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Emoluments and the Trump kleptocracy

Weekend voices: Thomas A. Regelski

“Emoluments.” That word is not familiar but is increasingly in the news these days. In the Constitutional sense, it means gains, advantages, or profiteering that promotes the earnings of a government official.

In other words, profiteering at the expense of American taxpayers and a violation of the Constitution. The founding fathers were particularly interested in preventing government officials from accepting payments (e.g., bribes), income, or profits (e.g., from investments) that risked their moral responsibility to the taxpayers. Today, the concern is with the advantages to President Trump’s businesses of his presidency.

Average hotel rates in Trump’s hotels fell during 2016 but rose 20 percent immediately after the election. After he took office, while luxury hotel rates were flat, rates at Trump hotels jumped suddenly as much as 40 percent. And it is a quantifiable fact that foreign governments visiting Washington on official business are partial to staying at Trump’s hotel, intending to stoke the President’s favor.

Competing Washington businesses have sued in court for their losses in earnings to the president’s businesses. Yet Trump, his family members in the government, and White House staff and advisers continue to promote his D.C. flagship hotel. (Recently, Trump himself promoted his Miami hotel for next year’s “Group of Seven” international leaders meeting.) Not surprisingly, then, the average revenue per guest-night was triple the average of all D.C. hotels, and higher than other luxury hotels in the city. The bar and restaurant — $60 for a steak — earned more than $68,000 per day, totaling $25 million a year.

Each year, Kuwait sponsors a celebration in the U.S. of its national day in recognition of Operation Desert Storm that defeated invading Iraq forces. For many years, this celebration was at the Four Seasons swanky hotel. After the election in 2016, the celebration was moved abruptly to Trump’s hotel. Instead of projected losses of $2.1 million, it profited after the election by almost $2 million. Trump has 77 percent of the ownership in the hotel that bears his name.

Rather than vacationing at Camp David, the presidential retreat, Trump has instead chosen to stay at his hotels to play golf. As a private citizen and later as GOP candidate for president,

Trump was highly critical of President Obama’s golfing vacations. However, during his first 547 days in office, he played golf 147 times at his Virginia, New Jersey, and Florida courses. That’s a rate of playing golf one out of every three days since taking office-despite his campaign promise that he wouldn’t play golf because he would be too busy as President. Worse: the states and municipalities where he chose to golf bear the costs of extra police, security staff, and clean up. Still worse: when visiting his golf courses, the Secret Service has paid full price for lodging, food, and drinks; and the standard rates for golf cart rental to follow the president around the courses. Estimates of his golfing jaunts to the taxpayers range from $69 million to more than $80 million.

The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, led by the chief ethics officers from both the Obama and Bush administrations, labeled the profiteering of Trump’s entire business empire as a “flagrant abuse” of the Constitution’s emolument clauses against personal gain. The sheer volume of his violation of those clauses is alarming, except to his supporters.

The day Trump approved of the missile strikes against Syria, he hosted President Xi of China at his Mar-a-Lago resort-the one where he doubled the membership fee to $200,000 after his election. On the same day, the Chinese government approved, unusually quickly, three trademarks to Ivanka Trump for her line of jewelry, handbags, and cosmetics. Moreover, in the first six months of the Trump presidency, China also approved more than twenty-four trademarks to her company. Forty more were pending in 2017 and, in sum, the Trump family held more than a hundred Chinese trademarks. Surprisingly, these holdings in China have not been mentioned concerning Trump’s trade war with China. A reasonable bet would be that his and his family’s trademarked brand goods are not seriously jeopardized.

As of 2018, 196 U.S. senators and house representatives have filed lawsuits claiming a violation of emoluments clauses of the Constitution. Furthermore, the attorneys generals from sixteen states have also filed lawsuits accusing Trump of violations of the same emolument clauses. Unfortunately, the Constitution provides no legal pathway for these legal claims because they can’t show any direct personal harm. Nonetheless, Trump is the first president accused of countless violations of the anticorruption emoluments clauses of the Constitution.

Trump supporters voice great support for the Constitution when it comes to the second amendment and their opposition to gun control legislation. It would be hypocrisy not to be equally supportive of the Constitution’s emolument clauses.

Thomas A. Regelski is an emeritus distinguished professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Send comments to tom.regelski@helsinki.fi.

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