How government money follows Trump on presidential visits to his clubs

Scores of trips bring US president's private businesses at least $1.6m in revenue from federal and Republican funds, according to new analysis

Friday 21 June 2019 13:38 BST
Mr Trump spent two days at his Turnberry golf course in Scotland in the middle of an official trip to Europe
Mr Trump spent two days at his Turnberry golf course in Scotland in the middle of an official trip to Europe (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


When Donald Trump finished the first official rally of his re-election campaign this week, he got on Air Force One. But he didn't go home to Washington.

Instead, he flew 190 miles in the opposite direction – to visit his own Doral golf resort, outside Miami.

The resort's profits have fallen since Mr Trump took office. But it had a major event planned for the next day, a fundraiser for Trump's re-election campaign.

It would be his 126th visit to one of his properties since taking office. And this visit – like more than a dozen before it – would bring paying customers, allowing Mr Trump to play a double role.

The US president would be the headliner and the caterer.

Mr Trump has bigger designs for the Doral club: He has suggested holding next year's Group of Seven meeting – a gathering of world leaders – at Doral or another of his luxury resorts, current and former White House staffers said.

Since taking office, Mr Trump has faced criticism over his official visits to his properties from some of his aides, including inside the White House Counsel's Office. They worried about the appearance that he was using the power of the presidency to direct taxpayer money into his own pockets, according to current and former White House officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Mr Trump has rebuffed such warnings, overruling a recommendation that he not visit his Turnberry golf club in Scotland last summer, according to aides. And in recent months, he has scheduled even more detours from official trips to visit his businesses – golf courses in Ireland, Los Angeles and Doral.

In all, his scores of trips have brought his private businesses at least $1.6m in revenue, from federal officials and Republican campaigns who pay to go where Trump goes, according to a Washington Post analysis.

They gave Mr Trump valuable marketing opportunities – to showcase his opulent properties on an international stage.

Trump has suggested holding next year’s Group of Seven meeting at his Doral club in Florida
Trump has suggested holding next year’s Group of Seven meeting at his Doral club in Florida (GASTON DE CARDENAS/AFP/Getty Images)

The US president's preference for his own properties also has reshaped the Republican fundraising schedule, with benefits for the Trump Organisation.

About one-third of all the political fundraisers or donor meetings that Trump has attended – 23 out of 63 – have taken place at his own properties, according to the Washington Post analysis of federal campaign finance records and the president's public schedule.

Campaign finance records show several Republican groups paying to hold events where Mr Trump spoke. Republican fundraisers say they do that, in part, to increase the chances Mr Trump will attend.

It has also reshaped the spending habits of the federal government, turning the president into a vendor.

"The president knows that by visiting his properties, taxpayer dollars will flow directly into his own pockets. Then, surprisingly, the president visits his properties all the time," said Ryan Shapiro, the executive director of a watchdog group called Property of the People.

The group obtained extensive records on federal spending at Trump properties, via public-records requests and lawsuits.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment. Mr Trump still owns his businesses, although he says he has given day-to-day control to his sons, Donald Trump Jr and Eric.

Federal spending at Mr Trump's properties has drawn scrutiny from the attorneys general in Maryland and the District of Columbia. They have sued Mr Trump for allegedly violating the Constitution's prohibition against presidents receiving extra gifts or payments – known as emoluments – from the federal government outside the presidential salary.

They have also accused Trump of violating a constitutional ban on "emoluments" from foreign governments, by doing business with them at his DC hotel. The case is pending.

And this week, the US House of Representatives passed an amendment banning the State Department from spending money at Trump-branded properties.

"It's against the emoluments clause of the Constitution to be making money out of the job," said the amendment's sponsor, congressman Steve Cohen. "And he does it every chance he can."

President Donald Trump waves to protesters while playing golf at Turnberry golf club in the middle of his official trip to Europe
President Donald Trump waves to protesters while playing golf at Turnberry golf club in the middle of his official trip to Europe (AP)

The Trump Organisation did not respond to requests for comment. George Sorial, a former ethics adviser to the company, said Mr Trump's properties do not seek to make a profit from government customers but charge them the cost of their stays.

And in interviews, political customers say their attendees love patronising the Trump brand.

To estimate the revenue produced by Trump's visits to his properties, the Washington Post reviewed public records about federal spending and campaign spending at Mr Trump's properties. It then compared those records to Mr Trump's publicly available travel schedule.

The paper sought to identify any spending that seemed triggered by Mr Trump's visit – payments by federal officials who accompanied him, payments by campaign committees for events at which Mr Trump spoke.

The actual amount of money Mr Trump has received as a result of his visits and campaign events is probably much higher than the $1.6m the Washington Post identified.

That's because most of the records available about government spending date to the first half of 2017 – covering just the first few months of Mr Trump's presidency. And the records of campaign spending don't account for other revenue that Mr Trump may have made off campaign events, including overnight stays by donors attending the event.

These records show that Mr Trump began receiving payments from his own government in February 2017, when he made his first presidential visit to his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida.

The Defence Department paid $12,000 for rooms at the club, according to invoices, emails and other records obtained by Property of the People.

