In early March, soon after Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s ill-timed holiday in Mexico amid the Lone Star State’s deep freeze, an obscure former Trump administration official named Sery Kim announced her run for a Texas congressional seat.
What most Texans didn’t know was that Kim, a onetime corporate lawyer who has built her campaign on a version of former President Donald Trump’s nativism, has her own record of questionable travel and leisure. While touting her Trumpworld ties on social media and working intermittently for the administration, she moonlighted as a travel writer, soliciting press trips from foreign tourism boards and, in at least one case, failing to publicly disclose her government connections when promoting a country she would visit just days later as part of Vice President Mike Pence’s retinue. She also posted photos of what appears to be a government passport, including one shot geotagged to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House, on her Instagram account, @AdventuresInSery, the social media extension of her lucrative travel blog, AdventuresInSery.com.
Kim did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
For the last six years, Kim’s freelance travel writing gigs have taken her on trips to exotic locales from Abu Dhabi to Antarctica. But since resigning from the Small Business Administration after Trump left office, she has embraced her Texas roots, painting herself as a Korean American woman from humble beginnings who says she wants to rein in big business and put Texans back to work. A child of immigrant parents who worked as janitors, she spouts right-wing talking points on conservative news networks, though her rhetoric on the trail has at times been more balanced. “Coming to America was hard, but my parents did it the right way. They cleaned toilets so they and future generations could have better,” she said at a recent Navarro County candidate forum. “The United States already has enough laws on the books dealing with immigration and other issues. Congress just needs to read them, and the authorities need to enforce them.”
Kim is one of 23 candidates — and three former Trump administration officials — running to fill the seat formerly held by Republican Rep. Ron Wright, who died in February of complications from Covid-19. Limited polling on the race shows the late representative’s widow, Susan Wright, in the lead, closely followed by Democratic nominee Jana Lynne Sanchez, who narrowly lost to Wright in 2018. The special election will be held on Saturday, with a possible runoff between the two top vote-getters no sooner than May 24.
Despite Kim’s initial lack of name recognition and financial support — nearly two months into the race, she claimed to have received at least $80,000 in donations, less than Sanchez had banked when she announced her candidacy — Kim secured the endorsements of California GOP Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel within a week of filing her candidacy. However, the Korean American representatives withdrew their support days later when Kim was accused of making derogatory statements about Chinese immigrants while speaking at a forum in Arlington, Texas.
“I don’t want them here at all,” she told the audience. “They steal our intellectual property, they give us coronavirus, they don’t hold themselves accountable.” She continued: “Quite frankly, I can say that because I’m Korean.”
The controversy made national news — perhaps a sign of Kim’s media savvy, which has managed to land her at the center of almost every national story about the race despite abysmal poll numbers. Borrowing heavily from Trump’s playbook, she uses appearances on Newsmax to advance right-wing conspiracy theories, suggesting links between White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci and the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China, or between President Joe Biden and the Chinese Communist Party. Recently, she seemed set on winning the former president’s endorsement, even offering strangers her cellphone number in case they could pass it on to Trump.
That plan didn’t work. On April 26, Trump endorsed Susan Wright.
I began following Kim’s career in February 2016, when we met on a press trip to an upscale boutique hotel in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, days after Trump won the South Carolina primary. Kim’s effusive praise of Trump’s campaign during a group breakfast one morning, along with details she shared from her former jobs — as counsel for Republican Texas Rep. Michael Burgess and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform under Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. — caused most of the other reporters to ignore her for the remainder of the trip.
Through @AdventuresInSery, an Instagram account visible only to her followers, mainly travel industry peers and political operatives, Kim promoted the press trips she attended and the resulting coverage alongside her Fox News appearances and regular shoutouts in Politico Playbook. As Kim evolved from a Trump cheerleader to an administration staffer, I glimpsed the world of a globetrotting travel journalist who championed an insular administration determined to close the country’s borders and put America first.
