The United States Department of Defense (DoD) spent $138,093 at eight businesses owned by President Donald Trump during his first six months in office, according to records obtained via lawsuit citing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Property of the People, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit transparency group, obtained the records after suing the DoD, which had failed to properly respond to its FOIA request last June.
The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, sought all records from Pentagon’s Defense Travel Management Office mentioning Trump properties, or any records concerning government travel charge cards reflecting expenditures at Trump’s businesses.
An eight-page chart turned over by the Pentagon in response to the suit revealed a total of $138,093.23 spent by the DoD between January 20th and June 14th of last year.
During that six months, the military spent on food and lodging at least $58,875.69 at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf club; $9,618.78 at his Bedminster, NJ, golf club (over one weekend in May 2017); $35,652.44 at Trump’s Las Vegas Hotel; and $17,102.55 at Trump’s Ocean Club in Panama. The costs cover both dates when the president was at Trump properties and others when he was not.
For example, the Defense Department spent thousands of dollars around April 9th at Trump’s Palm Beach club—a charge that coincides with a two-day trip Trump made to his Mar-a-Lago estate. While there, Trump launched the first major military operation of his presidency shortly after dining with visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched at the Al Shayrat airfield in Syria the night of April 7th, marking the first unilateral military action by the United States against the Assad government. The Pentagon paid Trump’s club $12,339.60 for its stay, according to the ledger.
A photo of Trump conducting the operation—alongside Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagen, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, among others—was tweeted that night by former White House press secretary Sean Spicer from an account now controlled by Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
In early May 2017, the Pentagon spent $9,618.78 at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, NJ, during a trip in which the president reportedly drafted a four-page letter with aide Stephen Miller to justify the firing of then-FBI Director James Comey. The Pentagon paid the tab on May 8th and Comey was fired the following day.
Others Pentagon expenses, however, appear not involve presidential travel at all. More than $17,000 was spent, for example, at the Trump Ocean Club in Panama, where Trump hasn’t visited since before the election. The beleaguered property was snatched from Trump earlier this month by Miami financier Orestes Fintiklis. (Perhaps you’ve seen video of Trump’s name being crowbarred off the hotel’s outer wall.)
“It seems wildly inappropriate,” said former federal prosecutor Melanie Sloan, now senior advisor at nonprofit watchdog American Oversight. “It seems as if it’s intended to nothing but suck up to the president. It’s almost like they have a directive that everyone should go and stay at Trump hotels.”
Sloan raised a number of questions about the Pentagon’s spending: “Why were they there? Is there another comparable hotel in the area? Did they get a better rate at the Trump property? Did they have a business purpose that they needed to be there?”
In a statement to Gizmodo, a DoD spokesperson said: “Department of Defense employees adhere to the department’s Joint Travel Regulations and the General Service Administration’s Federal Travel Regulations when utilizing approved lodging and transportation vendors during official travel.”
The DoD records are just the latest procured by Property of the People showing taxpayer funds being spent at Trump properties. Last year, the nonprofit acquired evidence that taxpayers were billed $1,092 for a two-night stay at the Mar-a-Lago club. The group acquired records last month that showed the General Service Administration—the agency which handles travel charge cards for the federal government—had itself spent more than $1,760 at Trump’s hotel and restaurant in Washington, DC.
Created by MIT PhD candidate Ryan Shapiro, attorney Jeffery Light, and activist and author Sarahjane Blum, Property of the People launched in late 2016 following Trump’s election, starting with a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for legal expenses.
The lawsuits brought by Property of the People have added to far-reaching controversy over whether President Trump is actively violating the emoluments clause, a little-known Constitutional provision that prohibits presidents from receiving benefits from the government other than a salary, which cannot be increased during his time in office.
“The Pentagon’s spending at Trump properties should be viewed as both self-serving by the Trump administration and a likely violation of the domestic emoluments clause of the Constitution,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for the transparency group Public Citizen. “It is self-serving in that it is the Trump administration itself enriching Donald Trump.”
Larry Noble, senior director and general council at the Campaign Legal Center, concurred. “This shows a problem that we’ve been talking about since the very beginning,” he said. “That he is profiting from the government using his businesses and often it is a use that he has total control over.”
Trump doesn’t have to stay at hotels he owns when he travels, Noble noted, “but when he does, one thing you can be sure of is that his company is profiting from it.”
Unlike the presidents before him, Trump has done virtually nothing to avert conflicts of interest or the appearance of them—refusing, for instance, to divest his investments or place them into a blind trust. Instead, at the outset of his presidency, Trump’s adult children supposedly took charge of his business holdings. Obviously, each of them still communicates with the president on a regular basis, meaning the trust is far from blind.
“Repeatedly, our FOIA litigation has revealed blatant financial conflicts of interest resulting in the transfer of taxpayer dollars to Trump properties and likely constitutional violations,” said Gunita Singh, an attorney for Property of the People. “We expect this is only the tip of the iceberg, and we fully intend to aggressively continue our FOIA work exposing kleptocracy at the highest reaches of government.”
Yesterday, McClatchy reported that Ivanka Trump has continued to draw a salary of more than $1 million from the family business while serving as a senior White House advisor. A spokesperson for Ms. Trump’s attorney dismissed any suggestion of there being conflict, saying she had recused herself from “participating in any decision-making that could pose a conflict of interest with her family business.”
“Donald Trump views the American public as a bunch of marks waiting to be fleeced,” said Ryan Shapiro, co-founder of Property of the People. “With the DoD’s spending at Mar-a-Lago and other Trump properties, and Trump’s refusal to divest from his sprawling business empire, once again we find the President’s hand deep in the taxpayer’s pocket.”
Update, March 15, 12pm: Updated with statement from DoD.