During a pre-inauguration news conference on Thursday, Sean Spicer, President-elect Donald Trump’s soon-to-be press secretary, dismissed concerns his boss is using the power of the presidency to promote his Washington, D.C. hotel and thereby line his pockets.
“I think the idea that he’s going to his own hotel shouldn’t be a shocker,” Spicer continued. “It’s a beautiful place, it’s somewhere that he’s very proud of and I think it’s symbolic of the kind of government that he’s going to run.”
Spicer went on to encourage people to check out the place for themselves.
“It’s an absolutely stunning hotel. I encourage you to go there if you haven’t been by,” he said.
But even if the journalists Spicer was addressing wanted to visit the Trump International Hotel, they couldn’t. That’s because the hotel— which is owned by the federal government but under a 60-year lease to the Trump Organization — has banned media members from the premises this week. (After the presser, Spicer disputed those reports, even though the hotel’s marketing director confirmed to Politico on Wednesday that media isn’t being allowed in and journalists reported being barred from entry hours after Spicer’s news conference.)
Spicer also didn’t mention the fact that as soon as Trump is sworn in, he’ll be violating the lease agreement he struck with the government for the hotel, which stipulates that no elected federal official may hold the lease. But as both landlord and tenant, it’s unlikely President Trump will take action against himself.
Perhaps most significantly, Spicer also ignored that Trump’s plan to maintain ownership of the hotel will result in him violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution — a clause that prohibits the president from accepting gifts from foreign governments— shortly after he takes office. Since the election, Trump Organization officials have not only booked and hosted events for foreign governments at the hotel, but they’ve actively solicited business from diplomats.
During a news conference last week, Trump’s lawyer Sheri Dillon argued that since “paying for a hotel room is not a gift or a present,” President Trump won’t actually violate Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution, which bars federal office holders from accepting “any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”
But ethics lawyers — including Richard Painter, former chief ethics counsel to President George W. Bush — disagree.
In a column published by the Atlantic on Wednesday, Painter and three other ethics experts point out that “by ‘emolument,’ this provision means any benefit derived from dealing with a foreign government. It is well-settled that receipt of such emoluments is strictly prohibited for persons holding positions of trust with the U.S. government.”
“The Framers included this provision in the Constitution to guarantee that private entanglements with foreign states would not blur the loyalties of federal officials, above all the president,” they add. “Yet that lesson seems lost on Trump, whose continued significant ownership stake in the Trump Organization forges an unbreakable bond between Trump and a global empire that will benefit or suffer in innumerable ways from its dealings with foreign governments. Trump’s actions in office will thus be haunted by the specter (and perhaps reality) of divided interests.”
To consider one concrete post-election example, the government of Bahrain, which has a long record of human rights abuses, held its National Day celebration at Trump International last month. Might President Trump be reluctant to take aggressive action against Bahrain since their government is also his benefactor? That’s exactly the sort of conflict the Emoluments Clause is intended to prevent.
But Congressional Republicans have so far shown little inclination to hold Trump accountable. Unless they do, the Constitution is nothing but a sheet of paper.
Instead of selling his business or putting his assets in a blind trust — steps every other modern president has taken to quell potential conflicts of interest — Trump’s plan is simply to relinquish day-to-day control of the Trump Organization to two of his adult children, Eric and Donald Jr. But both of them are close with their father and were intimately involved with transition duties, which suggests the firewall between Trump’s business and duties as president will be anything but airtight.
Asked about Trump’s conflicts of interest during a CNN appearance last month, Spicer made a case that corruption is legal as long as it’s done in the open.
“Conflicts of interest arise when you’re not — when you’re sneaky about it, when you’re shady about it, when you’re not transparent about it,” Spicer said. “If you tell everyone, here’s what’s going on, here’s the process, here are the people that are playing a role — that’s being transparent.”
On the contrary, the Oxford dictionary defines a “conflict of interest” as “a situation in which a person is in a position to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity.” Trump using the office of the presidency to promote his hotel is exactly that sort of situation, regardless of whether or not he’s transparent about it.