Government Employees Spend Your Money at Trump Hotels
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ILYA MARRITZ: Hey, it's Ilya with a Trump, Inc. podcast extra. Trump, Inc. is an open investigation from ProPublica and WNYC. Our goal is to explore the business conflicts of interest at the heart of the Trump presidency.
SHERI DILLON: No one would have thought, when the Constitution was written, that paying your hotel bill was an emolument. Instead, it would have been thought of as a value-for-value exchange. Not a gift, not a title, and not in a monument.
MARRITZ: On January 11th, 2017, President-elect Trump's attorney, Sheri Dillon, outlined a plan for Trump to keep his business empire while serving as president. She addressed the skeptics who said it would be impossible to know whether the new president was serving the public interests, or his own.
DILLON: They suggest that the constitution prohibits the businesses from even arms-length transactions that the President-elect has absolutely nothing to do with, and isn't even aware of. These people are wrong.
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MARRITZ: Today, we’re going to go deep on hotels: rooms, valet parking, restaurants, and meals at properties owned by the Trump Organization, which is still owned by Donald Trump.
And while Dillon was specifically talking about the ways foreign governments might seek favors by spending money at Trump properties, we’re going to look at the ways U.S. states and cities and agencies — and therefore U.S. taxpayers are, in fact, right now putting money in Trump's pockets.
MARRITZ: Before Trump became president, Dillon said paying for a hotel room is a fair-value exchange — it’s not a gift. And, therefore —
DILLON: — it’s not an emolument. The Constitution does not require President-elect Trump to do anything here.
MARRITZ: Perhaps. That is a question that will be decided by the courts. In this episode, we're going to hear from three people tracking the flow of taxpayer money to the Trump Organization often through hotel stays, sometimes booked by individual government workers. And the first question we're going to look at: How do government officials end up spending money at Trump properties?
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ALEX MIERJESKI: Uh, my name is Alex Mierjeski. I'm a researcher at ProPublica.
MARRITZ: Tell me the first person you called who was a public servant who made a decision to spend public money at a Trump property?
MIERJESKI: Yeah. This is a guy named Matthew Snyder. Uh, he works in Colorado at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. That's in the Commerce Department.
MARRITZ: In the spring of 2017, Syder attended a conference in the Washington D.C. area. We don't know the name of the conference.
MIERJESKI: On the receipt that we have, it says he went to a “supervisor training and mission essential travel conference.”
MARRITZ: Do you know what that means?
MIERJESKI: I don't know what that means.
MIERJESKI: On the receipts that we got, it says that he stayed for about half the time he was there at the Old Post Office in D.C.
MARRITZ: Also known as the Trump International Hotel, D.C., paying $242 a night.
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MARRITZ: As it happens, I went there last year, one weekend during brunch-time. It was a totally nice vibe. There's a glass-roofed atrium. There was live piano music. So that's where Snyder stayed.
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MIERJESKI: And so I called him up. I found his number, uh, his office number, and I gave him a call. He picked up. And I asked him, you know, “We're doing this story about federal employees spending money at Trump properties. I have this receipt in front of me. It's got your name on it. I just wanted to ask you why you chose to stay at the Trump Hotel, as opposed to other hotels.”
He got a little defensive off the bat and explained that he was staying at the Trump Hotel because it was so close — within a block and a half of this conference that he was going to — it was so close that he didn't have to rent a car, but on the — uh, on the receipts that we have, it sort of clearly says that he rented a car and he charged $336 to, uh, the valet service at the Trump Hotel. So I — I followed up with him, uh, by email, actually, on the second time.
He said that, uh, in his words, “I could offer clarity, but I choose not to.” Sort of invited me to take what I will from the public record that we have.
MARRITZ: Sorry, those words again?
MIERJESKI: “I could offer clarity, but I choose not to.”
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MARRITZ: I tried to speak with Snyder myself, but he declined the request through a spokesman. In the end, the receipts show that Snyder put about $2,700 on a government charge card at the Trump International over five days. That’s including room service and valet parking.
MIERJESKI: Yep. According to the receipts that we have, all of it was approved.
MARRITZ: The cost of the room while Snyder stayed there — $242 — was the precise maximum allowed for federal workers for Washington, D.C. that month. Other hotels nearby often charged the same. Alex learned government employees can book hotels through a special federal government website. It's called “FedRooms.”
MIERJESKI: FedRooms is a sort of clearing house for, uh, hotel rooms that federal employees can book their rooms through.
MARRITZ: So it’s — it's sort of like Expedia for federal employees doing work trips.
MIERJESKI: Yep. Yep.
MARRITZ: The receipts we looked at show that employees sometimes used the website to book stays in Trump hotels. We got this statement from the Department of Commerce.
