Democratic lawmakers are introducing legislation that would ban federal officials from spending any taxpayer-funded travel expenses at Trump-owned properties or locales owned by other senior government officials.
The legislation comes after The Washington Post reported that President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., had charged $1,092 for a member of the federal government to stay two nights during the president’s visit in early March. The $546-a-night rate was described on an invoice as the private club’s “rack rate,” which is the hospitality industry’s term for a standard room rate without any discounts.
The Hotel Act — Heightened Oversight of Travel, Eating and Lodging — would ban executive branch officials from staying at any property owned by the president, vice president, Cabinet secretaries or their families members. The way it’s written, it would essentially ban government officials from staying at any property owned or operated by Trump or his children.
“Executive branch officials like the President and cabinet secretaries should not have a profit motive in the travel decisions made by the federal employees under their supervision,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the lead sponsor, said in a statement. His proposal, he said, is a “common sense bill” that ensures “that federal employees are not subject to undue pressure to patronize businesses owned by their top-level managers.”
Peters is the top Democrat on a Senate oversight subcommittee responsible for federal spending. The legislation is co-sponsored by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Federal employees who travel for work must abide by per-diem rates that are set by the General Services Administration and are based on the region they are visiting. The legislation would exempt U.S. Secret Service personnel and those working for other security agencies that protect top government officials from the ban, but their expenses would have to be routinely reported to and reviewed by the Office of Government Ethics.
The information reported by The Post on Friday was revealed in an invoice from Mar-a-Lago obtained by a nonprofit called Property of the People in a Freedom of Information Act request to the Coast Guard. The top of the invoice reads “National Security Council.” The Coast Guard declined to identify who stayed in the room and instead referred questions to the National Security Council, which did not respond to The Post’s inquiry.
During the weekend in question, March 3 -5, a number of high-level government officials were at Mar-a-Lago, including then-head of the Department of Homeland Security John F. Kelly, then-chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Ethical and legal experts told The Post that the Mar-a-Lago bill could pose a challenge related to the U.S. Constitution’s domestic emoluments clause, which prohibits payments made to the president from the federal government or state governments other than the president’s fixed salary. Trump, who has declined his salary and instead opted to donate his potential earnings to government agencies, owns 99 percent of the Mar-a-Lago Club through his revocable trust and is free to withdraw funds from it at any time.
A liberal ethics watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed a lawsuit in January that alleged that Trump has violated both the foreign and domestic emoluments clauses. The foreign emoluments clause prohibits gifts or benefits to the president from foreign governments. Oral arguments in the case are expected to begin next month in federal court in New York. Trump’s attorney Sheri Dillon has previously said that hotel room bills are essentially arm’s-length transactions for the president and would not qualify as the emoluments that the Constitution’s framers intended to prohibit.
The Post also reported on $15,000 worth of expenses incurred by the State Department to book rooms at the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Vancouver for its grand opening in February. Trump’s sons Donald Jr. and Eric and daughter Tiffany traveled to Vancouver for the ceremony.
The documents provided to The Post through a Freedom of Information Act request were heavily redacted, and it is unclear if the rooms were booked for Secret Service agents or for security operations related to the U.S. Consulate General’s office in Vancouver. There were several protests in Vancouver planned for the grand opening of the tower.
Peters, Udall and Warren aren’t the first lawmakers to target spending at Trump-owned properties. In the House, a Democratic amendment to the annual defense policy bill would have barred the Pentagon from spending travel dollars at any property “owned by or significantly controlled by” the president or his family. The amendment was rejected, as was a bipartisan plan to force the Pentagon to report every 90 days on the cost of presidential travel, including money spent at Trump-owned properties.