The Department of Defense spent more than $138,000 at Trump branded properties in the first eight months of Donald Trump’s presidency, according to CNN, which reviewed hundreds of records obtained by a government watchdog group.
Property of the People, which presses for government transparency, obtained the documents via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, and according to the Daily Beast also discovered that Pentagon employees spent more than $17,000 in the first half of 2017 on lodging at a Panama hotel that until recently was managed by the Trump Organization.
The Department of Defense expenditures were made at Trump’s private club in Florida, Mar-a-Lago, as well as 12 other Trump properties. A CNN analysis of the documents revealed that military personnel may have spent more than a third of the $138,000 ($58,875.69) on lodging and food at Mar-a-Lago.
“With the [Department of Defense’s] spending at Mar-a-Lago and other Trump properties, and Trump’s refusal to divest from his sprawling business empire, once again we find the President’s hand deep in the taxpayer’s pocket,” Ryan Shapiro, Property of the People co-founder, said on the public interest news site The Sparrow Project. “Trump’s venality and his administration’s open contempt for transparency creates a functionally unprecedented potential for conflicts of interest and corruption.”
The expenditures have raised concerns among ethics experts who say the payments may violate the Constitution’s domestic emoluments clause, which prevents the president from receiving money from the federal government or state governments.
The clause “has always been strictly enforced because you don’t want the President playing favorites,” Norman Eisen, a former ethics adviser to President Barack Obama, told CNN. “We know that Cabinet officials try to ingratiate themselves with the President by telling Trump how much they love his properties. Who’s to say that’s not influencing Trump’s decisions?”
Trump still controls his real estate business, the Trump Organization, despite calls from ethics officials and government watchdog organizations for Trump to divest himself of assets that can lead to conflicts of interest.
One of those groups, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) in Washington, D.C. chronicled instances in which government and special interests interacted with the president’s private businesses during Trump’s first year in office, and found more than 500 instances of potential conflicts of interests.
At Trump’s former Panama property, which was known up until this month as the Trump International Hotel & Tower Panama, the Trump Organization licensed the president’s name to the hotel and had a contract to manage the property until 2031, according to Newsweek.
Jordan Libowitz, a spokesperson for CREW, told the Daily Beast on Wednesday that if Trump’s business had a profit-sharing agreement with the Panama hotel, and if his company benefited from hotel patronage, then the arrangement could be a potential domestic emolument violation. But this is unclear because of the lack of transparency surrounding the Trump Organization’s business dealings.
“We don’t know to a full extent how the Trump Organization’s internal business mechanisms work,” he continued. “We don’t know what money is going where and that’s a problem when the president still owns a significant share of the profit.”
Earlier this month, the majority owner of the Panama hotel, Orestes Fintiklis, evicted the Trump Organization’s hotel staff from the property, and then erased the Trump name from the Panama property, as ThinkProgress’ Casey Michel reported. The hotel is now called Bahía Grand.
On Tuesday, ThinkProgress reported on efforts by members of Congress to investigate alleged drug trafficking and money laundering at the Panama hotel. Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) contacted the Drug Enforcement Administration’s acting administrator earlier this week seeking information about what the DEA knows about these allegations.