In April 2017, Mr Trump returned again to Mar-a-Lago, where he hosted Chinese president Xi Jinping. Over those four days, the government paid Trump's club at least $30,000 on meeting rooms and hotel lodgings for then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson and other VIPs in suites and beach-front cabanas, the documents show.

Mr Tillerson got the Adam Suite, touted for its "double sized Jacuzzi tub." Then-deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin was assigned to the "Banyan Bungalow," which includes a private meditation garden, according to a State Department document.

"Do you know what they charged for each room?" one State Department official asked Michael Dobbs, a State Department travel coordinator in an email obtained by Property of the People. Mr Dobbs could not be reached for comment.

"$546 - I believe which is 300 per cent of the lodging per diem," Mr Dobbs wrote back – meaning it was three times the standard allowance for federal travellers in that part of Florida. There are some exceptions, but 300 per vent is the maximum amount that the government will reimburse any traveller for lodging.

Donald Trump hosted Chinese president xi Jingping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida (AP / Carolyn Kaster )
Donald Trump hosted Chinese president xi Jingping at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida (AP / Carolyn Kaster ) (AP / Carolyn Kaster)

Also, as first reported by ProPublica, the government was sent a $1,000 bill rung up by Trump aides at one of the club's bars.

"They asked the bartender to leave so they could speak confidentially, and the Secret Service did not allow the bartender to enter the room again," the club's catering director wrote. "The group served themselves."

In total, the Washington Post identified $145,000 in government payments to three Trump businesses – Mar-a-Lago; a golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey; and the golf resort in Turnberry – that appeared connected to Mr Trump's visits.

The State Department and the White House did not answer questions about how much more federal money had been paid to Trump's clubs.

Within the White House, ethics officials sometimes sought to dissuade Mr Trump from making side trips to his courses or holding public presidential events there. But in some cases, Trump did it anyway, former White House aides said.

He stopped to visit his Waikiki hotel during a Hawaii layover in 2017, on his way to Asia. He stopped in Turnberry.

Earlier this month, Trump also inserted a three-day detour to his golf club in Ireland between official trips to the UK and France – taking Trump and his aides hundreds of miles out of the way.

"We're going to be staying at Doonbeg in Ireland because it's convenient and it's a great place," Mr Trump said then. "But it's convenient." While in Ireland, he also met with Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.

His ethics officials have also sought to dissuade his subordinates. Stefan Passantino, a former White House lawyer, tried to bar any Cabinet or White House official from appearing at a Trump property in their official capacity, according to former White House officials.

Mr Sorial, the Trump Organisation's former compliance counsel who served as the company's in-house ethics adviser until this year, rejected the idea that Mr Trump was turning a profit off business with his own government.

"It generates nothing. We charge domestic government entities our costs," Mr Sorial said. Last year, for instance, Mr Trump spent two days at his Turnberry golf course in the middle of an official trip to Europe.

Mr Sorial said the hotel charged the government only $175 per room, a huge discount from the normal rate of $500 or more.

"I assure you," he said. "It's not business we want."

Mr Sorial did not provide any statistics on the total revenue from government entities.

Federal Election Commission records paint a more detailed picture of political spending at Trump properties, showing about $1.2m paid by Republican-linked committees,

Republican officials say Trump has not told them to hold events at his properties.

But, after a while, he didn't have to.

They saw how much time he spent at his own properties – and decided to go where the president liked to be.

In addition, Republican fundraisers said, Trump hotels are used to the logistics of presidential events, are luxurious and can even be cheaper than competitors'.

The Trump Organisation's properties are "world-class venues in destination locations that our supporters want to visit and are excited to attend events at," said Brian Walsh, president of a pro-Trump committee – America First Action PAC – that has spent $427,000 on events at Trump properties.

"The staff is always respectful, professional and provides best-in-class service."

So far, Republican fundraisers say, donors aren't concerned that some of their money winds up spent at the president's private business.

They're thrilled.

"The Trump hotel in Washington is the best hotel in DC," said Roy Bailey, Republican donor and fundraiser for Trump's 2020 re-election. "It's got all the ample space and it's got the president's name on it, it's fantastic. It's a huge draw for people who want to support the president."

Doug Deason, another prominent Trump donor, explained one reason: Visiting Trump's hotel often means hobnobbing with officials in Trump's government, who treat the lobby as a friendly hangout. He said he recently saw White House counselor Kellyanne Conway there and Attorney General William Barr, who was having dinner and taking pictures with customers.

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"Donors, when they come to town now, they want to go to the hotel. They think it's the place to be," said Sean Spicer, an adviser to America First Action and former White House press secretary.

This week's fundraiser took place at Doral – a resort that Trump bought in 2012 that is now "severely underperforming" its competitors, according to testimony that Mr Trump's representative gave in a county tax dispute last year.

Mr Trump stayed overnight at the resort Tuesday, then attended Wednesday's fundraiser – which attracted about 100 donors and raised $6m, according to a person familiar with the event, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorised to speak publicly. The event was closed to the public.

Washington Post

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