President Donald Trump is personally paying the tab for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Trump-owned Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.
“That is a gift that the president is extending to the prime minister,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in response to questions about the ethical dilemma of having a world leader stay at one of the Trump hotels.
“President Trump should not be giving personal gifts of significant financial value to foreign leaders, and President Trump should be avoiding even the appearance that he is using public office to promote his personal financial interests,” said John Wonderlich, executive editor of the Sunlight Foundation, which pushes for government openness. “By giving Prime Minister Abe a free stay at Mar-a-Lago, he is promoting his commercial brand, and flouting the ethics standards he was elected, in part, to uphold.”
Only Abe – no other member of the Japanese delegation – will be staying at Mar-a-Lago, Spicer said. “They will stay out in town with the rest of the staff,” he said.
The arrangement differs from what Trump had announced before he was sworn in as president, when he said he would donate profits from foreign government spending at his hotels to the U.S. Treasury.
The change was made after some raised concerns about the emoluments clause in the U.S. Constitution, which says “officials may not accept gifts, titles of nobility or emoluments from foreign governments with respect to their office, and that no benefit should be derived by holding in office.”
Trump aides did not say whether they took other countries’ standards into consideration in developing the new policy. Japanese officials did not respond to requests for comment, but gifts valued at more than $45 generally must be reported, according to a United Nations report on corruption.
The initiation fee to join Mar-a-Lago was recently raised to $200,000, annual dues are $14,000 and a night’s stay can cost $2,000. Mar-a-Lago does not have a golf course, but the Trump International Golf Club-West Palm Beach is 10 minutes away, according to the Mar-a-Lago website.
“President Trump’s payment for the Japanese prime minister’s visit to Mar-a-Lago illustrates the tricky ethics bind that the president has put himself in by refusing to divest from his businesses,” said Paul Seamus Ryan, a vice president at Common Cause, a government watchdog group. “On the one hand, if the Japanese prime minister had paid for his visit to the Trump-owned property, President Trump would arguably be violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause. . . . On the other hand, President Trump paying for the Japanese prime minister’s visit raises the specter of impropriety. Might President Trump be attempting to curry favor with the prime minister for some personal business reasons, or for foreign policy reasons?”
Abe will visit Trump at the White House on Friday. The two will then travel to Mar-a-Lago for the weekend, where Trump said they planned to play a round of golf. Trump is expected to return to Washington on Sunday.
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“There remains the fact that this is a free global infomercial for Mar-a-Lago, which has recently announced that it will be doubling its fee from 100k to 200k,” said Norman Eisen, who served as a White House ethics lawyer under President Barack Obama.
Trump will welcome two world leaders to the White House next week but it’s unlikely they will travel to Mar-a-Lago. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will visit Monday and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday.
Trump and Abe are expected to talk about security and currency as well as a bilateral trade deal following Trump’s decision to pull out of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. The two have met once before, in New York after Trump was elected.
Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01
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