On November 8, 2016, the day Trump was elected president, Kim applied to join the transition team, according to a screenshot of an email she shared with me the next morning. A week later, on November 16, she texted me that she was planning to meet with a new publicist for the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., to request an overnight stay in the presidential suite. By January 2017, at least one of those requests had been fulfilled: Kim had joined the transition team as a so-called sherpa to guide the nominations of proposed U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad and Seema Verma, Trump’s pick to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, through their Senate confirmation hearings. In March, she left Washington to attend the opening of the Marriott Al Forsan hotel in Abu Dhabi. The following month, Politico announced that Kim would soon start a new full-time job in the administration, but not before she reviewed a Windstar cruise to the Dalmatian coast.
Like many aspiring travel writers, Kim sells coverage of brand- and tourism board-sponsored media junkets, known as “familiarization trips,” or FAMs, to publications that don’t cover freelance writers’ travel expenses, let alone provide writers a living wage, according to dozens of emails she sent to me between 2016 and 2018. In July 2016, for example, Kim reviewed first-class travel on the Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar airlines for Town & Country. Town & Country paid a flat rate of $150 for digital travel stories that year, the equivalent of round-trip taxi fare between Manhattan and Kennedy Airport, according to then-web editor Sam Dangremond. Dangremond could not be reached to comment specifically on Kim’s rate or whether the magazine paid her expenses.
As Kim evolved from a Trump cheerleader to an administration staffer, I glimpsed the world of a globetrotting travel writer who championed an insular administration.
I know all this because in 2016, I too was working to make a name for myself as a travel writer. I was willing to suffer the indignity of those cab fare-sized paychecks in exchange for getting my name out there on digital features and, I hoped, attracting the attention of print editors at other publications. And the $200 I was paid by Town & Country that year, for a story highlighting Maçakizi, a bohemian luxury retreat in Bodrum, Turkey, was no problem because the Turkish tourism board covered my airfare and the hotelier Sahir Erozan offered me complimentary accommodations and took a liking to me upon arrival. Rather than leaving me to inspect the amenities and dine alone, he invited me to join his table and dance into the night with his guests. I drank from $200 bottles of Krug Champagne and toasted my way around a table that included two British socialites, a German airline heiress, Turkey’s most celebrated architect, and a factory owner who asked how much he could pay me to investigate a local criminal syndicate shaking down his business. The following day, I felt like Slim Aarons, whose images defined the glamour of the midcentury jet set, as I unpacked my $4,000 loaner camera and photographed hotel tycoon Rocco Forte’s daughter and Prince Harry’s ex-girlfriend basking in the sun on the Aegean Sea. And the camera paid off. I made an extra $50 for shooting the story.
The pay at Town & Country wasn’t great, but it was an improvement over publications like T Magazine, which paid me only $100 — less than $1 an hour — to spend a week documenting famous Nordic chef Magnus Nilsson’s journey across the Faroe Islands. The islands’ tourism board paid for our trip at the behest of Nilsson’s publisher, giving the chef a chance to revisit the isolated sheep farmers he’d consulted on a recent cookbook. The story was published online and reappeared days later in the Sunday Styles section, which ran my photos on its front page. While the extended coverage didn’t impact my wages for the assignment, it did what those digital stories are meant to do for an ambitious writer: lead to print features that garner far better rates, on top of travel and other expenses.
But for some hobbyists, the reward isn’t the paycheck or the story. It’s the opportunity to demonstrate to publicists that they can guarantee positive coverage of a press trip in outlets with lax editorial standards, including websites that pay their contributors by the click or not at all. As the number of legacy print publications dwindles, these content farms fill a vacuum and allow publicists to show their clients tangible results. If the client is satisfied, the publicist is satisfied, and the writer receives more lavish invitations.
After Kim’s first Town & Country story was published, she sent it around to travel publicists while soliciting future FAM trips, according to an email she forwarded to me at the time.
