President Donald Trump’s business interests represent a conflict of interest that remains unresolved even as his time in office ends. Trump failed to divest from his businesses, instead ceding nominal operational control to family members before taking office — a move that the then-head of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, described as “meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective.”
This resulted in an environment rife with potential for abuse, from self-dealing by the president and visits by on-the-clock government employees to the appearance of violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clauses, in the form of de facto bribery by private-sector actors and foreign powers. American Oversight is still trying to provide the public with more insight into how deep those conflicts run and how the government’s existing ethics structures responded to this clear threat.
Responses to American Oversight’s Freedom of Information Act requests revealed that major federal agencies across the government lacked guidance for employees on how to navigate this conflict. This ethical indifference represents a failure of anti-corruption norms — one that in practice has allowed public coffers to line the president’s pockets.
American Oversight has also identified dozens of specific instances of taxpayer spending at Trump properties through responses to our FOIA requests and litigation, amounting to roughly $17,500. For example, we uncovered that billionaire U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. Woody Johnson paid £1,143 (about $1,500) for a single day of activities at Trump’s golf course in Scotland in July 2018; Justice Department officials spent more than $5,700 at Trump’s Doral and Soho properties in 2018; and Department of Homeland Security employees spent more than $5,500 at Trump properties, including a roughly $1,600 dinner between “Anonymous” Miles Taylor and foreign government representatives at a restaurant at the Trump International Hotel.
Our efforts further uncovered more than $2,500 in spending at Trump properties by officials at the Departments of Veterans Affairs as well as two expenditures involving Department of Labor officials totaling more than $600 — one of which was from the agency’s Office of the Inspector General. We also obtained documentation of former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s January 2018 stay at Trump’s DC hotel, which cost nearly $700 but according to the records was later reimbursed to the state by the Kentucky Republican Party.
These expenditures — which don’t include costs incurred from the president’s frequent trips to his own properties — are just a fraction of what the American public has shelled out at Trump businesses, the total amount of which journalists and watchdog groups are still tracking. Last October, David Fahrenthold at the Washington Post reported Trump’s properties had billed the government “at least $2.5 million.” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has tracked more than 500 visits by Trump to his properties while in office, 300 of them to his golf courses. CREW’s accounting further shows more than 2,200 visits to Trump properties by government officials — including foreign officials, members of Congress, state government officials, and members of the Trump administration. In 2019, Politico reported that Air Force crews on routine supply trips to the Middle East had stopped at Trump’s Scotland resort dozens of times since 2015.
American Oversight’s investigation of the president’s conflicts go back to his early days in office, when we filed FOIA requests about the Trump Organization’s lease of the federally owned Old Post Office Pavilion, which is now home to the Trump International Hotel. The hotel’s location has led to serious questions about the president’s interference in plans to relocate the FBI headquarters, which sit just blocks away. We also obtained State Department communications about an agency blog post promoting Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property, as well as documents that shed light on the State Department’s approval of Trump World Tower leases to representatives of foreign governments — including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Greece, Iraq and Qatar — from early 2017 through the summer of 2019. The latter records, obtained through FOIA litigation, provide additional examples of potential emoluments violations reported earlier by Reuters.
In addition to taxpayer funds, Trump’s businesses have raked in political money during his tenure: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, political spending at his properties since 2008 topped $20 million last October, with 99 percent of it coming after the beginning of the 2016 electoral cycle. His properties have also been the subject of intense scrutiny over potential pay-to-play politics. In 2019, Politico reported that House investigators were looking into allegations that groups, including at least one foreign government, were booking rooms but not staying in them to ingratiate themselves with Trump.
American Oversight will continue to seek answers for the public. We have open FOIA requests or are in litigation for records involving U.S. embassy communications about Trump properties, Trump’s failed push to host the 2020 Group of Seven summit at his Doral resort, and many other related issues
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