The Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, has been serving as a White House extension since Donald Trump took office, playing host to countless foreign dignitaries, Republican lawmakers, and powerful actors hoping to hold court with Trump appointees or even the president himself.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the hotel’s connection to the president apparently helps it raise its prices: The hotel brought in nearly $18 million in revenue in the first four months of 2017 by charging room rates that were higher than their budgeted prices.
From January to April, the average daily room rate at the Trump International Hotel was $660.28, substantially more than the $495.91 listed for “comparable hotels.” The hotel had apparently projected its average daily rate would be $416.
It also seems like the higher rates are an effort to offset the amount of unbooked empty rooms in the palatial hotel. The documents showed that Trump International had a 44 percent occupancy rate compared with 69 percent for comparative hotels.
Who’s spending all that money at the hotel? Since visitation records are not made public, The Washington Post sent reporters to the hotel every day in May to try to identify people and organizations using the facilities.
What they found was a revolving door of powerful people holding galas in the hotel’s lavish ballrooms and meeting over expensive cocktails with White House staff at the bar.
They included Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), whom Politico recently called "Putin’s favorite congressman”; Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), who chairs the General Services Administration, the Trump hotel's landlord; and nine other Republican Congress members who all hosted events at the hotel, according to campaign spending disclosures obtained by the Post. Additionally, foreign visitors such as business groups promoting Turkish-American relations and the Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and his wife also rented out rooms.
Ethics experts — including the former top government ethics official who resigned last month — say this is exactly what they were worried about in a Trump presidency.
Experts want the president to divest from his hotel
Walter Shaub, formerly the director of the Office of Government Ethics, resigned in July after months of sharply criticizing the president’s refusal to divest from his businesses.
The Post story echoed the same concerns Shaub has been expressing since Trump took office, Shaub, who is now senior director for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, said in an interview. The continued business dealings at the hotel “[create] the appearance of using the presidency for private gain,” he said.
While at OGE, Shaub said, he frequently expressed his concern over Trump’s business dealings and conflicts of interest, but the president and his administration are behaving “without concern for the appearance of profiting off the presidency.”
Ultimately, he said, the public can’t know whether the president is making policy decisions based on what’s best for the country or what protects his financial interests.
Despite Trump’s largely symbolic actions — handing off management of the hotel to his adult sons and signing an agreement wherein the hotel has promised to donate any profits made from foreign governments to the US Treasury — all of the money going into that hotel winds up going to him. The Post story demonstrates that people are making choices about whether to go to that hotel based, in part, on the fact that it’s owned by the president.
“What I’m encouraging him to do is follow the ethical tradition and ethical norms” and divest from his businesses, just as every president did before him, Shaub said. But by refusing to do so, the president and the counsel to the president were signaling to the world that “if it’s not illegal, we’re going to go ahead and do it.”
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the bipartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, says the Post story isn’t surprising in the least, and that it probably just scratched the surface of what’s truly going on right down the street from the White House.
CREW recently filed a lawsuit alleging that Trump’s business holdings violate the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which says it is illegal for government officials to “accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
“We've never had any doubt that there would be a tremendous amount to report there if somebody was willing to put in the resources and find some ways in,” Bookbinder said. “It's not surprising to me at all that with somebody digging in a bit, they found a lot of this kind of thing.”
The hotel did tell the Post that it “does not market directly to foreign embassies,” but Bookbinder says that is not nearly enough. It’s not a matter of outright marketing — the emoluments clause prohibits receiving payment or gifts, not soliciting them.
“Jimmy Carter put his peanut farm into a blind trust that had the power to sell it,” he says. But beyond that, “it wasn’t as though you had foreign powers or lobbyists trying to hang out at the peanut farm to try and influence the president. It didn’t have that kind of mixing of business and the office.”