In January 2017, Kim asked me to consider writing a story about her for the New York Times. “BTW. I am auditioning to be the Deputy White House Press Secretary. That NYT story would put me over the top,” she texted me. When I told her there was no interest from the Times’s travel editor and that I was instead pitching the story of a travel writer joining the Trump administration to other outlets, including Politico, she got upset. “I don’t want to be in Politico or Washingtonian,” she texted me. “I don’t want to be in any DC papers. These people already ask me. But if you can’t then that’s fine but I don’t want to do it.” After a few more texts, I didn’t hear from her for eight months.
However, I continued to follow her on Instagram, where her photos suggested to me that she was living a life that intertwined luxury travel writing and government service. Between March and August 2017, she posted photos of herself wearing a security badge while seated behind the vice president’s desk; a candid portrait of Seema Verma’s swearing-in ceremony; and a passport stamp in an official government passport. She also captured working journalists traveling with the vice president timed to his official trips to Estonia and Chile. And she posted several photos of Air Force Two, using tags that included #adventuresinsery, @visitestonia, and #MAGA, as well as photos of herself on press trips to Europe and the Middle East.
According to Kim’s private Instagram account, she accepted the Windstar FAM trip and, in May 2017, packed a new set of free Away luggage and took off for Rome, documenting highlights of her trip on social media. Five days in, she revealed that Greg Pence, Vice President Pence’s brother and a future member of Congress from Indiana, was also aboard the cruise with his wife Denise.
Between June and late September, when she was sworn in as a senior adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services, she appeared to accept tens of thousands of dollars in free travel, according to her Instagram feed, where she posted photos from a FAM trip to France on behalf of Louis XIII cognac and another to Bermuda for the America’s Cup.
Between June and late September 2017, she appeared to accept tens of thousands of dollars in free travel.
In July, Kim encouraged readers of U.S. News & World Report to check out “underrated” vacation spots including Tallinn, Estonia. While the Estonian tourism board said that it had given Kim suggestions for what to do in the country, she “has not been on a hosted trip by Visit Estonia,” according to Heili Klandorf-Järvsoo, the head of tourism marketing for the Estonian tourism board. But Kim may have had another reason for plugging the out-of-the-way northern European nation. Just two days after the article appeared, according to her Instagram posts, she arrived in Tallinn. Her Instagram feed showed a picture of a government passport stamped in Amsterdam and another photo depicting a restaurant in Estonia later that day, as well as photos of Air Force Two and of herself near Vice President Pence, whose visit to the region was designed to show U.S. support for the Balkan states.
On September 26, 2017, Kim was sworn in as a senior adviser at HHS, but the job was short-lived. She resigned 10 days later, following her boss, former HHS Secretary Tom Price, who left amid a scandal surrounding his improper use of taxpayer funds for private air travel. In November, Kim blasted out an email soliciting press trip invitations from foreign tourism boards. Kim’s travel writing gig was highly profitable. A 2017 financial disclosure form related to her work for HHS revealed that she made at least $222,000 from her travel blog in 2016 and 2017, almost as much as her listed annual government salary, had she stayed in the job.
“If she was a government employee at the time she did this, she’s using the authority of her public office to promote her own private business.”
“After several months of deliberations with ethics counsel, I have finally been given permission to continue my food-and-travel writing as a ‘hobby,’” Kim wrote in a November 2017 email, which was shared with The Intercept by a representative of a foreign tourism board who received it. “In pursuit of this, as you may already know, I have created a blog CONSPICUOUS (focused on general lifestyle) but now I have also been green-lighted to write for The Telegraph as well as U.S. News Travel. As for my other national outlets, they are TBD.”
