Trump’s company has received at least $970,000 from US taxpayers for room rentals
By DAVID A. FAHRENTHOLD AND JOSHUA PARTLOW | The Washington Post | Published: May 14, 2020
WASHINGTON — The U.S. government has paid at least $970,000 to President Donald Trump’s company since Trump took office — including payments for more than 1,600 nightly room rentals at Trump’s hotels and clubs, according to federal records obtained by The Washington Post.
Since March, The Post has catalogued an additional $340,000 in such payments. Almost all of those payments were related to trips taken by Trump, his family and his top officials. The government is not known to have paid for the rooms for Trump and his family members at his properties but it has paid for staffers and Secret Service agents to accompany the president.
The payments create an unprecedented business relationship between the president’s private company and his government — which began in the first month of Trump’s presidency, and continued into this year, records show.
The records show that taxpayers now have paid for the equivalent of more than four years’ worth of nightly rentals at Trump properties, including 950 nights at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J., and 530 nights at the president’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, according to a Post analysis.
Trump still owns his business, though he says he has given day-to-day control to his eldest sons. Last year, Eric Trump said that when government officials visit Trump properties with the president, they are charged “like 50 bucks.”
But in the 1,600 room rentals examined by The Post, there were no examples of a rate that low.
Instead, the lowest room rate was $141.66 per night for each of the rooms in a four-room cottage in Bedminster. The highest rate was $650 per night for rooms at Mar-a-Lago.
The Post asked the Trump Organization to provide an example in which it had charged the government a rate low enough to match Eric Trump’s claim.
The company did not respond.
Trump has visited his own properties 250 times since taking office — though not since March 8, as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered many Trump properties and consumed his presidency. Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump administration has provided a full accounting of how much taxpayer money has been paid to Trump’s companies since Inauguration Day 2017.
The Post has attempted to compile its own accounting, using hundreds of pages of federal spending documents obtained from public-records requests. In recent weeks, The Post added new data on spending by the Defense and State departments, and newly released data on spending by the Secret Service in 2019 and 2020.
The data is still incomplete. But it makes clear that Trump has received an unprecedented amount of payments from his own government.
“It’s not just that there’s a huge amount of money being spent; we have no idea how much the actual figure is” because the records are released slowly and piecemeal, said Jordan Libowitz, of the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “We don’t know what’s happening … only that the taxpayers are footing the bill for it.”
Before Trump, the only recent president or vice president to charge rent to his own Secret Service protectors was former Vice President Joe Biden, according to records and interviews with the staff of former presidents and vice presidents.
Biden, now Trump’s presumptive Democratic opponent in the 2020 election, charged rent for a cottage near his home in Delaware. The rent, which was listed in public spending records at the time, totaled $171,600 over six years.
Trump’s company exceeded that total on March 17, 2017, records obtained by The Post show. He had been in office for less than two months.
As president, Trump is exempt from conflict-of-interest rules that prohibit other federal employees from steering government business to their private companies.
The Constitution bars presidents from taking additional payments from the federal government, beyond his salary. But Trump’s lawyers have argued that this was not intended to prohibit business transactions, like hotel room rentals. Legal challenges from Trump’s critics are moving slowly through the courts.
In the meantime, records show there have been hundreds of transactions for which Trump is, in essence, both the buyer and the seller. His company sends the bills. His government pays them, with little disclosure to the public at the time.
“This is the perfect transaction” for someone who wanted to exploit it, said Don Fox, who was acting head of the Office of Government Ethics from 2011 to 2013. “You get to not only set the price, you get to ensure that the buyer pays that price, no matter what it is.”
Trump’s company has downplayed concerns about those payments by saying it only charges the government “at cost.”
“If my father travels, they stay at our properties for free — meaning, like, cost for housekeeping,” Eric Trump said in a Yahoo Finance interview last year. The rate, he estimated, was about $50 per night.
To see if Trump’s company was living up to that professed standard, The Post tallied all the available records that showed Trump’s company charging Trump’s government for room rentals.
That search turned up more than 1,600 nightly room rentals. They began in the first month of Trump’s term.
In February 2017, for instance, Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a weekend at Mar-a-Lago. That weekend, at least three different federal agencies paid for hotel rooms inside Trump’s club:
• The Secret Service paid for three rooms for two nights each, records show. Trump’s club charged them $650 per night, according to two people who saw unredacted versions of the receipts. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.
• The State Department paid for six rooms for two nights each. Trump’s club charged them $520 for some, and $546 for others, the records show. On the receipts, Mar-a-Lago labeled $546 as the “rack rate,” an industry term for the normal rate offered to guests, without discounts.
Later, the club gave the State Department partial refunds for some of its purchases, to reduce the rate to $396.15 per night. But it’s unclear from the records whether these payments for the Abe visit were affected. The State Department did not answer questions submitted by The Post.
• The Defense Department also paid $1,469 for rooms at the club that weekend. But it’s unclear how many they rented, or what rate they paid. A Pentagon spokesperson said no more details could be located.
In all, the government paid Trump’s company $11,000 for hotel rooms that weekend. None of the rates, however, appeared to match Eric Trump’s description.
In the years that followed, the lowest rate for any rental on record was for the rooms in Trump’s Bedminster cottage: $141.66. But that was not for a standard hotel room that needed to be cleaned very day.
Instead, the Secret Service paid to rent the whole cottage — three bedrooms and a living room — to store equipment and to provide sleeping space for agents. Because the equipment was difficult to move, the Secret Service paid by the month, even on days when Trump wasn’t there.
The cottage, itself, didn’t actually require much housekeeping, said Victorina Morales, who worked as a Bedminster housekeeper at the time. The agents were private and had her clean it only once to three times per week. “They took out their own trash,” she said.
The highest rate that The Post found was the $650 charged to the Secret Service at Mar-a-Lago in early 2017.
Other room rates fell in between. In Washington, where Secret Service agents rented a room for 137 nights to guard Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin while he lived in the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, the rate was $242 per night.
In the most recent records obtained by The Post — showing payments from the Secret Service to Mar-a-Lago in 2019 and early 2020 — the club appeared to be charging $396.15 per night.
During Trump’s most recent holiday vacation, for instance, the Secret Service was charged $32,484.30 — exactly enough for 82 room-nights at that rate.
Hotel industry experts have said that all those figures far exceed the typical operating cost of hotel rooms — the sum of expenses for housekeeping and toiletries. That figure, experts have said, typically falls between $50 and $80 per night at luxury hotels.
“I wouldn’t expect it to be north of $100,” said Chris Anderson, a professor at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration.
The Trump Organization has not responded to questions about how it calculated the rates it charged to the government.
In several other cases, the government released documents showing what it had paid to Trump properties — but redacted the rates it was charged per night. When Eric Trump visited the Trump Turnberry course in July 2017, for instance, Trump’s club charged the Secret Service $6,802.33 for hotel rooms.
Documents released by the Secret Service redact the rate that was charged per room. The redaction was marked with a code indicating that the information “could disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations.”
The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.