WASHINGTON — If White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney had steered a federal contract to a business he owns, he could easily be in jail right now awaiting arraignment.
“He would have been guilty of a felony, and it would have been a slam-dunk case for the prosecutor,” said Walter Shaub, a former director of the Office of Government Ethics.
Mulvaney, of course, did not steer a contract to his own business. Rather, he described in a Thursday news conference how his boss, President Donald Trump, had steered a multi-million dollar contract to host a major international conference to his own troubled golf course near the Miami airport — an action for which, because of Trump’s position, he might not face any legal consequence.
A federal law prohibits any executive branch “officer or employee” from seeking any “ruling or other determination, contract, claim, controversy, charge, accusation, arrest, or other particular matter” in which he holds a “financial interest.” If that action is done willfully, it is punishable by up to five years in prison.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham suggested it was absurd to believe that the law could apply to Trump.
“I’m confused, are you comparing a White House staffer with the president of the United States?” she said Friday. “The selection of Doral for next year’s G-7 is legal.”
She also claimed — falsely — that Trump was no longer involved with his family business that operates his hotels, commercial buildings and golf resorts. “The president has no involvement in the Trump Organization anymore,” she said.
If anyone else were to be doing this, they would likely be investigated and end up behind bars. It’s so brazen, so black and white. Former federal prosecutor Danya Perry
In fact, Trump’s own financial disclosure statements show that he retains ownership of Trump National Doral, as well as the Trump Organization that operates it, through a trust he created after winning the 2016 election for which he is the sole trustee.
Craig Holman, an ethics law expert with the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen, said Trump did not, as he and his aides claim, separate himself from the Trump Organization. “All he’s done is turn over the management of the business to his own family, his sons,” he said.
Indeed, Mulvaney revealed for the first time Thursday that it was Trump himself — not the city of Doral, Florida; not the golf course; not the Trump Organization — who first put his resort on the list of sites to be considered. “We were back in the dining room and I was going over it with a couple of our advance team. We had the list, and he goes, ‘What about Doral?’ And it was like, ‘That’s not the craziest idea. It makes perfect sense,’” Mulvaney said.
Former federal prosecutor Danya Perry is stunned that Trump is so open about giving himself a massive government contract. “If anyone else were to be doing this, they would likely be investigated and end up behind bars,” said Perry, who spent 11 years in the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York City. “It’s so brazen, so black and white.”
William Weld, who once ran the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division under President Ronald Reagan and is now running against Trump for the 2020 GOP nomination, said that if Trump coerced his employees to enrich himself, that could involve even more serious laws. “That is extortion. That is a 20-year felony,” he said.
Despite this, Trump is not likely to be charged for giving himself the contract.
“Obviously, the Justice Department is not going to be prosecuting Trump for all sorts of reasons,” said former Chicago federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti, although he said the word “officer” of the executive branch could well be construed by judges to include Trump himself. “Prosecutors would be very reluctant to wade into a politically charged question.”
Doral, although located in Miami-Dade County, is far from what most visitors imagine when they think of Miami. The beaches are miles away through terrible traffic, and the close-by runways of Miami International Airport mean large, noisy jets take off or land overhead from dawn until past midnight.
During the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting there in 2018, the resort itself appeared in need of basic maintenance. Guest rooms smelled of mildew and the basement restaurant had the odor of stale, spilled beer.
The G-7 meeting of the world’s largest democratic economies rotates among its members. Next year’s meeting will be hosted by the United States, and Mulvaney announced on Thursday that of all the possible places in the country that could have hosted it, Trump’s Doral golf course was the best choice.
Trump himself gave a long advertisement for the resort during an August news conference at the conclusion of this year’s G-7 in France. “With Doral, we have a series of magnificent buildings. We call them bungalows,” Trump said. “They each hold from 50 to 70 very luxurious rooms with magnificent views. We have incredible conference rooms, incredible restaurants.”
In his most recent financial disclosure form filed this May, Trump claimed receiving $81,417,193 in “income” from the Doral resort over the previous year. It’s unclear how accurate that is, given Trump’s tendency to file widely varying figures to different government authorities.
He told the U.S. Office of Government Ethics in his 2018 financial disclosure, for example, that his Scotland golf courses are worth more than $50 million each, even as he told United Kingdom authorities that they had a combined net debt of $65 million.
In any case, money spent at Trump hotels and golf courses flows directly to Trump personally, as he is the sole beneficiary of a trust that now owns his family business. Because Trump insists on playing golf at his own properties, American taxpayers have already been the source for at least many hundreds of thousands of dollars that have gone to the Trump Organization in the form of room, meal and other expenses for Secret Service agents and other government employees who have stayed on-site with Trump in Florida, New Jersey, Scotland and Ireland.
It’s unclear whether the resort would be renovated or at least spruced up in time for next June’s meeting, and whether taxpayers would be forced to pay for it. Also unclear is what happens if a tropical storm threatens hurricane-prone South Florida during the scheduled meeting.
Mulvaney claimed that the golf course would provide the services “at cost,” but would not provide any details on what that means.
Perry said that raises red flags. “If this was anything other than a no-bid contract steered by the president or the White House to the president, it is hard to imagine why Mulvaney refuses to disclose the details,” she said.
Public Citizen’s Holman said that given how poorly the golf course has been doing financially, and how empty it normally is in the summer months anyway, holding a major international conference there will be a tremendous boon to Trump personally.
“This is going to bring a huge profit right into Donald Trump’s pocket,” he said.