President Donald Trump’s downtown DC hotel has received about $270,000 from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, new lobbying disclosures first reported by The Daily Caller show.
The payments were for lodging, catering, and parking at the hotel. They came through public relations firm Quorvis MSLGroup, which is working on behalf of the Saudi Government to lobby against the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA. JASTA would allow victims of terrorist attacks to sue foreign governments, and has been staunchly criticized by the Saudi government as it could result in Saudi Arabia being held financially responsibly for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“This is a textbook example of a foreign government paying directly into the President’s pocketbook while pursuing its own policy goals,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, Ranking Member of the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement. “Saudi Arabia is spending vast amounts of money at President Trump’s hotel while at the same time pressing to limit the rights of U.S. citizens to sue the Saudi government.”
The hotel payments were made between November and February 2017, after Trump’s election, with some before and some after he was sworn in as president.
JASTA passed into law in September, with Congress overriding President Obama’s veto. MSLGroup, however, has been lobbying behind an amendment co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) that would soften the language on the bill. As part of the lobbying campaign, they have been recruiting U.S. veterans and sending them on luxury trips to Washington, DC — basing some out of the Trump International Hotel downtown.
The Saudi payments are a particularly stark example of the Trump Organization accepting payments from foreign governments who have interest in influencing the U.S. government. Such payments are a violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, according to ethics and Constitution experts, and watchdog groups.
The emoluments clause prohibits U.S. presidents from receiving “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever” from a foreign government or its dignitaries without the express consent of Congress. It was designed by the framers to silo the president off from foreign influence.
President Trump, however, is currently still the head of an international luxury hotel and property chain — a business practically tailored to act as a pipeline through which foreign governments can funnel money into the president’s pocket.
Trump has refused to divest from his businesses. He responded to criticism over the conflicts of interest by handing day-to-day management of the business to his adult sons. According to his own sons, however, that they still give him periodic updates, and they have recently been resuming more active roles as Trump surrogates.
The terms of Trump’s trust also allow him or his sons to draw from its profits at any point, for any reason. In short, the firewall between Trump and his businesses is hardly a wall at all.
In order to quell criticism of his violation of the emoluments clause, Trump’s lawyer Sheri Dillon announced in January that he would be giving all profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury.
In response to a question about the Saudi payments, a Trump organization spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal that it would donate the “profits of this transaction” to the treasury at the end of the year — along with, presumably, the other profits accrued from foreign governments, which has become the new hot spot for foreign embassy events and foreign dignitaries.
The spokeswoman did not, however, say how that donation would be publicly disclosed and, the Trump Organization has thus far stonewalled all attempts at clarification. It has yet to specify in much detail how they will determine what counts as a profit (the Trump International Hotel, which was financed by loans, may not be considered strictly ‘profitable’ for years), how and if they will publicly report them, and has explicitly said they will not take extra steps to identify foreign government payments.
In April, the House Oversight Committee sent a letter to Trump’s lawyers demanding documentation of their plan. In response, members of the committee received a glossy 8-page brochure from the Trump Organization that, alongside stock footage of luxury accommodations, says that the Trump Organization will make no special effort to identify which of its funding comes from foreign governments.
“To fully and completely identify all patronage at our Properties by customer type is impractical in the service industry and putting forth a policy that requires all guests to identify themselves would impede upon personal privacy and diminish the guest experience of our brand,” the brochure states. “It is not the intention nor design of this policy for our Properties to attempt to identify individual travelers who have not specifically identified themselves as being a representative of a foreign government entity on foreign government business.”
In other words, the Trump Organization’s answer is that fully complying with the promise would be detrimental to their business, so they’re not going to do it unless a patron specifically identifies themselves as a foreign government agent.
The Saudi payments are a key example of the pitfalls of this approach. The payments were made as part of a specific lobbying attempt by a foreign government against U.S. legislation. But the payments didn’t come directly from the Saudi government: Many of the lodgings were for U.S. citizens, who were under contract from a lobbying firm. Absent the public reporting, it’s not clear that the profits would have been included in the presumed donation to the U.S. treasury at the end of the year.
Trump org would not have done so absent media disclosure. So what about other undisclosed payments? https://t.co/0b1lGmgx4H
— Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) June 6, 2017
And, the Trump Organization has as-yet provided no answer into how they will document their donations, leaving the public with no way to verify that the payments to the treasury will actually be made. No payments have been disclosed so far. According to the Trump Organization, they will be made at the end of the year.