About a month ago, the Associated Press published a good report on the degree to which Donald Trump’s presidency has “changed Washington,” and it touched on a provocative detail. Toward the end of the piece, the article noted that international leaders have learned that “some business at a Trump-owned hotel” can contribute to “a good relationship with the president.”
As we discussed at the time, it’s very easy to believe world leaders think this way, but it speaks to circumstances that aren’t supposed to exist: foreign officials shouldn’t be able to curry favor with an American president by doing business with his hotel. It’s one of the reasons the pending Emoluments Clause cases are so important.
But it’s not just international leaders who take this dynamic seriously. The Washington Post reported this morning:
Last April, telecom giant T-Mobile announced a megadeal: a $26 billion merger with rival Sprint, which would more than double T-Mobile’s value and give it a huge new chunk of the cellphone market.
But for T-Mobile, one hurdle remained: Its deal needed approval from the Trump administration.
The next day, in Washington, staffers at the Trump International Hotel were handed a list of incoming “VIP Arrivals.” That day’s list included nine of T-Mobile’s top executives – including its chief operating officer, chief technology officer, chief strategy officer, chief financial officer and its outspoken celebrity chief executive, John Legere.
It’s quite a coincidence, isn’t it? On April 29, T-Mobile and Sprint announced a multi-billion-dollar merger. On April 30, T-Mobile’s top executives started booking rooms in the president’s hotel.
Perhaps, you’re thinking, the company’s executives simply needed a place to stay in the nation’s capital for a couple of days. Maybe they just picked a hotel with a good location.
The trouble is, as the merger deal was pending, these same executives kept returning to the Trump International Hotel. The article added, “By mid-June, seven weeks after the announcement of the merger, hotel records indicated that one T-Mobile executive was making his 10th visit to the hotel. Legere appears to have made at least four visits to the Trump hotel, walking the lobby in his T-Mobile gear.”
To be sure, there’s no reason to believe the White House explicitly told officials at the telecom giant, “You’re more likely to get what you want if you stay at the president’s hotel.” The trouble is, there’s no need for corruption that brazen.
Instead, people hoping to influence the Trump administration make a subtle assumption: indirectly putting money in the president’s pocket through the Trump International Hotel might give them an edge they’d otherwise lack.
T-Mobile denies any untoward motives.
That said, the circumstances have become far too familiar. As the Post added, “Countries, interest groups and companies like T-Mobile – whose future will be shaped by the administration’s choices – are free to stop at both [Trump’s White House and Trump’s hotel] and pay the president’s company while also meeting with officials in his government. Such visits raise questions about whether patronizing Trump’s private business is viewed as a way to influence public policy, critics said.”
I occasionally see the president’s allies stress the fact that Trump doesn’t accept a salary. That’s true, of course, but it overlooks the other ways in which the Republican profits from his office.
Postscript: In related news, the Associated Press reported two weeks ago that while many key D.C. venues are closed during the government shutdown, the historic clock tower at the Trump International Hotel remains open, “staffed by green-clad National Park Service rangers.”
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) has taken the lead on getting answers on this exemption.