The bedroom suites at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, available only to members and their guests, feature hand-painted Moorish ceilings, antique Spanish-tiled mosaics and sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean.
On a weekend in early March, during one of seven trips by Trump and his White House entourage to the posh Palm Beach property since the inauguration, the government paid the Trump-owned club to reserve at least one bedroom for two nights.
The charge, according to a newly disclosed receipt reviewed by The Washington Post, was $1,092.
The amount was based on a per-night price of $546, which, according to the bill, was Mar-a-Lago’s “rack rate,” the hotel industry term for a standard, non-discounted price.
The receipt, which was obtained in recent days by the transparency advocacy group Property of the People and verified by The Post, offers one of the first concrete signs that Trump’s use of Mar-a-Lago as the “Winter White House” has resulted in taxpayer funds flowing directly into the coffers of his private business.
Given the number of high-profile presidential events at Mar-a-Lago, questions about who pays for meals and rooms have generally gone unanswered. When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited in February, the White House made a point of saying that Abe would stay at the club free of charge as a personal guest of Trump.
The March invoice was provided to the advocacy group by the Coast Guard in response to a broader Freedom of Information Act request seeking records on the agency’s expenses related to Trump-affiliated properties. The Coast Guard FOIA office searched the agency’s credit card payment records, which led it to the invoice, according to an explanation provided by the agency.
The advocacy group has been filing records requests with the Trump administration through a project it calls Operation 45.
It is not clear whether the invoice stemmed from a one-time occurrence or represented one of many Mar-a-Lago rooms that have been booked at government expense for presidential aides or other officials since Trump took office and began traveling there on a regular basis. Other agencies that likely have had regular presence at the club, such as the Secret Service, have declined to provide The Post information about potential payments to Mar-a-Lago and have referred requests to the General Services Administration. The GSA told The Post in March that it had no records of such payments.
The document from March does not reveal anything about the occupant beyond a note atop the page that reads: “National Security Council.”
White House officials and a Coast Guard spokeswoman, as well as representatives of the Trump Organization and Mar-a-Lago, did not respond to questions, including whether Trump’s company regularly charges the government for members of his traveling party to stay at the club.
Now, some ethics experts say the government payment to Mar-a-Lago raises concerns about the domestic emoluments clause, which was intended to prevent the president from receiving payments beyond his salary from state or federal governments.
In addition, some questioned why the federal government should pay top dollar for luxury Palm Beach lodging when less expensive options are available nearby.
“The choice to stay there and have the government pay the $546-a-night rate seems imprudent,” said Kathleen Clark, a Washington University law professor who specializes in ethics issues. “If it were not owned by the president, it would still seem problematic. The fact that it’s owned by the president makes it doubly problematic.”
Mar-a-Lago has long been one of the signature pieces of Trump’s corporate empire.
The estate, which he bought in 1985 and later converted to a private club, includes two swimming pools, five red-clay tennis courts, the Trump Salon and the Trump Spa, as well as banquet facilities that host elaborate charity balls and weddings.
The business has experienced changes since Trump won the presidency. Soon after the election, the club doubled its initiation fee to $200,000, returning the amount to its pre-recession level. After Trump’s sharp rhetoric on immigration and race in recent months, a number of regular charity customers have opted to move their banquets elsewhere.
[17th charity cancels its event at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, blaming ‘political turbulence’]
Trump’s frequent trips there have come at an expense to taxpayers. The Coast Guard’s increased costs to protect the waterfront property with round-the-clock patrols and gun-mounted boats have been widely publicized.
Financial disclosures filings show that Mar-a-Lago is 99 percent owned by Trump’s revocable trust, from which the president can withdraw money at any time. The club made $37 million in resort-related revenue from January 2016 to this April.
On the weekend that the government paid for the room, March 3 and 4, Trump was joined by a large retinue of administration officials, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then-chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who has since become Trump’s chief of staff.
On that Saturday, Trump presided over a security briefing, dined with top officials from his administration and mingled with guests in the hallway outside a charity fundraiser for the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute.
The question of whether the president’s company can profit directly from the government is raised in an emoluments lawsuit that was filed by an ethics watchdog group in January.
Much of the attention to the case has focused on the Constitution’s ban on foreign “emoluments” and the business practices of Trump’s Washington hotel. The Constitution also states that the U.S. president “shall not receive . . . any other emolument” from the United States other than his fixed salary.
[Two plaintiffs join suit against Trump, alleging breach of emoluments clause]
Trump has said the suit is without merit, and his company has pledged to donate profits from foreign countries to the U.S. Treasury. His attorney, Sheri Dillon, has said that transactions such as hotel room payments are “arm’s-length” transactions that would not amount to an “emolument.”
Oral arguments are scheduled for the suit next month in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
“The fact that government officials would spend tax dollars at the president’s property raises serious constitutional questions under the domestic emoluments clause,” said Brianne Gorod, chief counsel with the Constitutional Accountability Center, a nonprofit Washington think tank.
Jed Shugerman, a Fordham University law professor, said that the founding founders clearly viewed attempts to curry favor from the president as a serious issue. But Shugerman said a reasonable argument could be made that emoluments would need a minimum value to qualify as a clear benefit.
“You have to make a leap from what was on the page in the 18th century to what is meant in the 21st century,” he said. “History answers some of these questions more clearly than others. History does not clearly answer this question.”