As part of its ongoing investigation into how Donald Trump and his family have profited off the presidency, American Oversight requested that more than two dozen government departments and agencies provide copies of any ethics guidance issued to employees about spending taxpayer money at Trump-owned businesses. So far, no office has provided records that would indicate that they have issued any such guidance at all.
President Donald Trump has expansive business holdings, including hotels in New York, Florida, and Washington, D.C. Before he took office, federal ethics officials recommended that he divest from his businesses so that his pocketbook would not influence his decisions. Walter Shaub, then the director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), told the Brookings Institute that “nothing short of divestiture will resolve these conflicts.” Trump did not take this advice, ceding operational, but not financial, control of his business to his oldest sons.
Given the president’s refusal to divest, breaking decades of precedent, one could reasonably expect agencies to proactively issue guidance to help federal employees know how to deal with this ethical quagmire, including when — if ever — it’s appropriate to spend federal money that enriches the president. Without such direction, there is potential for government employees to spend federal funds at Trump-owned businesses so as to ingratiate themselves with the president, or for them to be coerced into financially benefiting the president.
American Oversight filed 25 Freedom of Information Act requests in July 2017 for records related to government spending at Trump-owned businesses. Fourteen agencies — including OGE — responded that they had no record of any ethics guidance, and three agencies provided records that did not actually contain any general guidance. One agency, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, provided us a heavily redacted document that appears to have specific guidance about two particular events held at Trump properties, but no general guidance about spending public dollars at properties affiliated with the president.
More than a year and a half since our FOIA requests, seven agencies still haven’t provided any information at all, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative did not even respond that it had received the FOIA request.
It’s not publicly known exactly how much taxpayer money, on either a federal or local level, has gone to Trump properties. ProPublica has identified $344,008.28 in federal funds spent at Trump-owned businesses. According to ProPublica, this total only covers a few months for a handful of agencies and is incomplete because “agencies are fighting disclosure.” Some of these expenses have been large. A May 31, 2017, expense by the Department of Homeland Security at Trump National Doral Miami cost taxpayers $56,330.48.
At the center of much of the controversy over Trump’s mix of business with public service is his hotel in Washington, D.C., which sits on a federally owned site. A recent General Services Administration inspector general report found that GSA had ignored the Constitution when it allowed the Trump International Hotel to maintain the lease after Trump’s election. During Trump’s inauguration, the hotel reportedly overcharged the inaugural committee for event space, with the Trump Organization reaping the rewards.
This is a largely unprecedented situation. Most recent presidents have divested or placed their holdings in a blind trust. According to the Congressional Research Service, Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush each divested from their assets. President Barack Obama did not use a blind trust; his investment portfolio was made up of low-yield investments, primarily U.S. Treasury notes and college savings accounts, investments that make conflicts of interest unlikely.
Government agencies’ apparent lack of guidance on spending federal money at Trump-owned businesses hinders the ability of the public to hold its government accountable to the highest ethical standard. More than two years into the Trump presidency, it appears that agencies have yet to develop appropriate standards to stem the flood of public funds going to the Trump family.
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