WASHINGTON ― As President Donald Trump’s staff cooked up an elaborate scheme to let him award his own golf resort a multimillion-dollar contract despite his “emoluments” problem, in doing so they have admitted that he actually has a problem ― something they have refused to concede since he took office.
Trump announced late Saturday that, because of criticism from Democrats and the news media, he had decided not to hold the next Group of Seven summit at Trump National Doral near Miami’s airport. An alternative location has not yet been announced.
And though “emoluments” ― an 18th century word meaning “payments,” as used by the framers of the Constitution ― are no longer an issue for Trump for the next G-7 summit, the issue remains alive and well in lawsuits against him and as possible grounds for impeachment.
“It has never been OK,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is pursuing one of those lawsuits. “He’s clearly been violating that on a lot of occasions since the start of his presidency.”
Each time that government workers ― Secret Service agents or officials from the State Department or the Pentagon ― stay at a Trump property, government money flows to Trump personally in apparent violation of one of two emoluments clauses in the U.S. Constitution.
Since taking office, Trump has made 24 trips to his club in Palm Beach, Florida; 19 to Bedminster, New Jersey; and one each to Turnberry, Scotland; Doonbeg, Ireland; and Doral. Government employees who have stayed with him on-site at those locations have put hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and possibly millions, into Trump’s cash registers, so far.
White House officials did not respond to HuffPost queries about whether the previous payments to Trump by the government have violated the Constitution.
Trump himself, meanwhile, continued to disparage those restrictions on his ability to profit from his family business while he is president.
“You people with this phony emoluments clause,” he told reporters Monday at the start of a Cabinet meeting at the White House.
Neither emoluments clause, though, is phony. Both were written into the nation’s founding document in 1787.
One prohibits any federal officer from receiving payments from a foreign entity: “No person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”
The other prohibits the president from getting payment outside of his salary from either the federal government or any state government: “The President shall, at stated times, receive for his services, a compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that period any other emolument from the United States, or any of them.”
From the time Trump took office in January 2017, his position has been to deny that payments to his hotels could be considered “emoluments” and to claim instead that they should be seen as ordinary commercial transactions.
But the White House shifted gears in defending Trump’s insistence on holding the G-7 summit at his own property. They decided to acknowledge the emoluments clauses and came up with a plan they believed would let Trump give his own family business the contract to hold next year’s G-7 conference for the leaders of the world’s largest democratic economies.
The White House thought it could avoid the foreign payments problem by having U.S. taxpayers pick up the Doral lodging costs for the delegations from the six other countries. And it would avoid the domestic payment problem by creating a “host committee” ― similar to what is used to pay for the presidential inauguration ― to solicit private donations to pay for the U.S. delegation’s rooms.
In both cases, the money would continue to flow directly to Doral and, therefore, Trump’s own pocket.
Bookbinder said he cannot understand how having the U.S. government pick up the costs for the foreign delegations does not instead create a domestic emoluments issue for Trump. And soliciting donors to pay for the U.S. delegation brings a whole new set of “pay-to-play” problems, Bookbinder said.
“Lord knows that having a committee of wealthy donors creates its own massive conflict-of-interest risk,” Bookbinder said.
Trump on Monday made new statements that belie his January 2017 promise that he would separate himself from his family business, the Trump Organization, which operates the resorts and hotels that he continues to own through a trust he created after winning the 2016 election.
“I was going to do it at no cost or give it for free,” he said at the Cabinet meeting, echoing his Saturday night statement on Twitter that “I announced that I would be willing to do it at NO PROFIT or, if legally permissible, at ZERO COST to the USA.”
Trump later on in the Cabinet meeting, though, backtracked, claiming that he would have asked his family to reduce the prices to be charged the government “because I don’t run the business, because they run my business now.”
How much of a price break Trump actually would have given is unclear. During a 2017 visit to his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, the resort charged the maximum rate the government would pay ($546 a night) for rooms as well as nearly $20 per shot of liquor when White House staff ran up a $1,000, taxpayer-paid bar tab, according to a ProPublica report.