It says, “The Department of Commerce requires its employees to comply with federal travel regulations. Travel records the Department reviewed appear to show that a handful of career employees at the Department of Commerce who patronized Trump-owned properties complied with federal travel regulations.”
If you know something about how public servants spend public dollars at Trump properties, we want to hear from you. Go to TrumpIncPodcast.org to find out how to get in touch.
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MARRITZ: So we've talked about how government workers may come to book rooms in Trump properties, but how much is this really happening?
Those are seats that Alex was going through? They were first requested by an organization called Property of the People. It's a Freedom of Information activist group that is adding up government credit card spending at the Trump Organization.
MARRITZ: Ilya here. How are you doing?
SARAHJANE BLUM: I am well. How are you?
MARRITZ: Sarahjane Blum is Executive Director. She spoke to us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio.
MARRITZ: Good. Thank you for asking getting to studio.
BLUM: It is sadly very raccoon-less right now, though.
MARRITZ: Yeah. That place.
MARRITZ: I was going to say, are you in the raccoon building?
BLUM: I am in the raccoon building. [MARRITZ LAUGHS]
MARRITZ: It’s a thing. If you don't know what we're talking about, Google “raccoon building.”
Sarahjane told me, when Trump took office, she understood that a businessman president was a new kind of challenge. Her group quickly focused on trying to force disclosure in areas where the Trump administration operated from a “presumption of secrecy.” That's what Sarahjane calls it.
BLUM: Our first thought in looking for a money trail was looking at the records related to charge card expenditures. So we sent requests to the Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense, the State Department, the General Services Administration, and the Secret Service. And currently we have ongoing litigation, um, related to those requests. And that's where our documents are starting to come from.
MARRITZ: So how many federal agencies are you in litigation with?
BLUM: I guess, at this point, we were in litigation with six agencies. Um, we are not currently litigating against the Secret Service, but we have a request coming up in which we will litigate if they do not comply.
MARRITZ: How did you pick those agencies? And are — are you going to look at the others?
BLUM: We picked the first agencies, because we wanted to start with the places that we knew immediately would have to have at least some records that were responsive to our requests. And, you know, what we have found is, “Oh, yeah, they have a lot more than we ever expected.”
So we have begun expanding. You know, we are going to keep expanding to as many agencies as, essentially, we have the bandwidth to look into, and that we think might have any reason to be spending at Trump properties.
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MARRITZ: Over the past several months, information has started to come in, bit by bit. ProPublica took that data and created a handy tool so you can explore every dollar of spending they've been able to find out so far. And remember, litigation with six agencies — receipts are still coming in. You can check it out on ProPublica's website.
MARRITZ: Can you put a precise dollar amount — how many dollars do we know of have been spent at Trump properties in the year and a half that Trump has been president?
BLUM: To be honest, I can't put a precise number on it, because even in the time from when I last looked at a spreadsheet that showed it and this morning, I've seen more receipts starting to come in. When I looked yesterday, it was just under $300,000, but I know I have a significant pile of reports that I'm going to send them later today.
MARRITZ: So $300,000 would be a lot of money to any of us, probably, if we woke up and inherited it, but in the grand scheme of things, it's really not that much. It might not even buy you a studio apartment in New York City. So, explain to me why that figure matters.
BLUM: I think the hundreds of thousands of dollars, or $300,000, is really — it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Property of the People is an incredibly small organization. We’re five people. Four of us are working as volunteers, and this is what we have been able to find.
Essentially it's as though we, one by one, are turning over rocks and finding conflicts-of-interest and finding examples of Trump lining his pockets with taxpayer money. But there's a quarry that we are looking at. And, on top of that, I think, if it was $5, or whether it was $500 million, what you would see is the decision — the choice Donald Trump made to not divest from his sprawling business empire has resulted in a continual violation of the Constitution's anticorruption clause. You know, he is choosing to continually violate the Emoluments Clause.
MARRITZ: Okay. So you mentioned emoluments. This is really interesting to me, because this still-fairly-new-to-most-of-us vocabulary word, “emoluments” — mainly, when we talk about it, we're talking about like foreign governments spending money, like, at Trump's D.C. hotel, the Old Post Office, or something like that.
I am also aware that there are domestic emoluments, which, mainly, I would think of as, like, a state government, perhaps, uh, conferring, some benefit on the Trump Organization. Are you saying that, like, a Commerce Department employee, or Department of Defense employee just staying at a Trump hotel — that that also would qualify as an emolument, and thus, under the Constitution, be illegal?
BLUM: I strongly believe that payments by federal agencies, to the Trump Organization, that then go into, you know, what is technically a revocable trust, but which is written so that Trump may take the money out of it any time, for any reason — these definitely are profitable payments that are beyond the salary that Trump is entitled to by Congress.
MARRITZ: And I should probably clarify: The emoluments issue has actually never been decided by a court before. So, I mean, it really is a humongous question mark, that we could start getting some answers to over the course of this administration.
