Donald Trump is hosting the Prime Minister of Japan for a state visit and a joint press conference, after which the two leaders will jet off to Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, where Abe and his wife will stay for the remainder of the visit. It took several days for the White House to decide who would pay for those accommodations, and the solution they settled on breaks another promise, while further exposing Trump's conflicts of interests.
The story of Donald Trump's invitation for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan to stay at his Mar-a-Lago resort is a sharply-drawn microcosm of the Trump administration as a whole.
Back in January, Trump and his lawyer promised that any payments by foreign governments for lodging at Trump's properties would be given to the United States Treasury, in a cosmetic bid to shield Trump from his massive ethical conflicts. When that promise came due this week, the Trump administration was caught without a plan to make good on it, and spent three days finding a solution that still clearly managed to break that promise.
McClatchy White House Correspondent Anita Kumar tried to find out who would be paying for Abe's stay at Mar-a-Lago and where that money would go, and as she explained to Press Secretary Sean Spicer, she was given a chaotic runaround:
KUMAR: ...can you tell us who is paying, or how this is happening, with Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Mar-a-Lago? Who will be paying for that? I asked the White House yesterday. They referred me to State. State referred me to the Japanese government, who didn’t respond. It seems as if the Prime Minister was paying and the money was going to Treasury, as previously discussed before —
SPICER: You mean when he travels here or to Florida?
KUMAR: — then it seems the White House would know that.
SPICER: Yeah, and let me get back to you on that. We’ll follow up with you on the exact financing. I’m not sure how that flows, but I’d be glad to find out.
After three days of trying to get an answer to this seemingly simple question, Kumar finally got one at the tail end of a later briefing, when Spicer was called back to the podium to offer an explanation:
[Cross-talk from reporters]
SPICER: Sorry, one quick one. On Mar-a-Lago, someone asked about it yesterday, so a quick follow-up: The President has offered, as a gift to the Prime Minister, he will be his guest at Mar-a-Lago. No one else will be staying there, as far as I know, from the Japanese delegation. They will stay out in town with the rest of the staff. But that is a gift that the President is extending to the Prime Minister.
One glaring problem with this is that, given Trump's earlier promise, a free stay at a Trump property is not his gift to give — it is the American taxpayers'. Beyond violating that promise, Trump's arrangement for Abe presents other ethical problems, as Kumar notes in her report:
“President Trump should not be giving personal gifts of significant financial value to foreign leaders, and President Trump should be avoiding even the appearance that he is using public office to promote his personal financial interests,” said John Wonderlich, executive editor of the Sunlight Foundation, which pushes for government openness. “By giving Prime Minister Abe a free stay at Mar-a-Lago, he is promoting his commercial brand, and flouting the ethics standards he was elected, in part, to uphold.”
“There remains the fact that this is a free global infomercial for Mar-a-Lago, which has recently announced that it will be doubling its fee from 100k to 200k,” said Norman Eisen, who served as a White House ethics lawyer under President Barack Obama.
As poor a solution as this is, there is no telling how the White House would have dealt with this had Kumar not so doggedly pursued this story. The White House was inexcusably caught flat-footed by these questions, which only further highlights the ethical morass that Trump has created for himself, and the need for reporters and the public to work hard at holding him accountable at all times.