During the presidential transition period one year ago, President-elect Donald Trump – through his attorney Sheri Dillon – promised that profits made by the Trump Organization at Trump hotels from foreign governments would be donated to the United States Treasury during his time in office. This was at a press conference where he announced that he would not sell his self-named for-profit international company and would not place his assets in a blind trust. This broke with the standards set by every president in the decades since the Ethics in Government Act passed in 1978 after Watergate. Throughout that period, leaders of our government from both parties did not take the risk of creating the perception that they were using the government for personal profit.
The public deserves to know whether President Trump is pocketing money earned in his hotels from foreign governments for many reasons. First, conflicts of interest of this magnitude create the appearance that he and his family are using his office to enrich themselves. In addition, the potential for sweetheart deals offered by foreign governments to Trump’s children could be used to influence official U.S. government policies.
On Jan. 11, 2017, CLC President Trevor Potter warned, “Having Trump’s adult children lead the operational control of his business, while he retains full ownership, is not an acceptable solution.” The reason is that it does not limit the potential for conflicts and has created a direct path by which U.S. and foreign interests, including foreign governments, can exert influence over him through his companies or holdings. Additionally, CLC Senior Director of Ethics Walter Shaub, then serving as Director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) implored Trump to do more to resolve his conflicts, saying that public service often comes at a cost, and that Trump needed to establish a true blind trust. CLC signed onto a bipartisan group of organizations and individuals that wrote a letter to Trump indicating concern about his lack of adherence to ethics and conflict of interest rules and norms.
News of high-profile foreign nationals visiting Trump properties came out steadily throughout the first few months of his presidency. This includes a report from the Washington Post in March 2017 that the Trump Organization pledged not to keep any profits that it made by renting hotel rooms and banquet halls to foreign governments.
Following up on this report, CLC checked on whether the promised donations to Treasury were happening by filing a FOIA Request with Treasury to obtain records pertaining to the President’s pledge to donate profits earned in hotels. Treasury responded in mid-April that the Trump Organization would be making its first donations to Treasury in 2018.
Evidence from Trump’s first year in office shows Trump’s Washington D.C. hotel has reportedly become a hot spot for foreign diplomats. The Saudi Arabian government and others have reportedly hosted events at the venue. Between October 1 and March 31, lobbyists working on behalf of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia ran up a $270,000 tab on rooms, catering and parking, according to foreign lobbying disclosures filed. Trump has been very warm toward the Saudis so far during his presidency. In fact, his trip in May was the first time a U.S. president had chosen Saudi Arabia as the first stop on a maiden trip. It is hard to say whether the six-figure tab played into that decision, but the public has a right to demand policy developed with primary importance placed on what is in the public interest. Additionally, rooms at the Trump Hotel in D.C. have been sold for five times the normal rate, according to a Washington Post report. In fact, the Trump D.C. Hotel turned a $2 million profit in four months, despite having an occupancy rate of only 42.3 percent, down from a 70 percent industry average.
Now, in 2018, the Trump White House has a chance to turn the page and show a new commitment to transparency, which was lacking in 2017. Unfortunately, Trump is showing signs of resisting transparency. He has continued to refuse a bipartisan request from the House oversight committee for records showing compliance with this pledge. This refusal has gone on for too long; the committee needs to demand these records.
The public has an interest in saying, “show me the money.” As Americans we deserve to have a President who is fully committed to public service, not one who exploits public office for private gain.