The visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Trump-family-owned Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, this weekend is fraught with ethical problems.
Will U.S. taxpayers pay for Abe? Will Abe stay for free? Will Abe pay Trump, who will give the money to the U.S. Treasury?
“I’m hoping the White House will clarify the arrangement, but every financial scenario I can think of compromises the office and presents a significant conflict of interest that every other modern president has taken pains to prevent,” said John Wonderlich, executive editor of the Sunlight Foundation, which pushes for government openness.
The White House referred questions about who is paying to the State Department, which referred questions to the Japanese government. Several Japanese officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The lack of transparency about the arrangements is also troubling,” said Norman Eisen, who served as a White House ethics lawyer under President Barack Obama. “Most fundamentally, this demonstrates that Mr. Trump’s unresolved business conflicts are going to hang over almost everything he does. . . . This news provides one more reason that Mr. Trump should’ve made a clean break with his businesses instead of hanging on to his ownership interests.”
Last month, before he was sworn in, Trump announced that he would donate to the U.S. Treasury profits from foreign government spending at his hotels.
But he revealed few details about how that would work, so it’s unclear whether newly created ethics and compliance offices would oversee it or whether it would be reported to the Office of Government Ethics as part of ongoing disclosure requirements.
The change was made following 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.”
“The membership fee at Mar-a-Lago doubled to $200,000 after Trump won the presidency,” said Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “By holding a meeting with a foreign head of state there instead of Camp David, the government is providing plenty of free advertising for Trump’s private club with every news report. And that’s without looking into the cost to the taxpayer. So the question must be asked, is the Trump administration making decisions with the best interest of the American people in mind, or the president’s bottom line?”
Many presidents have chosen to entertain world leaders at Camp David, a sprawling, secluded residence in wooded hills about 60 miles northwest of Washington. They have included British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. President Jimmy Carter held peace talks there in 1978 between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, producing what would later be called the Camp David Accords.
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.
“He’s coming to the White House and then he’d like to play golf, and we’re going to come down to Florida, Palm Beach, and we’re going to play golf,” Trump told Westwood One Sports Radio. “We’re going to have a round of golf, which is a great thing. That’s the one thing about golf: You get to know somebody better on a golf course than you will over lunch.”
After he was elected, Trump met quickly with Abe in New York. But the first foreign leader to visit Trump as president was British Prime Minister Theresa May. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis just visited Japan.
The two men are expected to speak 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 president has also invited him down to Mar-a-Lago and the two leaders will travel there for the weekend,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters at his daily briefing Tuesday. “This is a testament to the importance the United States places on the bilateral relationship and the strength of our alliance and the deep economic ties between the United States and Japan.”