In an effort to quell controversy about whether his eponymous business empire could create conflicts of interest for his administration President Donald Trump vowed that his family business would donate all profits earned from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury. Recent reports, however, indicate that the Trump Organization isn’t actually gathering information about visitors to its properties representing foreign governments.
Given that Trump has– at least on paper– severed ties with his business interests, this probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But the president’s promise right before taking office is providing cannon fodder for critics worried that the Trump presidency is about enriching the brand Trump spent his career building.
Last month, House Oversight and Government Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings (Md.) requested that Trump Organization officials provide a detailed plan for how the company planned to recognize and divest itself of profits tied to foreign governments. The move was intended to eliminate even the slightest question that the president could find himself in violation of the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause which expressly forbids executive branch officials to take payment or other benefits from foreign governments.
A document provided to the lawmakers seems only to have created more questions.
The main takeaway from the eight-page document, however, is that the Trump Organization says its former head’s promise to track and donate every cent of profit that could flow in from foreign governments is “impractical” and could cause privacy concerns for individual guests.
While the business empire claims that it will identify and pool money earned as direct payouts from foreign governments, it says there’s no way for hotel employees to know whether “transient guests” are traveling to its properties on behalf of foreign governments. The document provided by the company also puts much of the responsibility to report whether a foreign government guest is spending big bucks at a Trump resort on their nation’s dime on individual governments.
There’s also the problem that the Trump Organization isn’t making an effort to track spending by state owned corporations that may be spending money at its properties.
In a letter to the company, Cummings said that this is an issue that needs to be further explained to Congress no later than June 2.
“Under the policy outlined in this pamphlet, foreign governments could provide prohibited emoluments to President Trump, for example through organizations such as RT, the propaganda arm of the Russian government,” Cummings said.
“Those payments would not be tracked in any way and would be hidden from the American public,”the lawmaker added.
A huge part of the problem Trump’s company has is that it is in uncharted constitutional territory. Simply put, never before has a U.S. official subject to the foreign emoluments clause been so closely tied to such massive business interests– at least not in a way anywhere near as public as Trump is.
And in matters such as this (especially with a national media so hyper-sensitive about all things related to the president) being overly cautious is the only way for the Trump organization to avoid dragging itself and the president into yet another scandal.
And if the slightest indication of malfeasance arises, it will definitely be a scandal.
The Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit that sues government officials it finds in violation of ethics laws, is already digging into the matter.
A statement out from the watchdog Wednesday said:
The Trump Organization’s plan for dealing with payments from foreign governments is wholly inadequate. The best way to address President Trump’s constitutional violations is complete divestment from all his businesses. This effort to address the problem is not a serious one. This policy only addresses his hotels and resorts and not the many other benefits he’s taking from foreign governments, such as the rent paid by China in Trump Tower or the valuable trademarks the Chinese government has given him since he became president.
Even within the scope of this policy applying to hotels and resorts, the plan does not come close to addressing the full problem. It specifically says it is not accounting for individual guests. You don’t get to violate the Constitution and then say you’re only going to address some instances and not others because it’s inconvenient to do so.
Additionally, addressing only profits is not sufficient, as the Constitution bans a much broader set of payments from foreign governments—there is nothing in the text to suggest that the prohibited benefits are limited to profits, as even without profit, payments help his businesses, and he could be favorably disposed to these foreign nations that support his businesses even if there are no profits. Finally, profits can be very subjective, and the Trump Organization has given us no reason to trust that their calculation of profits–without any outside oversight–is comprehensive or even accurate.
The timing of this latest controversy-in-the-making is also pretty bad for the Trump administration. It comes just after first-daughter and key Trump administration insider Ivanka Trump drew comparisons to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for setting up a money-gathering foundation while holding a position too close to power.
If the Trump family and its lawyers don’t find a way to get ahead of these budding controversies to eliminate questions before a congressional probe materializes, they will become more fodder for Trump policy critics attempting to keep the administration so besieged by controversy that that its agenda remains stalled indefinitely.