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Trump's refusal to divest from his companies is testing ethical limits

Trump International Hotel in Washington.

Trump International Hotel in Washington. Credit: AP/Mark Tenally

WASHINGTON — Before taking office, President Donald Trump vowed to keep his business interests and presidential duties separate, but nearly three years after making that pledge, he promotes his Trump-branded properties and collects millions of dollars from federal agencies, foreign governments and political groups doing business with his namesake hotels.

The president has come under fire in the past two weeks for promoting his Doral, Florida, resort to host next year’s G-7 summit, faced questions about Vice President Mike Pence’s taxpayer-funded stay at Trump’s resort in Ireland, and dismissed concerns raised about Attorney General William Barr signing a $30,000 contract to host a holiday gathering at Trump’s Washington hotel.

Good government groups and ethics lawyers say the president’s refusal to divest from his family-owned company at the start of his term is testing the limits of constitutional guardrails and ethical norms meant to keep presidents from being influenced by the prospect of financial gain while in office.

A series of federal lawsuits filed by state attorneys general and government watchdog groups that contend the president has violated the Constitution’s so-called "emoluments clause," which in part bar the president from receiving payments from foreign governments, have dragged on for nearly three years. Trump has routinely blocked requests by House Democrats to access his business records, including those that would detail how much money his hotels have generated from foreign governments that book stays at his property.

“There are certainly challenges before Congress, and any future Congress in requiring the president to do anything to avoid potential conflicts of interest,” said Brenden Fisher, a director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan good government group. “There are questions about the extent to which Congress can mandate that the president divest … and the reach of those Constitutional guardrails are not yet clearly defined.”

Trump has routinely dismissed questions about the potential conflicts of interest that may arise when government officials and foreign dignitaries alike pay to stay at his hotels, often saying that he is losing up to $5 billion from missed business opportunities while serving as president. But federal campaign finance data and public records indicate he continues to draw millions of dollars from federal agencies and Republican campaign organizations that book at his hotels.

On Friday, House Democrats launched investigations into Trump’s effort to hold next year’s G-7 at his Doral resort and Pence’s decision to stay at Trump’s golf resort in Doonbeg, Ireland, some 200 miles away from Dublin, where he met with Irish leaders.

The distance between the two sites required Pence to be shuttled back and forth via Air Force Two, prompting government watchdog groups to question whether hotels closer to Dublin were considered.

Pence’s chief of staff initially told reporters Monday that Pence decided to stay at Trump’s resort at the president’s “suggestion,” but a day later the vice president’s office walked back that statement, saying Pence wanted to stay in Doonbeg because of his family’s ancestral ties to the region.

Pence’s stay in Ireland and Barr’s decision to hold his annual holiday party at Trump’s D.C. hotel are the most recent examples of Trump administration officials opting to exclusively use the president’s family of hotels. An analysis conducted by the nonpartisan group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington found that since Trump took office, there have been at least 630 visits to Trump properties from at least 250 Trump administration officials.

Jessica Tillipman, an assistant dean at George Washington University Law School, who specializes in anti-corruption laws, said the constant use of Trump properties by federal agencies and Trump administration officials has exposed the weakness in ethics oversight of the executive branch, noting that on any other level of government, from local boards to state agencies, there are typically laws and ethics guidelines in place that would prevent such transactions from taking place.

"We now realize that we need to fill this hole with rules and laws that do address these things and don't just rely on assuming people will do what's right," Tillipman said.

Between June 2015, when Trump launched his campaign, and 2018, Trump’s campaign operation and federal agencies such as the Secret Service spent at least $16 million to use Trump-branded hotels and resorts, according to a 2018 analysis by the investigative journalism outlet ProPublica.

As the president continues to make the pitch to hold the G-7 summit in Doral, ethics attorneys say the his public statements touting the hotel’s “luxurious rooms” and “incredible restaurants” amount to a taxpayer-funded advertisement. Experts have also argued that holding the summit in Doral raises concerns about conflicts of interest that may arise from having the president in a position to profit off foreign governments who will stay at the resort.

“It creates the appearance that the President is using taxpayer resources to benefit his private financial interests, and in many cases implying that the U.S. government endorses his private business,” said Fisher. “When you look at this together, it gives the impression that there’s little distinction between U.S. interests and the President’s personal financial interests.”

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