white house

A Trump hotel mystery: Giant reservations followed by empty rooms

The House is investigating whether groups tried to curry favor with Trump by booking rooms at his hotels but never using them.

Trump resort

House investigators are looking into an allegation that groups — including at least one foreign government — tried to ingratiate themselves to President Donald Trump by booking rooms at his hotels but never staying in them.

It’s a previously unreported part of a broad examination by the House Oversight Committee, included in Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, into whether Trump broke the law by accepting money from U.S. or foreign governments at his properties.

“Now we’re looking at near raw bribery,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a House Oversight Committee member who chairs the subcommittee with jurisdiction over Trump’s hotel in Washington. “That was the risk from Day One: foreign governments and others trying to seek favor because we know Trump pays attention to this. ... It’s an obvious attempt to curry favor with him.”

The investigation began after the committee received information that two entities — a trade association and a foreign government — booked a large quantity of rooms but used only a fraction of them, according to a person familiar with the allegation who isn't authorized to speak for the committee.

The emoluments clause of the Constitution forbids a president from profiting from foreign governments or receiving any money from the U.S. government except his or her annual salary.

Rep. Ro Khanna, (D-Calif.), a member of the House Oversight Committee, said if Trump or his staff solicited the hotel reservations, they could have broken the law. But even if they didn’t, it’s still a problem.

“If true, at minimum, this suggests there is a culture of corruption that the administration has created,” Khanna said. “There’s a sense that to curry favor you have to engage in pay to play. That’s exactly what the American people hate about Washington.”

Connolly confirmed that committee staff is investigating but said he didn’t have the details of the allegations. The committee, the White House and the Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump has repeatedly denied that he is using the presidency to promote his resorts. “I have a lot of hotels all over the place, and people, they use them because they’re the best,” he told reporters last month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi directed six committees, including Oversight, to continue their investigations as part of the impeachment inquiry and then send relevant cases to the Judiciary Committee.

Pelosi is considering narrowing the House inquiry to Trump's call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but one lawmaker told POLITICO that even if that happens, she might allow a couple other issues to be included. Those could include accusations of both Trump illegally making money off his presidency and obstructing justice during former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into whether Trump associates colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump has admitted he asked Zelensky to look into whether former Vice President Joe Biden pressured Ukrainian officials to fire a prosecutor to quash a probe of a company on whose board Biden's son served, but he insisted there was nothing wrong with what he did.

“The unifying theme of congressional investigations is examining the president’s abuse of his office and his power to advance his personal political agenda and his goal of financial self-enrichment,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House Oversight Committee.

Trump has faced criticism for not fully separating himself from his eponymous company after he was sworn into office. The president still owns his business but has placed his holdings in a trust designed to hold assets for his benefit. He can receive money from the trust at any time without the public’s knowledge.

Last month, the Oversight and Judiciary committees released letters they sent to the administration and Trump’s company demanding details about both the president’s call to host a G-7 summit at one of his Florida resorts and Vice President Mike Pence’s recent stay at a Trump resort in Ireland.

But, according to people familiar with the congressional investigation, Oversight’s inquiry goes beyond those two recent instances and into a broader look at other spending at Trump properties that could lead to conflicts of interest, a waste of U.S. taxpayer money and violations of the Constitution.

“Potential violations of the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution are of grave concern to the Committee as it considers whether to recommend articles of impeachment,” wrote Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).

Trump frequently visits his properties — primarily in Florida, New Jersey and Virginia — and has traveled to them more than 300 times since he was sworn into office, according to a compilation of information released by the White House. In 2017, he and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a top presidential adviser, even made a brief unannounced stop at the Trump International Hotel in Honolulu, Hawaii, to thank employees for their work.

Trump's trips — and the regular visits by Pence and Trump’s adult children — have led the Secret Service and other federal agencies to spend money at his properties.

The Air Force acknowledged in September it has housed crews at Trump Turnberry in Scotland up to 40 times since 2015, and it's undertaking a broader review after POLITICO first reported the stays.

No entity tracks how much the administration is spending at Trump properties, but it’s likely well into the millions of dollars. Some federal agencies, including the Secret Service and the Air Force, have disclosed some documents in response to public records requests.

Public Citizen, a watchdog group, compiled a list of federal agencies, including the National Security Council and the General Services Administration, that spent money at Trump properties in 2018. By that time, the Secret Service had already spent $64,090 at Trump businesses since 2015.

Trump already faces lawsuits alleging he violated the Constitution by accepting payments from foreign officials at his resorts and hotels. His company donated nearly $200,000 to the U.S. Treasury in February that it said came from profits from foreign governments, but watchdog groups say the amount should higher.

Revenue increased at many of the resorts Trump visited in 2018, including the Trump International Hotel in Washington, which has become a top destination for Republicans, according to Trump’s most recent personal financial disclosure forms. That comes even as Trump’s overall income dipped slightly from $450 million in 2017 to $434 million in 2018.

Several House committees have pushed Trump to release his tax returns to learn more about his businesses, but he has refused to do so. The Trump Organization, which comprises more than 500 businesses, is not required to publicly release financial information.