Administration-Wide Indifference Continues on How to Ethically Handle Spending Taxpayer Money at Trump Properties

Last February, American Oversight reported that at least 14 federal agencies had created no official guidance for when employees should — or shouldn’t — spend taxpayer money at President Donald Trump’s properties. In the more than a year since, we have received multiple responses to additional requests that paint the same picture of ethical indifference. One such response from the Secret Service itself claimed the agency had no records that could show total spending at Trump properties — even though public reporting has repeatedly indicated otherwise. 

These responses to American Oversight’s Freedom of Information Act requests are particularly concerning given the significant press coverage over the past year regarding payments to Trump-owned businesses, from thousands of dollars in Secret Service spending to the multiple visits Air Force crews made to the president’s Turnberry resort in Scotland.

The total amount of taxpayer money that has been spent at Trump Organization properties isn’t fully known — that’s what American Oversight and other watchdogs have been investigating for the past three-plus years. Recent reporting from the Washington Post found that the Secret Service was charged as much as $650 per night while accompanying the president on his frequent trips to his Mar-a-Lago golf resort, and $17,000 a month to rent a cottage at Trump’s New Jersey club. And in November, the group Property of the People obtained records showing that the agency had spent more than $250,000 at Trump businesses in just the first five months of the administration.

American Oversight had filed a FOIA request with the Secret Service back in August 2018 for records sufficient to show total agency spending at Trump-owned businesses. We finally received a response in January 2020 in which the agency claimed that no such records could be located. Of course, we knew there were at least some documents existed that were responsive to our request — Property of the People had published them just two months before.

That the Secret Service failed to conduct an adequate search is apparent not just from its failure to provide those documents, but also from the fact that the agency only looked for records of spending at the Trump National Golf Club in Potomac Falls, Va. (our request was for all Trump properties) and only looked for records up to Sept. 5, 2018 (more than 16 months before sending its response). American Oversight has appealed this FOIA response and is asking that the Secret Service go back, try again, and conduct a more thorough search for records that clearly must exist.

That’s not the only troubling response we’ve received from the Secret Service in the past half a year. The agency also has said it had no records responsive to a request we’d sent back in April 2017, asking for Secret Service contracts or memoranda of understanding with Trump-owned properties. Given how much taxpayer money was being spent at the president’s clubs, the fact that there existed no official agreements related to that spending is either suspicious or alarming (or both).

Similarly, the Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps also indicated it still had no ethics guidance for spending money at Trump properties — even after all the press coverage of members of the military staying at Turnberry. Similar “no records” responses came from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Small Business Administration, and various offices within the Department of Labor. We did receive one page from the General Services Administration showing a few expenses at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, but the names on the spreadsheet were redacted.

But it’s not just the U.S. Constitution’s presidential emoluments clause, which prohibits the president from receiving any profits or gain from the government other than a salary, that remains at issue. We’re also investigating the Trump administration’s potential violations of the foreign emoluments clause, which prohibits federal officials from profiting off foreign governments. The frequent stays by foreign dignitaries at Trump hotels are of particular concern, as are foreign governments’ leases at Trump World Tower in New York.

American Oversight sued the State and Justice Departments last year for information on those leases, and received a number of records of State Department approvals for leases to representatives of countries including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Greece, Kuwait and Qatar. But as for any legal analyses related to how such lease approvals impact the foreign emoluments clause, both the State Department and the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel said they could locate no such records.

So long as the apparent administration-wide indifference to how to ethically handle the president’s conflicts of interest persists, so will American Oversight’s investigation into Trump’s unprecedented profiting off public service.

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