The question of whether Kim’s expense-paid travel writing was in conflict with her government work was one that she herself was exploring at the time. A few months later, she texted me a different version of events, explaining that she couldn’t solicit new contacts in the travel industry. “I can only do certain trips with folks [with whom] I have pre-existing’ relationship … so long as it does not overlap with anything Trump Hotel related (or in direct competition of).” As it happened, Kim had been reviewing Washington, D.C.-area hotels for The Telegraph since July 2017, and the newspaper’s website continued to publish her reviews through July 2018. One of them was the Omni Shoreham, which ran in September 2017, where a photo she posted to Instagram showed her nightly media rate of $0.00. Every hotel she wrote about was arguably a competitor with Trump’s property.
In December 2017, Kim posted a photo on her @AdventuresInSery Instagram account showing plane tickets alongside a government passport before taking off on what she described as a “press trip” — travel industry lingo for a trip arranged specifically for journalists, often with considerable expenses paid by the “host” or sponsor — to Bodega Garzón, a boutique winery in Uruguay celebrated for its partnership with the famed Argentine chef Francis Mallmann. A month later, she included a government passport in a photo promoting another trip, this time aboard Singapore Airlines. Soon after, she published a rave review of the airline for her blog.
“If she was a government employee at the time she did this, she’s using the authority of her public office to promote her own private business,” said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW. That could constitute a violation of the Standards of Conduct, a set of administrative rules by which executive branch workers must abide, Canter said, adding: “It shows terrible judgment.”
On October 5, 2017, the day before resigning from her position at HHS, Kim texted me: “Do you want to work for President Trump? Have you ever written anything on social media or anywhere else against him? If not, send your resume to [email protected]” She texted me again that November after leaving the job, asking me to send my résumé to her personal email address “so people know we are longtime friends.”
I declined, but in the winter of 2018, she urged me to visit her in Washington. As it happened, I was focused on shopping a story about the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, which had become press-shy following Trump’s campaign-trail ribbon-cutting there. Kim said she could offer me friendly access to the hotel’s management, and I wondered if this might give me a new opportunity to tell the story I’d hoped to sell the previous year, about the ethical challenges of a working travel writer navigating foreign cultures while serving a nativist administration. We arranged to meet in Washington once she was back from Sydney and after I returned from a food conference in Moscow and Sochi. It would be the first time I’d seen her since we’d met in Mexico two years earlier. “Russia sounds cool,” Kim emailed, “but you know I can never go to Russia with my security clearance! =P”
This and other casual and cryptic texts from Kim gave me the impression that she was still working for the government, and I gamely accepted her invitation. Kim was a regular at the Trump Hotel and arranged exclusive interviews for me with its directors, despite having told me just days earlier that she had been advised to avoid promoting the property.
I met Kim just after noon on February 15, 2018, in the hotel’s Benjamin Bar & Lounge. She told me she had just checked out after what she described as a Valentine’s Day stay. She introduced me to the hotel’s managing director, Mickael Damelincourt, and its food and beverage director, Daniel Mahdavian, who uncorked bottles of Dom Pérignon, Veuve Clicquot, and Dom Ruinart rosé Champagnes to pair with the feast laid out before us: caviar salmon rolls, tuna and avocado bites, crab salad, chicken wings, and the bar’s signature candied bacon clothesline, Robert Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” reinterpreted as sweet and meaty man food. After consuming $1,500 worth of Champagne to wash down a few hundred dollars in bar snacks, no check arrived. Damelincourt and Mahdavian could not be reached for comment.
Kim and I met again that evening in the hotel’s Experience Salon, a private bar resembling a gilded fishbowl, stocked with the high-premium spirits you might expect to find in a Dubai duty-free shop and home to events that had included intimate tasting dinners, YouTube shows, and Naval reenlistment ceremonies. I had already turned on my tape recorder as Kim and I took our stations around the marble table at the center of the room, laid out with Baccarat glasses for a white-glove tasting of Louis XIII cognac led by Mahdavian. In the hotel’s lounge, an ounce of the most basic varietal sold for $250; the salon’s offerings included two bottles of Louis XIII Black Pearl cognac, its most precious expression, which sell for $30,000 apiece on the open market. But Kim was more enamored with the stemware.