BLUM: Yes! And I think it's definitely important to mention that the reason that the emoluments question has never been decided in a court is because no prior president has opened themselves up to violating the emoluments clause.
MARRITZ: I’m still trying to understand the potential motive that a federal agency could have here, right? I could see why, like, a foreign country would want to curry favor with the president and therefore book, you know, their entire delegation to come and stay at Trump's D.C. hotel. And I can even see why a state governor maybe would, like, spend money at a Trump property in order to get his attention and maybe hope to get, you know, money for roads and bridges or something like that down the line. But what's in it for the Commerce Department or the Department of Defense? Why should they seek to curry favor with, like, the executive branch, which they're already a part of?
BLUM: I think that's approaching the issue of government spending a little bit sideways. Because, while there might not be a quid pro quo, where you go, “Oh, if I have a bunch of people from the State Department spend money at Trump properties, then I'm going to get this specific thing, like a new bridge” — which is something they couldn't ask for — you can go, “Well, I'm going to have a good relationship with this administration. I'm going to find my own policies being more acceptable to the president — being promoted by him. I'm going to feel like I am more a part of the team, and my agency is going to feel like it's more part of the team.” I think that the question more is, is there any way to be involved in an administration that is as deeply riddled with conflict-of-interests and not be a part of it.
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MARRITZ: Sarahjane Blum, from Property of the People. And by the way, Property of the People is continuing to seek records for what may be the most obvious government spending on Trump properties: U.S Secret Service expenses at Mar-a-Lago, Bedminster, and Trump Tower.
MARRITZ: We now know something about how this spending is happening. We're adding up dollar amounts, and, as the picture becomes clearer, we can begin to explore the question of whether government employees and politicians are spending public money to influence the President. That question is at the center of an emoluments lawsuit against President Trump brought by Maryland and the District of Columbia.
They point out that the governor of the state of Maine, Paul LePage, stayed at the Trump International Hotel in D.C. last year. While he was there, LePage lobbied to overturn President Obama's decision to declare a national monument in his home state. [LEPAGE’S TESTIMONY COMES IN] And he testified before Congress.
GOVERNOR PAUL LEPAGE: And I do believe that, if a president can unilaterally take action, then I think another president — they should also be able to take unilateral action.
MARRITZ: Kevin Miller is a staff writer at the Portland Press Herald. He helped to surface that information through a public records request. Governor LePage is mostly not cooperating.
KEVIN MILLER: We got a very partial response back from the Governor's Office, but we also had to submit a public records request to the state police, who provide the 24-hour security for the governor. And they were much more forthcoming in their supplying the documents we had asked for.
MARRITZ: I see. So you can kind of reverse-engineer what happened and what was spent where by looking at the state police response to your records request.
MILLER: Yeah. And it wasn't entirely clear, even on first blush because, uh, the state police, they redact a lot of the information. They redacted all the names and locations of hotels, but there were enough kind of breadcrumbs left in the receipts for us to tease out where he stayed for most of his trips to D.C.
MARRITZ: Okay. So tell me what you've been able to learn about Maine taxpayer dollars being spent at the Trump International Hotel in Washington. How much has been spent there?
MILLER: It’s difficult to say exactly how much has been spent, but we do know that, for one trip in late April, early May, that just his security detail and one of his staff members spent about $4,100 at the Trump hotel — for rooms, parking, and meals. The governor also would have had his own rooms, but, because they didn't separate out how much they paid for each of those rooms, we don't know exactly how much.
MARRITZ: I’m sure you asked Governor LePage why he chose the Trump International Hotel. What did he say?
MILLER: Yeah, when we — it was interesting, the way we — we did it was, we were able to look at the receipts and, um, able to show that, you know, room service charges in one case were to BLT Prime, which is the restaurant located in Trump International. We were also able to show that the valet parking rate of $56 a day, that's kind of a unique rate. That's also happens to be the rate that the Trump International charges. So what we did is we went back to the Governor’s Office and said, “Look, it's very clear the governor stayed at Trump hotel during this period of time when he was testifying before Congress — when he was going and meeting with some of the President's cabinet members and members of Congress. So why would he choose to stay at this hotel at this particular time?” And the response that we got back was, “The Trump hotel offered some of the best rates and the closest locations to the congressional office building where he was gonna be testifying.” And they basically said they don't make decisions based on, quote, “media-fueled hysterics over potential optics or controversy,” close quote.
MARRITZ: Eventually after Kevin published his story, Governor LePage's visit to the D.C. hotel showed up in the Maryland-D.C. emoluments lawsuit. The Justice Department, which is defending the President, says D.C. and Maryland haven't demonstrated real harm. And anyway, the President's profits shouldn't matter to the courts.
