Emoluments
March 26, 2020

Democrats insisted on, and Republicans agreed to, language in a $2.2 trillion coronavirus financial rescue package that bars participation in a $500 billion loan program by any company controlled by the president, top White House officials, members of Congress, or their spouses, children, or children-in-law. But "even the fine print in a near-final 880-page version of the bill has fine print," The New York Times reports, and that provision, meant to block President Trump from profiting off the massive bill, is no exception.

"It turns out that the provision might not preclude funds from going to companies owned by the family of Mr. Trump's son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, while Mr. Trump's companies would not be barred from benefiting from other elements of the bill intended to help broad swaths of American business," the Times reports. Trump hotels, for example, will be eligible for the $350 billion in small-business loans or grants, thanks to lobbying by the hotel industry, and "the Trump Organization could also benefit from the $15 billion change to the tax code won by restaurants and retailers."

As for Kushner, the Times explains:

While the provision expressly bars such funds from going to companies controlled by "the spouse, child, son-in-law, or daughter-in-law" of the president and other officials, in order for the prohibition to kick in, the person in question would have to "directly or indirectly" own or control 20 percent or more of a company. Mr. Kushner rarely owns that much in his family firm's various real estate projects, according to a person familiar with the family's business arrangements. The ownership is usually divided between Mr. Kushner, his three siblings, his two parents and various outside investors. [The New York Times]

The various members of the Trump and Kushner families are presumably too wealthy to qualify for the $1,200 direct payments in the legislation, at least. Read more about the fine print at The New York Times. Peter Weber

September 10, 2019

On Monday, President Trump tried to beat back suggestions he is intentionally enriching himself by directing U.S. Air Force personnel to stay at his struggling resort in Scotland during their increasingly frequent stopovers at Glasgow Prestwick Airport. "I know nothing about an Air Force plane landing at an airport (which I do not own and have nothing to do with) near Turnberry Resort," he tweeted, adding: "NOTHING TO DO WITH ME." He made similar claims to reporters Monday afternoon.

While it may be true Trump plays no active role in steering Air Force crews to stay at Turnberry — the Air Force has a separate arrangement with the struggling Prestwick dating back to 2015 — it isn't technically true he has "nothing to do with" the airport, The New York Times reports. "Documents obtained from Scottish government agencies show that the Trump Organization, and Mr. Trump himself, played a direct role in setting up an arrangement between the Turnberry resort and officials at Glasgow Prestwick Airport." The Times adds:

[T]he Trump organization, starting in 2014, entered a partnership with the airport to try to increase private and commercial air traffic to the region. As part of that arrangement, the Trump Organization worked to get Trump Turnberry added to a list of hotels that the airport would routinely send aircrews to, even though the Turnberry resort is 20 miles from the airport, farther away than many other hotels, and has higher advertised prices. [The New York Times]

The Air Force said it is still tallying how many of the 544 overnights at Prestwick since 2017 involved stays at Trump's resort, but Politico counts at least four since last September, including a busload of Air Force passengers sent to Turnberry in June. The Air Force said the seven crew members who stayed at Turnberry in March paid a rate of $136 a room, cheaper than a Marriott and under the per diem limit of $166. But former White House ethics chief Walter Shaub calculated that the average hotel rate in nearby Glasgow is $89 a night, and rooms are plentiful.

The Air Force said a contractor in Scotland helps choose rooms for visiting aircrews. Prestwick said Monday that Trump's resort "accounts for a small percentage of the total hotel bookings we make." Peter Weber

September 9, 2019

Revelations that U.S. Air Force crews have stayed at President Trump's golf resort in Scotland multiple times since his inauguration prompted the Air Force to announce late Sunday that it has launched a worldwide review of how it selects overnight accommodations on long-haul flights. The House Oversight Committee is investigating one such overnight in March at Trump's Turnberry resort by the seven-person crew of a C-17 cargo plane, Politico reported Friday, and it turns out that was not a one-time aberration.

