There’s a Small Hotel . . .

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 31, 2019

According to news reports, the Trump Organization is now considering selling its prime location Washington hotel. The statement from son Eric Trump was that the company was getting lots of inquiries offering a great deal of cash for the hotel, so why not take a look.

The announcement tweaked my interest — not for the possible purchase of an obviously profitable hotel — but in my perennial if futile search for rationality and logic in Trump thinking.

Since Donald Trump was elected, critics, ethicists and Democrats have pointed out that ownership of this hotel seemed to fly in the face of the emolument clause of the U.S. Constitution, allowing Americans and foreign visitors to steer money to Trump through an indirect means.

It says straight up that the president is barred from receiving financial benefits from kings, princes and foreign legates. As it happens, attempts to determine exactly how much money has been spent at the hotel by foreign legates seeking to do business or diplomacy with the Trump White House have met a stone wall, but the Trump Organization has made token attempts to provide undervalued estimates.

Foreign leaders and their teams have made it clear in interviews and articles over three years that they all recognize that the way to present their cases to Team Trump is to start by booking suites at the very expensive Trump hotel. For that matter, Atty. Gen. William P. Barr organized a $30,000 family gathering at the hotel, and most Republican senators have been by the hotel for regular meetings.

Recently, Rudy Giuliani has been photographed there repeatedly with various associates, including the two financial guys now facing trial on charges stemming from their roles in the Ukrainian affairs behind the current impeachment effort. There is absolutely nothing wrong with meetings or bookings at the hotel by Americans, of course, or even non-Americans, unless they are doing so to win favor with the president.

After all, that has been the force of the talk about enforcing the emolument clause, efforts towards which have launched multiple court cases that so far have proved less than final in creating an understandable ruling. What has come through courts to date have dealt instead with who has appropriate “standing” to bring the court challenge.

Trump himself has gone so far as to call this black-letter rule as “the phony emoluments” clause, and has repeatedly applauded himself for a unique ability to run a business while serving as president.

So then, why is Trump interested in selling the hotel? Estimates are that Trump’s company made $81 million from the hotel last year, so it couldn’t be for money alone. But it couldn’t be over the ethics issues here either, could it? Trump doesn’t even acknowledge that there is a rule setting an ethical standard for his own behaviors.

My own sense is that from a company point of view alone, Trump has tired of constant bickering about his ownership of a fancy hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. While he may not agree with the idea of an emolument clause, his lawyers, financial advisors or others must be warning him that a reckoning could be nigh, whether as part of the impeachment process or in the growing number of legal assaults on his public behaviors.

It is, of course, possible, that Trump has been warned that violation of the emolument clause — not limited to the Trump hotel — could end up being another count in an impeachment process. Announcement of a possible sale of the hotel might be enough to protect his property as well as his presidency in such a consideration.

Much as he walked away from offering his Doral property in Miami for next June’s international G-7 meetings following a ton of outrage about inappropriateness, perhaps Trump’s sudden acknowledgement of ethical principles comes simply from not wanting to hear a steady drumbeat of criticism — even if he doesn’t understand it.

There was a much smaller note last week about the Trump Organization removing the eponymous Trump name from two Central Park ice skating rinks. There was no explanation, but there was acknowledgement from Trump’s company that the presence of his name is no longer working to bring in new business. Indeed, seeing Trump on the name of buildings seems to be sending people looking for alternatives.

In the end, Trump may not sell the hotel at all, or choose to sell it because he can make so much money in one fell swoop that it would enable him to leave Washington altogether and consider a life in retirement.

We can hope.