She had acquired a personal collection of the glasses, she said, courtesy of Philippe Vasilescu, then-brand ambassador for Louis XIII in the northeastern United States. “Every time I see Philippe I ask for a glass, so I have a full set — a set of six,” Kim told Mahdavian. “The VP’s brother and sister-in-law are good friends of mine, and he’s running for Congress, so I met them, and they didn’t think I was cool until I introduced them to Philippe, and Philippe sent them these glasses, and they were like, ‘Sery, you’re our favorite person!’ And I was like, yes. Then I win!”
We were joined by Kim’s friend Len Khodorkovsky, then the deputy assistant secretary of state for digital strategy, and together we continued to sample the salon’s offerings — healthy pours of coveted whiskeys including Peerless, Macallan No. 3, and Laphroaig 32 — while Mahdavian left to secure us a table in the lounge.
Kim suggested we couldn’t leave the salon without listening to some music. And as Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” started to play — “Louis XIII and it’s all on me,” the song goes — Khodorkovsky took one last sip and sighed: “This is the life.”
Khodorkovsky, who has promoted Kim’s campaign on Twitter, did not respond to requests for comment.
As we exited, Kim led me through a gauntlet of young Trump staffers enjoying after-work drinks around the lobby bar as they congratulated one another on transfers, promotions, and security clearances. Kim introduced me to her colleagues as a fellow travel writer she was courting to join the administration. Her hobby was no secret here, and they assured me that a career in journalism was no hindrance to working in the Trump administration.
One of the young staffers at the hotel that night was Roma Daravi, a former E! news assistant who at the time was acting press secretary for an understaffed Small Business Administration. Daravi suggested that she’d find herself with a new title soon enough. (She was right; Daravi had seven Trump administration titles in four years, including special assistant to the president and deputy director of strategic communications.)
Kim suggested that I could see the world while also serving my country — not like in the Navy commercials of my youth, which proclaimed: “It’s not a job, it’s an adventure,” but as a grand tour of my own making built around the president’s travel schedule. Having previously suggested in text messages that I could be anything from a staffer at the State Department to a speechwriter under Kim at HHS, she now pondered aloud whether I might be a good fit as a press officer at the Small Business Administration. Daravi handed me her card and urged me not to overthink my qualifications.
Once we were seated, Kim explained that my work as a travel writer arguably had prepared me for at least some of what I might be doing in a low-level executive branch job. “The budget of the White House isn’t big enough to hire a full enough staff for a presidential advance,” Kim explained. “Usually there are 30 to 40 people, and currently there’s nine. So they take volunteers from the other administration posts, because they’re trusted people and they’re always Roma’s age, like 24, who go out and do advance trips. So you fly out two weeks ahead of the president’s visit, and you basically work logistics, so that when he lands and goes to the venue, he knows exactly where to go. You do press, and you make sure all the media people are staged a certain way, you work on the mics, and you work with Secret Service people to make sure the venue is secure. You are 100 percent a roadie. You get paid nada. But you are doing it for your love of country and because the world is an amazing place.”
As we snacked on jelly beans while waiting for our cheeseburgers to arrive, Khodorkovsky asked what had inspired my interest in government service. I told a story about covering corruption in my hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey, as a young reporter. As the evening wound down, the three of us paid the check for our burgers — but not for the thousands of dollars of alcohol we’d sampled in the VIP bar. It’s possible that Kim and Khodorkovsky settled the bill later, but if so, I never saw or heard of it. Khodorkovsky took his leave, while the hotel arranged a complimentary car and driver for Kim and me so that we could check out the Columbia Room, a quiet cocktail bar nearby.
I never applied for a job in the Trump administration, and Kim eventually quit asking for my résumé. We haven’t seen each other since 2019, but I continue to follow her travels.
