole masters of their Delta universe.
“There are days when you hang up the phone and say, ‘Oh, goodness gracious,'” he said of interactions with the Trumps, “but you don’t let it overwhelm you.” And the upside, Chawla said, is tapping into the Trumps’ resources and reach. “I’m meeting people who are designing things in Bali,” he marveled.
— A Fateful Phone Call On a breezy morning last month, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. opened a 20,000-square-foot clubhouse at their luxury golf course in the Bronx. They cut a ceremonial ribbon alongside Dustin Johnson, one of the world’s top golfers, and Jack Nicklaus, the legend whose company designed the course.
The clubhouse, with a construction budget of $10 million, sells Trump chardonnay and assorted Trump-embossed trinkets. A Trump helicopter delivered the golf luminaries to the event.
The Trumps have yet to pay a high-profile visit to their Mississippi Delta partners, and when they do, it is unlikely to involve many of the extravagances associated with their brand and other partners. They are teaming up with a billionaire media mogul on luxury resorts in Indonesia, and in the United Arab Emirates they are developing golf courses with another billionaire, nicknamed “the Donald of Dubai.”
The Chawlas got their start in Mississippi selling beer and fried chicken.
“They are amazing people,” Eric Trump said of the Chawlas at the ribbon-cutting in the Bronx. “They achieved the American dream.”
V.K. Chawla, their father, grew up in a refugee camp in Punjab, India, after much of his family was killed in religious violence. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in environmental sciences before moving to Canada. In the 1970s, he relocated his family to the Mississippi Delta, where he bought a convenience store and later opened a fried chicken restaurant.
An amateur gambler who had seen ups and downs, Chawla dreamed of owning a hotel, and in the 1980s he phoned a famous mogul to seek a loan. It was Donald Trump.
Trump, the family story has it, returned the call and, although declining to extend a loan, offered advice and encouragement. The Chawlas credit that exchange with propelling their family business into 17 hotels that welcome an average of 250,000 guests a year, Dinesh Chawla said.
After their father’s death in 2015, Suresh Chawla recounted the story in a letter to the editor published in several Mississippi newspapers. The letter caught the eye of the governor, Bryant, who had officially recognized V.K. Chawla for his contributions to state tourism and had attended groundbreakings of Chawla hotels. The next summer, the governor invited Suresh Chawla to a Trump campaign event.
The brothers decided that meeting Trump could be good for business, and Suresh Chawla donated $27,700 to support the campaign. (Dinesh Chawla, who supported both Bush presidencies, said he had not cast a ballot since 2008, when he voted for Obama. He added that he would not vote for any opponent of Trump, given how the president had helped his father.)
Just four months after Trump’s election victory, the Chawlas received an email from Trump hotel executives expressing interest in teaming up. By June 2017, the families reached a deal for four hotels; the Chawlas would own the properties and pay the Trumps fees.
The Chawlas then headed to New York for the announcement. Their introduction at Trump Tower was “surreal,” Dinesh Chawla said, describing the experience in star-struck detail from his stool at the Hampton Inn. He expressed awe at riding the escalator — the one, he noted, that Trump had taken so many times before.
Soaked in nervous sweat, he recalled, he asked for water. It was delivered in a martini glass. “The next thing I know,” he said, “I’m being called to the stage.”
— ‘Your Dad Would Be Very Proud’
Bryant, the Mississippi governor, was not in New York for the big announcement. But not for lack of trying by Suresh Chawla.
Weeks earlier, the governor had invited the Chawlas on a trade mission to India, prompting Suresh Chawla to extend an invitation of his own: The brothers had “blockbuster news!” he said in an email, and “would love for you to be front and center at the announcement.”
The email, obtained through a public records request, described a “hotel development that will not only get national attention, but worldwide attention, on the Mississippi Delta.” Without revealing the name, Chawla hinted at a partnership with Trump, describing “someone very famous who has tremendous respect for you.”
Two days before the Trump Tower announcement, Chawla followed up with the governor, sending another email that revealed the Trumps as partners and requesting to talk by phone.
