Emolumental: Mulvaney and Trump Like Doral for a G-7 Quid Pro Quo

Timothy L. O'Brien

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If you’re wondering how the White House decided a Miami golf resort owned by President Donald Trump was the best venue for a major diplomatic gathering, the Group of Seven summit, the U.S. will host next June, Mick Mulvaney has answers.

In a press briefing on Thursday, Trump’s acting chief of staff said his team made its choice after analyzing about a dozen criteria “used by past administrations” that included accommodations as well as “ballrooms, bilateral rooms, the number of rooms, the photo ops, the support hotels that are there, the proximity to cities and airports, helicopter landing zones, medical facilities, etc.”

During a visit to Europe in July, the president himself said that he liked the idea of holding the G-7 at Trump National Doral because his Florida spread has “tremendous acreage” and “people are liking it.” But that didn’t mean Trump’s advisers would just roll over and do whatever their boss wanted. Instead, Mulvaney assured us, the White House deployed “an advance team” to examine multiple locations in several states. That scrutiny produced a list of four finalists the crack team pored over before deciding, against the odds, that Doral was the one.

“Doral was, by far and away — far and away — the best physical facility for this meeting,” Mulvaney said at the press briefing. “In fact, I was talking to one of the advance teams when they came back, and I said, ‘What was it like?’ And they said, ‘Mick, you’re not going to believe this, but it’s almost like they built this facility to host this type of event.’” 

That means, presumably, that Mulvaney never had a conversation in the Oval Office about the selection process that might have gone like this:Mulvaney: “We’re looking at several sites and –”Trump: “Doral.”Mulvaney: “But Mr. President, if you hold the G-7 at your own place that means that the government is using taxpayer funds to fill your wallet and –”Trump: “Doral.”Mulvaney: “I just want to remind you about the grief we got when the vice president stayed at your hotel in Ireland and –”Trump: “Doral.”Mulvaney: “And the grief we got about the our military personnel staying at your golf club in Scotland because –”Trump: “Doral.”Mulvaney: “There’s also been lots of chatter about all of the diplomats who stay at your Washington hotel and –”Trump: “Doral.”Mulvaney: “Let’s not forget the Kushners used your image and name for product marketing in China, Jared’s maneuvers with 666 Fifth Avenue, the trademarks China suddenly awarded you and Ivanka, taxpayer funds used to help Don Jr. and Eric make overseas business trips or to help you golf all the time at your own clubs, or questions about why you keep appeasing guys like Putin and Erdogan, and why you haven’t really distanced yourself from your businesses or released your tax returns and –”Trump: “Doral.”Mulvaney: “Well, I’ve thought about it, and I’d like to recommend Doral to you, Mr. President.”Trump: “Thank you Mick, that’s a great idea.”Nope, a conversation like that never could have happened and Mulvaney held his press conference to make sure reporters could take his word for it. And sure enough, a reporter did ask if Trump personally intervened to get Doral on the short list of G-7 venues. Yep, he did, Mulvaney answered.

“We sat around one night. We were back in the dining room and I was going over it with a couple of our advance team. We had the list, and [Trump] goes, ‘What about Doral?’  And it was like, ‘That’s not the craziest idea. It makes perfect sense.’”

That’s the kind of answer that could convince skeptics Trump is violating “emoluments” provisions in the Constitution that bar presidents from accepting payments from foreign governments (since lots of foreign governments attending the G-7 will be spending money at Doral).

Mulvaney tried to get in front of that by asking and then answering the most obvious question about hosting the G-7 at Doral.

“Is the president going to profit from this? I think the president has pretty much made it very clear since he’s got here that he doesn’t profit from being here. He has no interest in profit from being here,” he allowed. “It’s one of the reasons that he’s not taken a salary since he’s been here. He’s given that salary to charity. Will not be profiting here.”

Reporters batted some of that back, asking why Trump didn’t see the Doral move as a pure financial conflict of interest and why Mulvaney also didn’t recognize it as free marketing and brand promotion for the president’s company. Mulvaney had no patience for that but couldn’t really put the questions to rest, either.

“I was aware of the political, sort of, criticism that we’d come under for doing it at Doral, which is why I was so surprised when the advance team called back and said that this is the perfect physical location to do this.”

Mulvaney also swatted down comparisons between the financial practices and ethics of Trump and those of former Vice President Joe Biden and his family – addressing the topic before reporters had even asked about it. (Trump, of course, is in the middle of an impeachment inquiry for asking the president of Ukraine to unearth financial dirt involving Biden.)

“There’s no issue here on him profiting from this in any way, shape, or form,” Mulvaney reiterated about Doral. “What’s the difference between this and what we’re talking about the Bidens? Well, first of all, there’s no profit here. Clearly, there’s profit with the Bidens.  And, second of all, I think if there’s one difference that you look at between the Trump family and the Biden family: The Trump family made their money before they went into politics. That’s a big difference.”

That’s a problematic way to frame things though because the Trump Organization has been struggling to keep revenue and profits robust at Doral — its biggest golf property — and thus has incentives to steer government business in its own direction. Doral has also received bad press about bedbug, roach, and other insect infestations — along with hundreds of health code violations — but reporters didn’t ask Mulvaney about that.

Last year, an armed man managed to sneak into Doral, steal an American flag and drape it over a lobby counter, pull a fire alarm and then start screaming about Trump before shooting at the ceiling, chandeliers and the police who ultimately apprehended him. Reporters didn’t ask Mulvaney about security concerns if the G-7 ends up at Doral.

If I was at the press conference, I also would have asked Mulvaney about the tournament Doral planned to host last summer featuring strippers serving as golfers’ “caddy girls,” but that’s probably just one of the reasons the White House doesn’t invite me to its media events.

Like Sean Spicer before him, Mulvaney appears entirely willing to throw himself in front of the media and dissemble while essentially serving as one of Trump’s crash test dummies. It’s also still astounding how easily Trump co-opts people like Mulvaney and how readily Mulvaney and his ilk trample on the Constitution and shred core, non-partisan public values in Trump’s service.

Consider this reporter’s question at the Thursday presser about the propriety of holding the G-7 summit at Doral. 

“Is there any value to sending a message to the world, especially given that all that’s happened with foreign interference and attempts at foreign interference in our country, that this president and this country is not open for the kind of self-dealing that happens in other countries? Is that not an important message to send when you’re inviting the world to come here to the United States?”

“No,” Mulvaney responded.

To contact the author of this story: Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Matthew Brooker at mbrooker1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

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