The coronavirus pandemic dramatically changed the trajectory of her world tour. When international travel waned as the pandemic deepened last April, Kim was the only active traveler quoted in a New York Times story explaining how savvy bargain hunters could score deeply discounted holidays. She was identified as a lawyer from Coppel, Texas, with a second home in Washington, D.C. But the story’s author, Sarah Firshein, failed to mention what Kim did in Washington, where, in addition to her efforts on behalf of the Trump administration, she used her media connections to echo right-wing talking points about the pandemic, raising questions on Newsmax about the U.S.-funded virology lab in Wuhan. “I think the one thing that we should be most concerned about is what those Asians are doing with U.S. money to create diseases that no one understands,” Kim said on an episode of Sean Spicer’s show last April.
Firshein declined to comment.
In a May 2020 post on AdventuresInSery.com, Kim lamented the impact of Covid-19 on her overseas travel while seeming to acknowledge that she had accepted perks from the hospitality industry between 2018 and 2020: “I have taken high-quality trips every quarter: each trip more luxurious than the last …. where I was only limited by the hospitality of the airlines, hotels and resorts who sponsored me — as well as my own personal budget.”
That summer, Kim was appointed to the Small Business Administration as assistant administrator for the Office of Women’s Business Ownership, a job that often found her hosting seminars via Zoom. Then, on October 26, eight days before the 2020 presidential election, her Instagram feed perked up. Kim posted a photo of Philadelphia with the hashtag #vacationmode. It was hardly that. She was there to help secure Trump’s Pennsylvania victory.
Kim stayed in Philadelphia until November 7, according to her Instagram, posting from the Trump campaign’s legal war room, where she and others worked to invalidate Biden’s victory in the state. “Didn’t sleep for four straight days; didn’t eat for 40 hours; slept a total of 25 hours in 10 days,” she wrote on Instagram on November 6, “but still the best ‘vacation’ of my life #GirlBoss #SecureTheVictory #Philadelphia #PA #thanksforthememories.”
But unlike the Trump supporters who never left the war room, Kim made sure to take in the sights of the city. She posted a photo of herself consuming her first authentic Philly cheesesteak while one of Tucker Carlson’s shows played in the background; a close-up of a cannoli from Termini Brothers Bakery at Reading Terminal Market; and an embrace with Trump campaign operative Leslie O’Shaughnessy, a volunteer who made news for soliciting sensitive security information from Cumberland County officials prior to the election. Two weeks later, when Kim traveled to Barbados on vacation over Thanksgiving, the #SecureTheVictory hashtag that had graced her posts gave way to others: #VisitBarbados, #LuxuryLifestyle. Her photos from that trip also tagged the Barbados tourism board and the hotels where she stayed, which is a common practice for travel writers on hosted FAMs. On November 30, Kim posted to Instagram again, noting that “it was worth saving (and saving!) for this moment!” — suggesting that she may have paid for the trip herself.
That trip was not reported on Kim’s financial disclosure form when she left the administration, a potential violation of the Ethics in Government Act if it was indeed a sponsored trip, according to Canter of CREW.
“I am an Asian and an immigrant, and it is shocking the liberal media would identify me as anti-Asian and anti-immigrant,” Kim said in a statement on her campaign website. “The truth is that China is the biggest threat to our nation. The Chinese Communist Party steals our intellectual property, perpetuates genecide [sic], spies on Texans, and had a role in spreading coronavirus around the world.”
Kim’s anti-China rhetoric is hard to square with the travel writer who once urged me to join her on a junket to Hong Kong or with the Kim I saw on television in 2020 during Trump’s reelection bid. While working as a litigation associate at the Texas law firm Scheef & Stone LLP, she made multiple appearances on “The Heat,” a daytime news show on the Communist Party-controlled propaganda organ, China Global Television Network, where she touted her support for Trump as an example of his broad appeal beyond the white working class.