The judge in the case, Peter Massetti, in deciding to allow this case to proceed, wrote that the LePage trip — and I quote — “Rather clearly suggests that Maryland and the District of Columbia may very well feel themselves obliged, i.e. coerced, to patronize the hotel in order to help them obtain federal favors.”
MARRITZ: Here’s my question to you. Do you have any evidence that Maine officials, or that Governor LePage himself, may have felt obliged to stay at that hotel?
MILLER: Well, the governor certainly has — has pushed back against any suggestion that this was a quid pro quo. After the — that decision came out from the judge, uh, the governor was asked by one of the local television stations about it. And the governor's response was, he didn't realize he could buy the President so cheap.
GOVERNOR LEPAGE: [IN ANOTHER INTERVIEW] I didn’t realize I could buy the President so cheap! A night in this hotel, and he's in my back pocket? That's all I'm going to say.
MILLER: And then he actually went on to say, um, “The judge that did that — that did this is an imbecile.”
GOVERNOR LEPAGE: [IN THE SAME INTERVIEW] And I hope that goes national. And I hope he hears it, because he’s an absolute imbecile.
MILLER: That’s kind of an indication of — of our governor. He's — he’s much like President Trump. They get along partly because of these reasons. But he — he speaks his mind. He [BEAT] is not very politically correct. And he's proud of that.
MARRITZ: By the way, Governor LePage got part of what he wanted. The Department of Interior eventually recommended some changes to the way the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is managed — but it remains a national monument.
MILLER: Yeah. I mean, he's had some success on — on some issues and, you know, has not had success on other issues. It's — it’s impossible to say whether Maine got any special favors because he stayed at the Trump hotel.
MARRITZ: And we should perhaps make clear that some of the money spent on those trips has been paid back, I guess, to the state of Maine. One of LePage’s staff members paid back the amount of his stay at the hotel. So — so there have been some reimbursements for, I guess, expenses that they felt were not, uh, strictly in the public interest.
MILLER: The staff reimbursement that you mentioned is an interesting one. This is a former staff member who — who left the administration and decided on his own to reimburse the state for his hotel rooms at Trump hotel during that — that period. It wasn't clear to me that he was asked to do that. It seemed like he did it out of his own volition. And so that was about $925 in room charges over two days.
MARRITZ: Does that tell us something?
MILLER: Well, it tells you that it's not a cheap hotel to stay in.
MARRITZ: Kevin Miller, staff writer for the Press Herald newspaper of Portland, Maine.
MARRITZ: The group Transparency International defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. At first blush, the private gains the Trump Organization is making from U.S. taxpayers do not look like corruption on a grand scale. It may not be corruption at all.
Since we recorded our interviews, the total dollar amount put on government charge cards at Trump properties — that we've been able to find — is up to about $400,000. To a rich man like Donald Trump, it must look like a rounding error. And some of the charges probably were not reimbursed by taxpayers, but covered by individuals. But remember, that's just the money we know about. It covers six agencies, most of them only for about six months. Where's the Department of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services?
ProPublica is only now beginning to add figures from the 50 U.S. states and thousands of cities and counties. There could be a lot of public spending on Trump's properties that we aren't yet seeing. When Donald Trump's attorney, Sheri Dillon, spelled out the President-elect’s ethics plan nine days before he was sworn in, she said this:
DILLON: He instructed us to take all steps realistically possible to make it clear that he is not exploiting the office of the presidency for his personal benefit.
MARRITZ: But again, Trump's ethics plan, weak as it is, only concerns foreign governments spending at Trump's private properties. It's as if Dillon never stopped to consider the possibility that an American governor, for example, might try to curry favor with Trump by staying at his D.C. hotel.
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MARRITZ: Without real disclosure of public dollars being spent at Trump properties, without meaningful oversight, the door to corruption is open. By the way, the week we recorded this podcast, President Trump twice used his Twitter account to promote golf courses he owns in North Carolina and Scotland. We asked the White House for comment. They did not respond. We asked the Trump Organization for comment. They did not respond.
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MARRITZ: ProPublica is tallying these numbers and other kinds of spending, like political group’s expenses at Trump hotels, and they're already up to $16 million. You can see what that looks like and pour over the details and ProPublica.org. And did I mention we could use your help? Especially if you work for the government. Double-especially if you ever went to FedRooms.com and said, “Sure. Why not? I'm going to book a room at a Trump hotel.” Tell us your story. Go to TrumpIncPodcast.org to find out how.
Trump, Inc. is produced by Meg Cramer. The engineers are Matt Boynton, James Coyle, and Rick Kwon. This story was edited by Charlie Herman, Eric Umansky, and Robin Fields. Special thanks to Alex Mierjeski. Derek Kravitz is research editor at ProPublica. Scott Klein is a deputy managing editor there. Jim Schachter is the Vice President for News at WNYC and Steve Engelberg is Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica. The original music is by Hannis Brown.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.