Trump eyes club mem­bers for posts

Nom­i­na­tions, pres­i­dent’s pri­vate in­ter­ests over­lap

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Brad Heath Con­tribut­ing: Steve Reilly, John Kelly and Fre­dreka Schouten

WASH­ING­TON – When Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump needed an am­bas­sador to rep­re­sent the United States in Ro­ma­nia, he en­listed a real es­tate lawyer who was a mem­ber of one of his pri­vate golf clubs.

For South Africa and the Do­mini­can Repub­lic, he tapped long­time mem­bers of his pri­vate Mar-a-Lago re­sort in Palm Beach, Florida. To rep­re­sent the U.S. gov­ern­ment in Hun­gary, he chose a man from an­other Florida club op­er­ated by the pres­i­dent’s pri­vate com­pa­nies.

Am­bas­sador­ships long have been among Wash­ing­ton’s choic­est political prizes, and pres­i­dents fre­quently award them to friends, political al­lies and cam­paign donors. “There was al­ways a coun­try club men­tal­ity with some of this,” said Scott Amey, gen­eral coun­sel for the Project on Gov­ern­ment Over­sight, a non­par­ti­san group that in­ves­ti­gates gov­ern­ment ethics.

The differ­ence is that the pres­i­dent also is the coun­try club’s pro­pri­etor, and he has handed out for­eign post­ings and other gov­ern­ment jobs to his pay­ing cus­tomers.

Mem­ber­ship rolls of Trump’s clubs are not pub­lic. USA TO­DAY iden­tified mem­bers through in­ter­views, news ac­counts and a web­site golfers use to track their hand­i­caps.

Since he took of­fice, Trump has ap­pointed at least eight peo­ple who are cur­rent or former mem­bers of his clubs to se­nior posts in his ad­min­is­tra­tion. USA TO­DAY iden­tified five of those ap­pointees in mid-2017, prompt­ing crit­i­cism from ethics watch­dogs that the se­lec­tions blurred the bound­ary be­tween Trump’s pub­lic du­ties and his pri­vate finan­cial in­ter­ests.

Since then, Trump has ap­pointed three other mem­bers as am­bas­sadors in Europe and Africa. One has been confirmed by the Se­nate. The White House de­clined to com­ment on how the ad­min­is­tra­tion se­lected them to rep­re­sent the U.S. gov­ern­ment in for­eign cap­i­tals.

Fed­eral ethics rules don’t pro­hibit the pres­i­dent from nom­i­nat­ing his cus­tomers or his mem­bers from ac­cept­ing. Nei­ther gov­ern­ment ethics lawyers nor the law­mak­ers who must ap­prove the nom­i­na­tions tra­di­tion­ally ques­tion whether would-be mem­bers of the ad­min­is­tra­tion have pri­vate busi­ness re­la­tion­ships with the pres­i­dent.

Be­com­ing a mem­ber of one of Trump’s clubs can re­quire ini­ti­a­tion fees of $100,000 or more, plus thou­sands a year in dues – though the amounts vary. The money goes to Trump’s pri­vate com­pany. That firm is held in a trust dur­ing his pres­i­dency, but Trump is its sole beneficiary, en­ti­tled to with­draw money when­ever he chooses.

The three mem­bers Trump nom­i­nated to am­bas­sador­ships last year joined the clubs long be­fore Trump sought the pres­i­dency. They de­clined to answer ques­tions about their mem­ber­ships or how Trump came to nom­i­nate them.

Lana Marks, a lux­ury hand­bag de­signer Trump nom­i­nated last year as am­bas­sador to South Africa, grew up in that coun­try but moved away more than four decades ago. She has spent most of her career build­ing a busi­ness around bags that can cost $10,000 or more.

The United States hasn’t had an am­bas­sador in Pre­to­ria since 2016. Re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries briefly be­came tense last year af­ter Trump in­structed Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo to “closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and ex­pro­pri­a­tions and the large-scale killing of farm­ers,” cit­ing a re­port from Fox News.

South African Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa said Trump’s com­ment was “com­pletely mis­in­formed.”

Trump nom­i­nated Adrian Zuck­er­man, a New York real es­tate lawyer, to be the U.S. am­bas­sador to Ro­ma­nia last year. Shortly af­ter he was nom­i­nated, The New York Law Jour­nal re­vealed that a le­gal sec­re­tary at Zuck­er­man’s firm had named him in a sex­ual ha­rass­ment law­suit in 2008, al­leg­ing that he used graphic lan­guage in the of­fice and spoke to her about his sex life. The law­suit was set­tled the fol­low­ing year.

The Se­nate ended 2018 without confirm­ing ei­ther Marks or Zuck­er­man. Trump renom­i­nated both in Jan­uary.

Trump nom­i­nated David Corn­stein as am­bas­sador to Hun­gary. Corn­stein and his wife, Sheila, both reg­is­tered their golf hand­i­caps through Trump’s club in West Palm Beach.

The Se­nate confirmed Corn­stein to the post in 2018. Corn­stein had worked as the chair­man of a high-end jew­elry com­pany, and for years, he ran the semipri­vate cor­po­ra­tion in New York City that op­er­ates bet­ting on horse races.

Since tak­ing the en­voy post, Corn­stein has been a vo­cal de­fender of Hun­gary’s gov­ern­ment as its hu­man rights record came un­der at­tack. He failed to win an agree­ment to pre­vent Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­ban from ex­pelling an Amer­i­can univer­sity that had op­er­ated in the coun­try for more than two decades.

Watch­dog groups that mon­i­tor gov­ern­ment ethics said the nom­i­na­tions reflect a trou­bling in­ter­sec­tion be­tween Trump’s pri­vate busi­ness in­ter­ests and his role as the na­tion’s chief ex­ec­u­tive.

“You have to ques­tion whether these mem­bers of his clubs are get­ting these ap­point­ments be­cause they de­serve them or be­cause they’re his pay­ing cus­tomers,” said Jor­dan Li­bowitz, com­mu­ni­ca­tion di­rec­tor for Cit­i­zens for Re­spon­si­bil­ity and Ethics in Wash­ing­ton, which has been crit­i­cal of Trump’s de­ci­sion to re­tain own­er­ship of his busi­nesses while in the White House. “You get into re­ally bad ter­ri­tory when peo­ple start won­der­ing if the pres­i­dent has put the gov­ern­ment up for sale.”

“There was al­ways a coun­try club men­tal­ity with some of this.” Scott Amey Project on Gov­ern­ment Over­sight gen­eral coun­sel

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has nom­i­nated long­time mem­bers of his Mar-a-Lago re­sort in Palm Beach, Florida, to am­bas­sador­ships. LYNNE SLADKY/AP

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