Trump Administration Spars with Transparency
FOIA experts, Property of the People obtained receipts, from the Coast Guard, that show the WH’s National Security Council (NSC) paid $1,092 for a two-night stay in March at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, FL.
Mar-a-Lago charged the NSC full price for a room instead of covering only the resort’s costs. Thus, the NSC’s remittance constitutes a direct, profitable payment from a US government agency to a business personally owned by Trump. Since Trump has not divested his business interests instead manages it in a trust that he can access at will, this receipt is strong evidence of a violation by Trump of the Domestic Emoluments Clause.
In the past, presidents having considerable business holdings have divested themselves of their fortunes or placed them into a blind trust prior to assuming office. Trump, however, has stubbornly declined to do either. Instead, Trump has placed his business interests into a revocable trust administered by his sons. This trust is set up to allow Trump to withdraw any amount of money at any time for any reason. As a result, Trump is in violation of the US Constitution’s anti-corruption Domestic Emoluments Clause. This provision prohibits the president from receiving profitable payments, benefits, or advantages) paid by federal or state governments, beyond the salary approved by Congress.
Additional documents show that a government charge card was used to pay a March hotel bill of $186 at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas (Trump is 50% owner), as well as three February charges totaling $62 at the Trump International Hotel restaurant in Washington.
Brianne Gorod, chief counsel at the Constitutional Accountability Center, said that under the Domestic Emoluments Clause, “it doesn’t matter whether the benefit results from a payment made in the United States or outside it. Likewise, any payment made to a business owned, in whole or in part, by the president raises serious questions under the clause because the president will ultimately enjoy a portion of any financial benefit these businesses receive.” According to Gorod, Congress may not waive the Domestic Emoluments Clause.
Further, a government charge card was used by the US Embassy to pay $632 for four nights in June at the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Panama. Trump collected more than $800,000 in fees from his Panamanian hotel management corporation.
In February, the WAPO reported that the State Department had spent $15,000 to rent 19 rooms at a Trump property in Vancouver in January. Trump collected $5 million in royalties from this hotel between January 2016 and April 2017.
A lawsuit against Trump for violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause has been filed by the Constitutional Accountability Center in June. Two hundred members of Congress have joined the case with Sen Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) as the lead plaintiff. The Foreign Emoluments Clause states that anyone holding office in the US cannot accept any benefit or gift from foreign governments without the consent of Congress.
Also in June, the AGs of Washington DC and Maryland filed a lawsuit against Trump over alleged emolument violations. Karl A. Racine, Washington AG, argues that the Trump International Hotel is taking away business from the taxpayer-owned convention center, as foreign embassies are opting to hold events and rent rooms at the Trump hotel instead. Brian E. Frosh, Maryland AG, likewise says Trump’s DC hotel is drawing business out of the state.
In January, the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a lawsuit accusing Trump of violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause by accepting money from foreign governments at his DC hotel.
In July, in a related but separate matter, CREW filed a lawsuit to obtain the Mar-a-Lago guest list maintained by the US Secret Service. The judge in the case ordered the release and on September 15, the administration released 22 names (members of the Japanese prime minister’s entourage). CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder said in a statement, “This was spitting in the eye of transparency. We will be fighting this in court.”
Ryan Shapiro, founder of Property of the People, said, “We’re targeting government charge card records at numerous federal agencies.” He noted that while the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security were responsive with handing over records, other agencies have not been as responsive including, “the Secret Service, the State Department, the Department of Commerce, Customs and Border Patrol, the General Services Administration, and the Department of Defense.”
Copy of Mar-a-Lago Receipt, Property of the People website