A lobbying firm working for Saudi Arabia paid for a room at Donald Trump’s Washington hotel after Inauguration Day, marking the first publicly known payment on behalf of a foreign government to a Trump property since he became president.
Qorvis MSLGroup, a communications firm that lobbies for the Saudis, has been organizing veterans and other activists to come to Washington to urge Congress to repeal the law letting 9/11 victims’ families sue the kingdom. Between 20 and 40 veterans, with the assistance of the advocacy group NMLB, stayed at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in December and January.
One of those veterans checked in on Jan. 23 and left on Jan. 26 at a rate of $250 to $325 a night plus tax, according to NMLB president Jason Johns. The bill was paid by Michael Gibson, a subcontractor to Qorvis representing the Saudis, according to disclosures filed with the Justice Department.
The Emoluments Clause of the Constitution prohibits U.S. officials from receiving payments from foreign governments. Lawyers started warning about the potential for violations at Trump’s Washington hotel and overseas properties after he won the election, but the clause didn’t start applying to Trump until he took office on Jan. 20.
The Jan. 23-26 hotel stay paid by the Saudis raises questions about whether it represents a violation of the foreign emoluments clause.
“The problem with Donald Trump’s constitutionally forbidden foreign government cash and other benefits is not just that any one particular payment is problematic — it’s also a systemic problem,” said Norm Eisen, who was President Barack Obama’s ethics czar and is now part of a lawsuit accusing Trump of violation the Emoluments Clause. “It’s another tile in the mosaic of unconstitutional behavior.”
While the payment passed through several hands, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s ultimately Saudi money, Eisen said. Lobbying firms typically bill expenses to their client.
“If that funneling could launder the emolument, the clause would become a dead letter,” said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law expert at Harvard who’s also part of the lawsuit.
Bobby Burchfield, the Trump Organization’s ethics adviser, declined to comment. A White House spokeswoman didn’t answer a request for comment.
To address concerns about potential ethical conflicts, Trump committed, in his Jan. 11 press conference, to donating to the U.S. Treasury the profits from foreign governments’ hotel stays. Most legal authorities say that measure isn’t sufficient because the entire payment is problematic, not just the profit.
“It would be absurd to imagine that an otherwise forbidden emolument in the form of a foreign government’s payment to the American President could be cured if the President were to give that foreign government its money’s worth (or more) in services advancing that government’s interests, which might well be contrary to our own,” Eisen wrote in a research paper with Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe and Richard Painter, George W. Bush’s ethics lawyer.
The Trump lawyer who developed the plan, Sheri Dillon at the firm Morgan Lewis, disputed that interpretation.
“The so-called Emoluments Clause has never been interpreted, however, to apply to fair value exchanges that have absolutely nothing to do with an office holder,” Dillon said on Jan. 11. “Paying for a hotel room is not a gift or a present, and has nothing to do with an office. It is not an emolument.”
But either way, the Trump Organization has offered no indication of how it will identify all foreign emoluments, how it will calculate profits, and when it will make the donations to the U.S. Treasury.
The watchdog group led by Eisen and Painter, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has already sued Trump in federal court for allegedly violating the Emoluments Clause within days of his inauguration. Legal experts are dubious of the lawsuit’s chances because the organization may not be able to prove how it’s injured.