Tax­pay­ers billed for an of­fi­cial’s brief stay at Mar-a-Lago

Santa Fe New Mexican - - NATION - By Drew Har­well and Amy Brit­tain

The bed­room suites at Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, avail­able only to mem­bers and their guests, fea­ture hand­painted Moor­ish ceil­ings, an­tique Span­ish-tiled mo­saics and sweep­ing views of the At­lantic Ocean.

On a week­end in early March, dur­ing one of seven trips by Trump and his White House en­tourage to the posh Palm Beach prop­erty since the in­au­gu­ra­tion, the gov­ern­ment paid the Trump-owned club to re­serve at least one bed­room for two nights.

The charge, ac­cord­ing to a newly dis­closed re­ceipt re­viewed by The Wash­ing­ton Post ,was $1,092.

The amount was based on a per-night price of $546, which, ac­cord­ing to the bill, was Mara-Lago’s “rack rate,” the ho­tel in­dus­try term for a stan­dard, non-dis­counted price.

The re­ceipt, which was ob­tained in re­cent days by the trans­parency ad­vo­cacy group Prop­erty of the People and ver­i­fied by The Post, of­fers one of the first con­crete signs that Trump’s use of Mar-a-Lago as the “Win­ter White House” has re­sulted in tax­payer funds flow­ing di­rectly into the cof­fers of his pri­vate busi­ness.

Given the num­ber of high­pro­file pres­i­den­tial events at Mar-a-Lago, ques­tions about who pays for meals and rooms have gen­er­ally gone unan­swered. When Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe vis­ited in Fe­bru­ary, the White House made a point of say­ing that Abe would stay at the club free of charge as a per­sonal guest of Trump.

The March in­voice was pro­vided to the ad­vo­cacy group by the Coast Guard in re­sponse to a broader Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quest seek­ing records on the agency’s ex­penses re­lated to Trump-af­fil­i­ated prop­er­ties. The Coast Guard FOIA of­fice searched the agency’s credit card pay­ment records, which led it to the in­voice, ac­cord­ing to an ex­pla­na­tion pro­vided by the agency.

It is not clear whether the in­voice stemmed from a one-time oc­cur­rence or rep­re­sented one of many Mar-a-Lago rooms that have been booked at gov­ern­ment ex­pense for pres­i­den­tial aides or other of­fi­cials since Trump took of­fice and be­gan trav­el­ing there on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

The doc­u­ment from March does not re­veal any­thing about the oc­cu­pant be­yond a note atop the page that reads: “Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.”

Some ethics ex­perts say the gov­ern­ment pay­ment to Mar-a-Lago raises con­cerns about the do­mes­tic emol­u­ments clause, which was in­tended to pre­vent the pres­i­dent from re­ceiv­ing pay­ments be­yond his salary from state or federal gov­ern­ments.

Fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sures fil­ings show that Mar-a-Lago is 99 per­cent owned by Trump’s re­vo­ca­ble trust, from which the pres­i­dent can with­draw money at any time. The club made $37 mil­lion in re­sort-re­lated rev­enue from Jan­uary 2016 to this April.

On the week­end that the gov­ern­ment paid for the room, March 3 and 4, Trump was joined by a large ret­inue of ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Com­merce Sec­re­tary Wil­bur Ross, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, then-chief strate­gist Stephen Ban­non and then-Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary John Kelly, who has since be­come Trump’s chief of staff.

The ques­tion of whether the pres­i­dent’s com­pany can profit di­rectly from the gov­ern­ment is raised in an emol­u­ments law­suit that was filed by an ethics watch­dog group in Jan­uary.

Much of the at­ten­tion to the case has fo­cused on the Con­sti­tu­tion’s ban on for­eign “emol­u­ments” and the busi­ness prac­tices of Trump’s Wash­ing­ton ho­tel. The Con­sti­tu­tion also states that the U.S. pres­i­dent “shall not re­ceive … any other emol­u­ment” from the United States other than his fixed salary.

Trump has said the suit is with­out merit, and his com­pany has pledged to do­nate prof­its from for­eign coun­tries to the U.S. Trea­sury. His at­tor­ney, Sheri Dil­lon, has said that trans­ac­tions such as ho­tel room pay­ments are “arm’slength” trans­ac­tions that would not amount to an “emol­u­ment.”

Oral ar­gu­ments are sched­uled for the suit next month in U.S. District Court for the South­ern District of New York.

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