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Ethics Officials Criticize Selection of Trump Resort for G-7 Summit

They cite potential emoluments clause and government contracting law violations.

The White House’s decision to host next year’s international economic summit at a resort owned by the Trump Organization risks violating the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution and federal contracting law, ethics experts said. 

During a press conference on Thursday, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney announced the Group of Seven (G-7) summit in June 2020 will be at Trump National Doral, a resort near Miami that has reportedly been struggling financially. Although Mulvaney said the president would not profit from the event since it would be held “at cost,” ethics experts immediately jumped to criticize the decision. 

“The president is now officially using the power of his office to help prop up his struggling golf business,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “There is now no question that the American government is being used as a public relations and marketing subsidiary of the Trump Organization.”

At the prospect of Doral being chosen for the summit, CREW wrote a letter to the State Department’s inspector general in September requesting an investigation into potential violations of the Emoluments Clause, which says the president cannot receive payments beyond his official salary during his time in office. The watchdog group was also interested in potential conflicts of interest from a procurement perspective. 

“[Trump’s] dual role as both owner of a competing company and head of the government responsible for hosting the event constitutes a conflict of interest,” the letter stated. “Both the Office of Government Ethics and the Department of Justice have emphasized the importance of presidents acting as though they were covered by the conflict of interest laws whenever practicable.” Bookbinder said this situation could have been avoided if the president had divested from his businesses upon taking office.

“If the Trump Organization becomes a government contractor, federal law could force the company to loosen its nondisclosure agreements,” wrote Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics, in a CREW article on Wednesday. He cited a provision of the 2019 federal appropriations law that says funds may not be given to entities that require contractors or employees to sign internal confidentiality agreements and pointed to media reports that said Trump required his employees to sign such agreements. Even though the fiscal year ended on Sept. 30, “this language remains in effect under the terms of a continuing resolution that funds the government through November 21,” Shaub said. “Identical language has appeared in past appropriations, so it’s likely to show up again.”

Laurence Tribe, constitutional-law professor at Harvard Law School, tweeted that this decision is a “blatant violation of both Emoluments Clauses” that Congress can’t “ignore in its impeachment proceeding despite the value of limiting the focus to the Ukraine shakedown.”

“The [House Judiciary] Committee will continue investigating, litigating and legislating regarding these matters—including pressing for answers to our prior requests about the G-7 selection process,” stated Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. “But we will not allow this latest abuse of power to distract from Congress’ efforts to get to the bottom of the president’s interference in the 2020 election.” 

In her tweet condemning the decision, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., did not mention whether or not this would impact the impeachment inquiry she is spearheading. 

The Washington Post reported in May that the Doral resort is struggling financially, even though Trump has listed it as his biggest revenue generator in federal disclosure reports. “Room rates, banquets, golf and overall revenue were all down since 2015,” it stated. “In two years, the resort’s net operating income—a key figure, representing the amount left over after expenses are paid —had fallen by 69 percent.” The Washington Post also reported that this is “the first known case in which a Trump Organization representative has publicly acknowledged the president’s name has hurt business.”

In August, CREW tallied 2,310 conflicts of interest stemming from President Trump’s unprecedented decision to retain a stake in his business properties since he took office in 2017. Trump has been sued in several cases alleging emoluments violations. 

Most recently, on Tuesday a federal appeals court in Virginia revived a lawsuit that Maryland and Washington, D.C., brought against Trump in which they argued the president is violating the Emoluments Clause from foreign officials staying at his hotel in D.C. After previously saying the plaintiffs had no legal standing to bring the lawsuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, said that it would review the decision during oral arguments in December.