The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why we still need to investigate Trump’s corrupt G-7 deal

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney announced last week that the Group of Seven meeting would be held at Trump National Doral Miami. The president later decided to find another location. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Trump’s failed bid to host the Group of Seven (G-7) summit — a gathering of key world leaders — at his own resort next year is a dangerous sign of things to come, and the public’s need for information about his administration’s activities has never been greater. On Oct. 17, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney announced the selection of the Trump National Doral Miami resort in Florida to host the G-7 summit in 2020. Two days later, amid an avalanche of public fury and expressions of concern by his political allies, Trump personally rescinded the selection of his resort by tweet at 9:52 p.m. on Saturday.

But questions remain about how this previously unimaginable ethical failure could have occurred, and we urgently need the kind of answers that the State Department’s inspector general can provide. These answers would help us anticipate future ethical breaches and could be relevant to the ongoing impeachment inquiry, which is reportedly examining various facets of the president’s abuses of power.

The Doral scandal must be viewed in the context of the Ukraine scandal, which similarly represents a significant escalation of Trump’s abuse of power for private gain. That these scandals unfolded at the same time suggests the ethics crisis at the highest level of government has entered a dangerous new phase.

Trump was already violating the emoluments clause. Grabbing the G-7 is even worse.

Trump’s self-dealing in connection with the G-7 summit differed not only in magnitude of corruption but also in nature from his past efforts to profit from the presidency. With potentially millions of dollars in play, this would have been the first time the Trump administration awarded a major contract to the Trump Organization. Mulvaney admitted in his Oct. 17 news conference that Trump was directly involved in the selection of his Doral resort. He said: “We sat around one night. We were back in the dining room and I was going over it with a couple of our advance team. We had the list, and he goes, ‘What about Doral?’ And it was like, ‘That’s not the craziest idea. It makes perfect sense.’”

But Mulvaney concealed the specifics of the procurement process: “I don’t talk about how this place runs on the inside,” he said. “So, if you ask if us — if you want to see our paper on how we did this, the answer is: absolutely not.” This answer delivered nothing like the “openness” the applicable regulations required. Mulvaney should study up on the regulatory admonition that the conduct of government personnel “must, in addition, be such that they would have no reluctance to make a full public disclosure of their actions.” In addition, ethics regulations required him and any other officials who participated in this farce of a federal procurement to act impartially and “not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual.” The Federal Acquisition Regulation mirrors this standard by requiring government contracting officials to “avoid . . . even the appearance of a conflict of interest in Government-contractor relationships.”

What’s Trump’s idea of ‘America First’? G-7 cash flowing to his golf resort.

It is now clear the government fell far short of these standards. We need a searching investigation so that the public can understand what caused the system to break down and how to respond the next time Trump tries something like this. We can find no evidence that the government adhered to legally mandated procurement procedures or considered that selecting Trump’s resort would have violated the Constitution’s domestic and foreign emoluments clauses. The corruption involved here is so serious that, if Trump were not president, his participation in this procurement would have violated the criminal conflict of interest law that covers every executive branch official but the president and vice president. In his capacity as a business owner, however, Trump is still covered by the Procurement Integrity Act, which he may have violated if he obtained source selection information or contractor bid or proposal information — a concern heightened by the discovery that he had access to the list of finalists, got officials to add his resort to it and made an offer that Mulvaney described as undercutting the competition by “roughly 50 percent.”

Mulvaney did not reveal which agency conducted the procurement, but thanks to The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, we know the White House later referred questions to the State Department. In addition, the State Department requested funding for the G-7 summit in its 2020 budget submission to Congress and has conducted related procurement activities. Under these circumstances, it appears highly likely that the State Department ran this procurement. That puts responsibility for investigating the Doral scandal on the shoulders of the State Department’s inspector general.

Despite the president’s reversal of this decision, the public needs answers and assurances. As the government’s ethics regulations make clear, public service is a public trust. If the inspector general were to announce that he will immediately undertake an investigation, it would be an important step toward restoring public faith in the procurement process. We will then need to see the findings of that investigation on an expedited basis, so we can have confidence that the State Department is spending tax dollars solely in service of the public’s best interests and not for the president’s private gain. That information will also help the American people prepare to respond to Trump’s next assault on government integrity, which now seems inevitable.