Tax­pay­ers were billed for two nights at Mar-a-Lago.

Govern­ment paid $1,092 for two nights at Trump’s re­sort, re­ceipt shows

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY DREW HARWELL AND AMY BRITTAIN

The bed­room suites at Pres­i­dent Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, avail­able only to mem­bers and their guests, fea­ture hand-painted 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, Fla., 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 Mar-aLago’s “rack rate,” the ho­tel in­dus­try term for a stan­dard, nondis­counted 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 high-pro­file pres­i­den­tial events at Mar-aLago, 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 he 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.

The ad­vo­cacy group has been fil­ing records re­quests with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion through a project it calls Op­er­a­tion 45.

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. Other agen­cies that prob­a­bly have had a reg­u­lar pres­ence at the club, such as the Se­cret Ser­vice, have de­clined to pro­vide The Post in­for­ma­tion about po­ten­tial pay­ments to Mara-Lago and have re­ferred re­quests to the Gen­eral Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion. The GSA told The Post in March that it had no records of such pay­ments.

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

White House of­fi­cials and a Coast Guard spokes­woman, as well as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion and Mar-aLago, did not re­spond to ques­tions, in­clud­ing whether Trump’s com­pany reg­u­larly charges the govern­ment for mem­bers of his trav­el­ing party to stay at the club.

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

In ad­di­tion, some ques­tioned why the fed­eral govern­ment should pay top dol­lar for lux­ury Palm Beach lodg­ing when les­s­ex­pen­sive op­tions are avail­able nearby.

“The choice to stay there and have the govern­ment pay the $546-a-night rate seems im­pru­dent,” said Kath­leen Clark, a Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity law pro­fes­sor who spe­cial­izes in ethics is­sues. “If it were not owned by the pres­i­dent, it would still seem prob­lem­atic. The fact that it’s owned by the pres­i­dent makes it dou­bly prob­lem­atic.”

Mar-a-Lago has long been one of the sig­na­ture pieces of Trump’s cor­po­rate empire. The estate, which he bought in 1985 and later con­verted to a pri­vate club, in­cludes two swim­ming pools, five red-clay ten­nis courts, the Trump Sa­lon and the Trump Spa, as well as ban­quet fa­cil­i­ties that host elab­o­rate char­ity balls and wed­dings.

The business has ex­pe­ri­enced changes since Trump won the pres­i­dency. Soon af­ter the elec­tion, the club dou­bled its ini­ti­a­tion fee to $200,000, re­turn­ing the amount to its pre-re­ces­sion level. Af­ter Trump’s sharp rhetoric on im­mi­gra­tion and race in re­cent months, a num­ber of reg­u­lar char­ity cus­tomers have opted to move their ban­quets else­where.

Trump’s fre­quent trips there have come at an ex­pense to tax­pay­ers. The Coast Guard’s in­creased costs to pro­tect the water­front prop­erty with round-the-pa­trols and gun­mounted boats have been widely pub­li­cized.

Fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure 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 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 K. Ban­non and then-Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary John F. Kelly, who has since be­come Trump’s chief of staff.

On that Saturday, Trump presided over a se­cu­rity brief­ing, dined with top of­fi­cials from his ad­min­is­tra­tion and min­gled with guests in the hall­way out­side a char­ity fundraiser for the Bas­com Palmer Eye In­sti­tute.

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 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.

“The fact that govern­ment of­fi­cials would spend tax dol­lars at the pres­i­dent’s prop­erty raises se­ri­ous con­sti­tu­tional ques­tions un­der the do­mes­tic emol­u­ments clause,” said Bri­anne Gorod, chief coun­sel with the Con­sti­tu­tional Ac­count­abil­ity Cen­ter, a non­profit Wash­ing­ton think tank.

Jed Shuger­man, a Ford­ham Univer­sity law pro­fes­sor, said the Found­ing Fa­thers clearly viewed at­tempts to curry fa­vor from the pres­i­dent as a se­ri­ous is­sue. But Shuger­man said a rea­son­able ar­gu­ment could be made that emol­u­ments would need a min­i­mum value to qual­ify as a clear ben­e­fit.

“You have to make a leap from what was on the page in the 18th cen­tury to what is meant in the 21st cen­tury,” he said. “His­tory an­swers some of these ques­tions more clearly than oth­ers. His­tory does not clearly an­swer this ques­tion.”

ALEX BRANDON/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mil­i­tary per­son­nel stand at Mar-a-Lago in April as China’s Xi Jin­ping ar­rives. Ques­tions about who pays for meals and rooms when of­fi­cials visit Pres­i­dent Trump’s Florida club have gone unan­swered.

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