Where does a foreign autocrat stay when he comes to Washington, D.C., to schmooze the president? Why, the president's hotel, of course.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is in the nation's capital this week, where he met with President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday. And though he did not mention it, at least not in front of reporters, the prime minister and his entourage are staying at the Trump International Hotel, where his security personnel have presumably been told to be on the lookout for male models who are really, really, really ridiculously good-looking.
No problem, right? Trump has supposedly put his assets into a revocable trust, so any profits from the Trump Organization in the next four to eight years are not available to him. And the hotel has promised to donate all profits from foreign government stays or other activities at Trump International to the Treasury.
That promise is the Trump Organization's attempt to avoid Trump possibly violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which forbids presidents from receiving gifts or payment for services rendered from foreign governments while in office. As NPR reported back in May, it is making only the most meager effort on this front:
What the committee got in response was a copy of a glossy nine-page brochure that lays out the Trump Organization's policy. The pamphlet had been distributed to senior Trump employees worldwide, and it stated that it would be impractical to identify every foreign guest. It says that asking guests whether they're representing a foreign government would “impede upon personal privacy and diminish the guest experience of our brand.”
So while the president and his family-owned company might not see any profit from the Malaysian prime minister's visit, his stay is free publicity for the hotel for any other Malaysians travelling to Washington or other cities where there is a Trump hotel, whether the travelers are officially representing their government or private business interests in their country.
And in any case, the Trump Organization won't be donating its profits from this year to the Treasury until sometime in 2018. Assuming the company is keeping close track of those profits, which as of the beginning of the summer, it did not appear to be doing.
Spending money at his hotel is also a way of currying favor with the president and putting money in the pockets of his family, even if he himself theoretically can't receive any of that money while he is in office.
So if you are the Malaysian prime minister, or any other foreign dignitary the Trump Organization has actively courted to stay in or hold events at its luxury hotel, it makes perfect sense to rent a block of rooms at the well-above-market rate the president's company is charging. And if you are Trump, you get the boost to both your ego and your bank account.
And if while he is here the prime minister announces, as he did on Tuesday, that his nation will buy a few billion dollars' worth of airliners from Boeing, that's nice, too. You can think of your hotel profits as your commission.
Everybody wins! Except for the American people, who used to be able to claim that whatever other problems the nation had, at least it was not a kleptocracy run by corrupt rulers using their power to enrich themselves while still in office. That dream died its final death on January 20.
Watch the video of Razak entering the Trump International Hotel, complete with weird soundtrack, below, via the New Straits Times.
Please note: This is a commentary piece. The views and opinions expressed within it are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of IJR.