One week after the 2016 election, employees at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., pitched dozens of foreign diplomats on the property and all it had to offer. Not that much of a spiel was required, since the chief advantage was obvious: it belonged to the president. As one unnamed Asian diplomat put it to the Washington Post: “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’”
The idea that Donald Trump may have gained an improper advantage over his competitors precisely because of calculations like that is the grounds for a lawsuit filed in federal court last year that claims Trump is violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution by accepting payments from governments via his swanky D.C. hotel. On Wednesday, attorneys general from Washington, D.C., and Maryland dispatched a long list of subpoenas to government agencies, Trump-affiliated businesses and 18 of their competitors that they believe will prove he has.
But while most of the speculation around the threat the emoluments clause may pose to Trump’s businesses has centered on foreign transactions, the attorneys general are taking a different tack, focusing on the lesser-known domestic emoluments clause — which says the president can’t accept payment from the government outside his salary.
Among the federal agencies hit with subpoenas is the General Services Administration, which oversees the Trump Organization’s lease on the Old Post Office building (a federal property the Trump Org began converting into a hotel in 2013) and whose employees spent at least $1,700 at the property in 2017. The Department of Agriculture, which spent $12,000 at the property in the same period was also subpoenaed. Subpoenas were issued to the state of Maine, representatives of which spent more $35,000 at the Trump International Hotel over three months in 2017, and the Department of Defense, which spent some $138,000 at Trump’s properties in the first eight months of his presidency. The AGs are also demanding documents from the Treasury Department, to which Trump promised to donate any profits of foreign governments staying at the hotel. (The Trump Organization claimed its total profit at the property was just $151,470 in 2017.)
From the agencies, prosecutors want credit card and billing receipts for any transactions at the hotel or its restaurant, BLT Prime, as well as all payments to any other hotels and restaurants,, and all documents about the policies, guidelines or factors the agencies may have used to choose the venues they used in Washington, D.C., after the 2016 election.
From the Trump Organization, prosecutors are asking for a lot more: documents that demonstrate Trump’s “current, historic, and future financial interest” in the hotel, state and federal income tax returns, organizational charts, any internal conversations about the emoluments clause, contracts and drafts of contracts with the General Services Administration, all communications with the GSA, as well as “documents sufficient to identify the payor and/or source of the Payment in the amount of $151,470 from The Trump Corporation to the U.S. Treasury,” as well as any and all documents indicating how the Trump Corporation calculated that figure.
The Trump International Hotel, which was hemorrhaging money before the election, has emerged as one of the few bright spots in the Trump portfolio; most Trump properties have suffered financially since he took office, but the hotel earned $40 million in 2017, according to the president’s financial disclosures — almost double what it took in the previous year.