Trump just paid taxpayers back for foreign profits, but ethics experts are furious

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There is an answer to one of Washington, D.C.’s favorite guessing games – how much did the Trump Organization give the U.S. government to fulfill its “voluntary” promise made on January 11, 2017 to give all profits from Trump hotels and other businesses received from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury for as long as Donald Trump is president.

The answer, at least for 2017, is that the Trump Organization gave the U.S. Treasury a check for $151,470 dated Feb. 21, 2018, signed by Eric Trump, which was revealed to BuzzFeed in response to a Freedom of Information Request. 

A note accompanying the check from Sheri Dillon, a tax attorney for the Trump Organization, said that they were “pleased to make this voluntary donation” and requested that it be deposited into “Gifts to the United States account.”

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This confirms an article last month in the U.K. publication the Daily Mail which quoted Eric Trump as saying that this would be an annual donation as long as his father was president. 

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While the amount and company’s intent is now known, there are a lot of other questions remaining about exactly how they calculated that amount, and whether it is really enough to cover all of the profits from foreign governments at properties around the world.

For instance, the watchdog group Citizens For Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW) is skeptical because of the large number of transactions that are known to have already taken place.

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That gets to the problem of figuring out how much profit should be assigned to whatever revenue the Trump Organization received. In this case, how much of the Saudi money, which actually came in at the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017, is profit and not a cost of doing business.

Eric Trump told the Daily Mail that the profit amount “was calculated in accordance with our policy and the Uniform System of Accounts for the Lodging Industry.”

That is meant to cover everything from room charges to resort fees to restaurant tips and laundry charges.

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Then there is the question of what was tallied. In April 2017, the Trump Organization told the House Oversight Committee that it was impractical to ask every hotel guest whether or not that person represented a foreign government. It said instead that it would just track money paid to the Trump Organization directly from a foreign government.

That means there could be a lot of payments that were not identified as coming from foreign governments, despite the fact that they very well could have.

There is also the question of motivation. In a sense, the Trump Organization is going above and beyond the requirement of the law by making its “voluntary” payments, but that ignores the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution which says the president can’t gain money from a foreign government. 

Since Trump, unlike any other president in modern history, refused to actually divest his business, or even put it in a true blind trust, he is making the payments to cover the Trump Organization as it continues to deal with lawsuits from those who believe he is already violating the U.S. Constitution.

“Our donation to the treasury was voluntary and one that I am very proud of,” he told DailyMail.com. “Although we are not legally obligated to do this, we have pledged to account for all profits from foreign government business at our hotels and clubs and have donated that money back to the United States of America.”

A Trump spokesman told The Daily Mail that they were making the payments only because they felt it was “the right thing to do.” None of that washes with Scott Amey, General Counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, who told The Daily Mail that there is no way for the president to meet his ethical obligations without selling his stake in his own company.

Amey called the $151,470 check “a tiny step in the right direction, but…not a valid solution.”

“I hope the courts and Congress will address ethics gaps that have been exposed,” said Amey.

In January 2018, a federal judge refused to throw out lawsuits by the state of Maryland and Washington, D.C. alleging the Trump Organization and the president are violating the Constitution.

There are other suits as well, still working their way through the courts.

In the meanwhile, Eric Trump said the Trump Organization is no longer seeking business with foreign governments and even discourages it since any money they make, at least the profits, will have to be turned over to the government.

Eric Trump also says the Trump Organization is no longer pursuing new deals for Trump-branded properties around the world for the same reason, although it continues to work on deals that were started prior to the time Donald Trump entered the White House. 

What this amounts to is a messy legal situation that appears to be a blatant conflict of interest, and at best a burden to the Trump Organization, if Eric Trump is to be believed.

Of course, none of this changes the fact Trump hotels, golf courses and properties have made millions off domestic visitors and government payments for everything from the Secret Service staying in a hotel while the president is present to the Defense Department paying for facilities to set up communications equipment to be near the president.

As always, Trump comes off as tricky, deceitful and like the handling of his tax returns, unnecessarily secretive, which makes everyone even more suspicious.

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Benjamin Locke

Benjamin Locke is a retired college professor with an undergraduate degree in Industrial Labor and Relations from Cornell University and an MBA from the European School of Management.

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