We always knew that Donald Trump sought to personally profit from the presidency, whether by receiving foreign government emoluments (aka payoffs) or scheduling a G-7 meeting at his own golf club. Recently, we learned more about the true extent of his grift – the exorbitant amounts he charged taxpayers for Secret Service agents to stay in his hotels and clubs. On paper, the agents’ job was to protect him and his family. In reality, they had a second job: to make taxpayers pay him a lot of money (our money) at the same time. But we the taxpayers are not without ways of stopping Trump’s scam.
While the government has long paid the costs for Secret Service agents to travel with and protect the president and the first family, only one president has made money renting rooms to his protection. On Monday, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform released forms showing room rates more than five times what's allowable for federal employees. Some of these bills were incurred right in Washington, where the president stayed at the White House, and could have overnight guests. When his sons Don Jr. and Eric visited him, they chose not to stay at the White House but at a hotel – the Trump Hotel, of course.
We the taxpayers are not without ways of stopping Trump’s scam.
Taxpayers were charged $1,160 per room per night at the Trump International Hotel in Washington for Secret Service agents protecting Eric Trump on March 8, 2017, a night for which the government rate was $242. Taxpayers were charged $1,185 per room per night for agents protecting Donald Trump Jr. on Nov. 8, 2017 at the Trump Hotel, at a time when the government rate was $201. For most presidential offspring, being guarded by Secret Service agents would be enough of a thrill. For the Trump family, making money at taxpayer expense was apparently an even greater thrill.
Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., recently wrote a letter to the Secret Service demanding more information about these stays. Her letter explained that Trump visited his properties more than 500 times while in office, and noted that early in his term, “the Secret Service received authorization for additional flexibility for expenses during protective missions, including per diem expenses above the government rate.” Yes, $1,000 a night hotel rooms need a lot of “flexibility.”
“Records show the Secret Service spent more than $1.4 million on lodging at Trump-owned properties in the United States from Jan. 20, 2017, through Sept. 15, 2021,” Maloney concluded. That’s a lot of money – our money.
There are multiple avenues for recapturing Trump’s profiteering at the expense of the federal government – or at least preventing it in the future. First, his actions were a violation of the domestic emoluments clause of the Constitution, which provides that the president cannot receive compensation from the states or from the federal government in excess of his salary and pension set by Congress.
There are multiple avenues for recapturing Trump’s profiteering at the expense of the federal government – or at least preventing it again in the future.
As with the foreign emoluments clause, the domestic emoluments clause does not provide an enforcement mechanism. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., introduced a bill in 2018 that would have enforced the domestic emoluments clause by stopping the flow of federal money to Trump properties, but Republicans made sure that bill went nowhere. In the lame-duck session at the end of the year, however, Democrats could throw their weight behind the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Enforcement Act, introduced last year by Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
Another approach would be the False Claims Act, which imposes liability on any person who knowingly submitted false claims to the government and provides that violators are liable for treble damages plus a monetary penalty. Simply charging the government more than the usual government rate for hotel rooms may not violate the act, but any misrepresentation of material facts made in connection with the Secret Service approvals, or in any other part of the process of getting these invoices paid, could be a violation. Representations that the Trump Organization charged “market rates,” or that cheaper alternative accommodations were not available in the area, for example, could amount to fraud. In that case, the Department of Justice could - and should - add the Trump Organization to the long list of defendants that have been sued under this law for defrauding the federal government.
While the government should make claims against the Trump Organization for return of the exorbitant amounts paid for rooms during the Trump presidency, it’s just as important to restore the precedent that such conduct is prohibited. Because former presidents and some family members also are entitled to Secret Service protection, these practices could easily continue well past the Trump presidency, and cost taxpayers millions more in coming years. Going forward, the Secret Service should not pay to any Trump hotel or club any amounts exceeding the federal rate. Whenever possible, Secret Service agents protecting Trump should stay at hotels not owned by the Trump family.
There is of course another perhaps cheaper alternative: Secret Service protection for a former president who is an incarcerated federal inmate. Given the seriousness of crimes committed during the Trump presidency, particularly between the 2020 election and Jan. 6, 2021, I have urged elsewhere that the criminal process against President Trump begin. If a criminal trial did end badly for Trump, perhaps future Secret Service accommodations could be at properties recommended by the Bureau of Prisons. The federal room rate will surely suffice.