February 17, 2017

Udall, Democratic Senators Demand DHS Investigation into Whether Trump's Use of DHS Funds Violates Constitution's Emoluments Clause

Question DHS Inspector General: is President Trump enriching himself with taxpayer money when DHS provides security at Mar-a-Lago and for his family's business travel?

WASHINGTON - Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) called on Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General John Roth to conduct an investigation into whether President Trump has violated the Domestic Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution by using DHS funds for security when he and his family's travel also potentially enriches his private business holdings. As the senators noted, President Trump has refused to establish a blind trust for his vast business assets, raising significant potential for conflicts of interest and risking the perception that he is using the presidency for his family's private gain.

For example, when the President visits his private club, Mar-a-Lago, which is still operating as a business, he brings with him staff, Secret Service, and military aides. If DHS is using its resources to pay Mar-a-Lago for rooms or other expenses, such an arrangement allows the president to personally profit off of every vacation he takes to his properties. A similar problem arises when Secret Service accompanies the Trump children on Trump Organization business trips, and potentially when it provides security for Trump Tower in New York City. The senators highlighted that any payment for goods or services from the federal government to the Trump Organization amounts to a violation of the Domestic Emoluments Clause.

Distinct from the Foreign Emoluments Clause, the Domestic Emoluments Clause is contained in Article II, Section 1 of the United States Constitution, which reads "The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them."

Emolument has been interpreted to mean any profit from taxpayer resources.

The Mar-a-Lago controversy is just one of the many examples of ways that the president may be directing federal resources to benefit his and his families interests, the senators stated.

The senators wrote, "as you know, President Trump has not maintained this tradition of transparency and accountability. Instead, he placed his vast business holdings in a fully revocable trust that is overseen by Donald Trump, Jr. and one of President Trump's longtime business associates, Allen Weisselberg. President Trump's two adult sons manage the Trump Organization businesses, but the President is the trust's named beneficiary and maintains the control to revoke the trust or change the management at any time."

"This arrangement raises significant potential for conflicts of interest and risks the perception that President Trump is exploiting his public office for his family's private gain," the senators continued.

The president's vacations to "Mar-a-Lago highlight the significant potential conflicts of interest that exist due to the President's refusal to divest his assets and place them in a blind trust. The Secret Service expenses potentially incurred to stay at Mar-a-Lago are just one example of the numerous likely conflicts that will arise that involve using Department of Homeland Security (DHS) resources in a way that privately benefits the President and his family. We believe your office must conduct a thorough investigation into these issues and continuously monitor the potential for conflicts and violations of the Domestic Emoluments Clause of the Constitution during President Trump's term," the senators added.

The full text of the letter is available below and here.

The Honorable John Roth
Inspector General
Department of Homeland Security

Dear Inspector General Roth:

Over the last four decades, every President-elect of the United States has been willing to establish blind trusts to hold their assets or limited their investments to assets that are exempt under federal conflicts of interest laws.

As you know, President Trump has not maintained this tradition of transparency and accountability. Instead, he placed his vast business holdings in a fully revocable trust that is overseen by Donald Trump, Jr. and one of President Trump's longtime business associates, Allen Weisselberg. President Trump's two adult sons manage the Trump Organization businesses, but the President is the trust's named beneficiary and maintains the control to revoke the trust or change the management at any time.

This arrangement raises significant potential for conflicts of interest and risks the perception that President Trump is exploiting his public office for his family's private gain.

President Trump has repeatedly, and mistakenly, stated that he cannot have a conflict of interest. He makes this assertion based on the fact that the President is exempt from one specific federal conflict of interest law (18 U.S.C. 208). However, the Domestic Emoluments Clause of the United States Constitution states:

The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.

It would appear that any payment for goods or services, or benefit conferred, from the federal government to the Trump Organization would benefit the President and therefore be an emolument prohibited by the Constitution.

For example, President Trump has already visited, Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, twice since taking office and is reportedly planning to visit again this weekend. While he may have a residence at Mar-a-Lago, it remains a for-profit business and allows members access to the club while the President is there. When the President stays at Mar-a-Lago, he is accompanied by his staff, the Secret Service, and military aides. It is not clear if these individuals incur travel expenses or if the club is charging the government for rooms or other expenses. However, if they are staying at Mar-a-Lago and being charged, it directly benefits the President's business and allows him to profit off of every vacation he takes to one of his properties. It would also appear to be a violation of the Domestic Emoluments Clause.

These trips to Mar-a-Lago highlight the significant potential conflicts of interest that exist due to the President's refusal to divest his assets and place them in a blind trust. The Secret Service expenses potentially incurred to stay at Mar-a-Lago are just one example of the numerous likely conflicts that will arise that involve using Department of Homeland Security (DHS) resources in a way that privately benefits the President and his family. We believe your office must conduct a thorough investigation into these issues and continuously monitor the potential for conflicts and violations of the Domestic Emoluments Clause of the Constitution during President Trump's term.

We request that your investigation include, but not be limited to, the following issues:

 

  • DHS and the Secret Service have a crucial responsibility to protect the President and his family. However, many of the properties owned by the Trump Organization have a private residence for the First Family within a for-profit business. In order to protect properties that the First Family regularly visits or lives in, such as Trump Tower in New York and Mar-a-Lago, does DHS currently, or does it plan to, rent property or purchase goods or services from the Trump Organization to facilitate its mission to protect the First Family? What are the costs of these property rentals, goods, and services? Please include any long term leases, as well as room rentals at Trump Organization hotels and clubs. Is there any agreement in place for the Trump Organization to reimburse the federal government for those costs?
  • The Trump Organization owns, or leases the Trump name to, a vast portfolio of real estate throughout the world. This includes many large, high profile buildings that prominently display the President's name and are directly associated with him, making them prime targets for a terrorist attack that would guarantee major media coverage. However, as privately owned properties, they are not secured by the federal government like other high profile targets, such as the White House, U.S. Capitol, and other federal buildings. An attack on a Trump Organization property could cause significant loss of life and lead the country into new conflicts around the globe. Has DHS done any assessment on the risks of attack to the Trump Organization's privately owned properties? 
  • If President Trump continues to refuse to divest his real estate holdings, does DHS have any obligation to protect these properties? If so, what is the expected cost of this security? What factors does DHS use to determine when and where protection of a Trump Organization property is warranted? 
  • Is DHS currently providing protection to any property owned or leased by the Trump Organization? If so, what properties are receiving protection and what is the cost of the protection? Is there any agreement in place for the Trump Organization to reimburse the federal government for those costs?
  • If there is a natural disaster and President Trump declares it a major disaster that is eligible for federal assistance, would a Trump Organization property damaged by the disaster be eligible for federal benefits from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Public Assistance program or other federal support? 
  • We ask that you please provide an initial report to our offices and appropriate congressional committees within ninety days. Also, please provide updates every six months after the date of the original report.

 


Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.