Tower of power
Payments to Trump’s private properties are a fraught issue. The president hasn’t divested from his business, now run by his sons, and government watchdogs have criticized him for profiting from the presidency in unprecedented ways.
Trump’s official campaign committee has paid $2.3 million to a Trump business entity for rent and utilities since he began his run, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign finance data. The Secret Service has paid six figures for golf cart rentals at Trump’s clubs in order to carry out their mission of protecting the president, and struggled to negotiate a rent agreement for the same purpose. The Defense Department has needed space at Trump Tower, too, though it didn’t rent from Trump directly and said Trump isn’t profiting from the deal.
Trump Tower was the public center of Trump’s presidential transition work.
Reporters staked out the building lobby to monitor the visits of potential Cabinet nominees against the gilded backdrop. Tourists stopped by to gawk. C-SPAN even set up an “elevator cam” to monitor comings and goings.
There are precedents for incoming presidents using private space for transitions, said Martha Joynt Kumar, head of the nonpartisan nonprofit White House Transition Project, which provides information to presidential transitions. But Kumar could think of no previous instance in which the provision of presidential transition space would have involved payments to an incoming president’s own business.
The GSA was also providing the Trump transition with other office space for free — typical support offered to presidential transitions. (In 2008, for example, incoming president Barack Obama received space via GSA in Washington, D.C. and Chicago.)
After the 2016 election, the GSA waived $1.8 million worth of rent on the public office space it provided to Trump’s transition, according to records obtained by the Center for Public Integrity via a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
As a condition of accepting public funds for the transition, Trump agreed the maximum contribution accepted by Trump for America, the nonprofit set up to accept private dollars, would be $5,000 per contributor.
Trump for America also had to disclose the source and amount of private contributions “and expenditure of all monetary contributions” in a report filed with the General Services Administration last February, according to the memorandum of understanding Trump signed with GSA.
The report showed Trump for America raised roughly $6.5 million, boasting a contributor list salted with lobbyists, corporations and billionaires with business before the government, and spent nearly $4.7 million.
Among the corporate donors: AT&T, General Electric, Microsoft, Exxon Mobil Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and PepsiCo. Prominent individuals include casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, coal magnate Joseph W. Craft III and businesswoman Diane Hendricks.
Trump for America’s spending disclosures, however, showed far less detail than the small-print contributor list: just a few lines showing broad categories of spending, such as “payroll” or “travel and relocation expenses,” with no disclosure of who actually got paid.
Trump for America must file a tax return with the Internal Revenue Service, which will provide some detail about its finances, but that’s still months away.
More oversight needed?
As the Trump transition was wrapping up a year ago, transition chief Pence said the process had been so efficiently run, “We will actually return some 20 percent of taxpayer funding back to the U.S. Treasury.”
It’s not clear how Pence calculated the 20 percent figure, and his office did not respond to questions about it.
2016 marked the first full transition between presidential administrations since Congress passed legislation in 2010 that, for the first time, made public money available to the two major party candidates before the election in hopes of ensuring a smoother transfer of power.
Roughly $13.3 million was allocated for pre-election expenses for Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, according to a statement GSA gave the Center for Public Integrity in connection with settlement of the FOIA lawsuit.
The Trump transition received an additional $6 million allocation for post-election transition expenses, according to GSA, and another $1 million was set aside for appointee orientation and training.
Kumar said there needs to be more oversight of how the transition legislation worked. “It’s not just a question of the money,” she said, but “how ... the whole new setup” based on the legislation actually worked.
Chris Lu, the executive director of Obama’s 2008 transition, now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center, said transitions are massive endeavors that can be misleading in regard to costs, in part because “you’ve got paid transition staff. You’ve got people who actually are being paid out of the transition payroll and then there’s hundreds of other people who you could pay, but who are simply volunteering out of their own time.”
According to a statement GSA provided to the Center for Public Integrity, and accompanying records, $1.5 million in leftover transition funds was used in July 2017 to offset the waived rent on the offices GSA provided to the Trump transition. That was done per a memorandum of understanding Trump signed with GSA in August, calling for any remaining money to be used for that purpose.
The amount didn’t cover all the waived rent, but per the GSA official who asked that it be credited, it would make the agency “a little more whole.”
“What it looks like is that Mike Pence went out of his way to make the claim that taxpayers saved money because Donald Trump is a good businessman, but every dollar that was set aside for the transition was spent for the transition and Mike Pence knew that when he tried to claim otherwise,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight.
This article was co-published by TIME and Public Radio International.
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