Bryant later congratulated Chawla on what “will be a wonderful addition to the Delta and your company,” adding “Your dad would be very proud.”
There is nothing improper about the governor and the Chawlas exchanging emails about the agreement with the Trumps, but it points to the blending of business and politics in a place desperate for economic development, with partners unaccustomed to the public scrutiny that follows polarizing players like the Trumps.
In February, The New York Times reported that a state agency had awarded the Chawlas a sales tax rebate worth up to $6 million, potentially offsetting nearly a third of their costs on the Scion hotel. The agency that approved the rebate reports to the governor.
A spokesman for Bryant said the Chawlas followed the same procedure as other applicants for the tax rebate, which is part of a broader effort to draw tourists to Mississippi. Dinesh Chawla said that political influence had played no role in securing the rebate, and that “we were extra careful not to play the ‘Trump card.'” Chawla also said the family’s partnership with the Trumps “has not resulted in more connection” with Bryant.
Bryant, in a statement, said the Chawla family had “made our state stronger, particularly in the Mississippi Delta, where investment is badly needed.”
Suresh Chawla, who did not respond to requests for comment, had also sought to introduce the governor to the head of the Trump Organization’s hotel division, Eric Danziger. “The president hired him himself two years ago,” Chawla told Bryant in a June 2017 email.
The governor jumped at the request, saying “I would love to meet him,” and offering to “host y’all” at the governor’s mansion.
Danziger politely deferred the offer in an email to the governor. He later told The Times he had done so because he had concluded that it would not be appropriate for him, as a representative of the business, to “engage in the political arena.”
Still, in an email to Danziger, Bryant expressed enthusiasm about the Trump brands’ coming to Mississippi, and asked him to “say hello to Don Jr. for me and tell him we will duck hunt in the Delta this winter.”
He ended the email with a familiar Trump theme: “Thanks for making the Delta great again.”
— Weddings Near the Strip Mall
When Dinesh Chawla scans the site of the future Scion hotel, he envisions crowds arriving after football games at nearby Delta State University, musical acts performing at a concert venue and couples exchanging wedding vows near a tree-lined pond.
“People might like to get married,” he mused. “Who knows?”
It was about a dozen years ago that the Chawlas began dreaming of a hotel and entertainment complex on this plot of more than 17 acres at a stoplight near a strip mall, a Presbyterian church and a storage complex.
Dinesh Chawla’s refrain is that the project sits “at the intersection between entrepreneurship and creativity.”
But when the Trumps got involved last year, visible progress on the $20 million venture stalled. A sign outside the development had advertised that it would open in fall 2017; the sign is gone, and Chawla no longer makes predictions about the timing.
One thing is certain, he said: The furniture purchased for the project — but rejected by the Trumps — will not go to waste. It will be repurposed for use at the Chawla-owned hotels being converted to the Trumps’ more affordable new brand, American Idea. The first of those conversions is underway in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a predominantly African-American city known for its deep blues history. The Chawlas closed a Rodeway Inn there and expect to reopen it this year as the first American Idea.
The hotel is tucked behind a Mexican restaurant and up the street from a Kroger that recently shuttered. It is adjacent to a strip mall that includes an auto title lender and a dollar store.
While the location might not exude Trumpian largess, local leaders see this project and Chawla’s other ventures as engines for economic development. Chawla recently visited Silicon Valley for discussions about a technology center that could bring jobs to Clarksdale.
Judson Thigpen, executive director of the Cleveland-Bolivar County Chamber of Commerce, said the Scion in particular would fill a need for hotel space close to Delta State and the nearby Grammy Museum.
For the Chawlas, these endeavors are tied up in the memories of their father, who died before the Trump partnership was even a consideration. When Dinesh Chawla travels to New York, he carries his father’s briefcase.
Back at the Hampton Inn, Chawla is at home seated at the high table with a bottle of water, his staff within earshot.
“I love sitting right here,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m claustrophobic in some little box.”