The U.S. Air Force said it has been using Prestwick Airport, Glasgow's struggling secondary airport, for refueling since 2015, but Politico notes that the frequency of those stopovers has tripled since then and overnights have increased more than fivefold, from 40 overnights in 2015 to 208 in 2018 and 220 this year through August. Prestwick is the closest airport to Turnberry, about 20 miles away. Lt. Gen. Jon Thomas, deputy head of Air Mobility Command, which oversees all Air Force travel worldwide, told Politico he couldn't report how many of the 659 total overnights may have been at Trump's resort.

Thomas said Air Force crews appear to be "following all guidance and directives," but "we also have to be sensitive to the possible perceptions that might be created on where they may stay." The main perception the House is investigating is that U.S. taxpayers are enriching Trump, possibly keeping the president's money-losing golf resort afloat, along with Prestwick Airport, which is "debt-ridden," fighting off closure, and "said to be integral to the Trump business," BBC News reports. Internal Pentagon documents show that Defense Department personnel have charged more than $300,000 at Trump properties between his inauguration and November 2018, CNN reports.

Air Force chief spokesman Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas highlighted a secondary problematic perception: "Even when USAF aircrews follow all directives and guidance, we must still be considerate of perceptions of not being good stewards of taxpayer funds that might be created through the appearance of aircrew staying at such locations," even if the "higher-end accommodations" are "within government rates." Peter Weber

August 27, 2019

President Trump spoke several times and at length on Monday about how he wants to host next year's Group of Seven summit at the financially underperforming Doral golf club he owns and he still profits from, and now the White House is spinning that rampant conflict of interests as a fait accompli.

"It’s ethics violation squared," Kathleen Clark at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis told The Associated Press. Nevertheless, AP notes, Trump "was in full sales mode Monday, doing everything but pass out brochures as he touted the features that would make the Doral golf resort the ideal place for the next G-7 Summit — close to the airport, plenty of hotel rooms," and even ample parking.

Parking? "Trump touted his club as if he were trying to attract a convention of visiting dermatologists," The Washington Post adds. Along with the legal and ethical red flags, Trump is trying to pitch "a golf club set among drab office parks near the Miami airport" as the perfect spot for a G-7 summit, usually held in scenic, isolated resort areas like Biarritz, France — or Camp David and a Georgia resort island, the locations of the past two U.S.-hosted summits.

George Washington University political scientist Todd Belt explained to AP how a Doral G-7 summit would almost certainly violate the Constitution's emoluments clause, or prohibition against presidents profiting from their decisions, and he predicted that White House lawyers or other staffers would talk Trump out of it.

Some aides, "concerned that Trump would appear to be using the power of the presidency to direct taxpayer money into his own pockets," have "pushed Trump to consider other sites for the 2020 summit that are more remote and easier to secure," the Post reports. "He was not convinced, aides said." Peter Weber

February 27, 2018

On Monday, the Trump Organization said it had donated its 2017 profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury, but declined to say how much it had donated, how it had calculated that amount, or which foreign governments had paid the Trump Organization. "Although not a legal requirement, this voluntary donation fulfills our pledge to donate profits from foreign government patronage at our hotels and similar business during President Trump's term in office," George Sorial, the company's chief compliance officer, said in a statement. The amount, donated last Thursday, was "calculated in accordance with our policy and the Uniform System of Accounts for the Lodging Industry," he added.

That isn't very helpful, The Wall Street Journal explains. "The Uniform System of Accounts for the Lodging Industry is a set of standards for lodging businesses' financial statements, which outlines a system for tracking customers but not their professions, and "it isn't clear whether that system provides any means for companies to identify customers who work for foreign governments." The governments of Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Kuwait have all paid for lodging or events at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., either directly or indirectly.

And it isn't clear whether paying the profits from "foreign government patronage" is "a legal requirement" or not, since no president has declined to relinquish ownership in his businesses like Trump has. Some legal scholars say Trump's continued ownership of the company violates the Constitution's "foreign emoluments clause," which prohibits federal officials from accepting gifts or "emoluments" from foreign countries.

"No matter the size of the check they write, it doesn't change the fact that foreign interests are spending money to line the president's pocket," said Adam Smith at the transparency advocacy organization Every Voice. "Their lack of transparency on this process doesn't give me a lot of confidence that the check truly reflects the full profit Trump is making from foreign interests." Peter Weber

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