Buried in the controversy over President Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was an effort by the Ukrainian leader at currying favor with Trump through his business.
“Actually, last time I traveled to the United States, I stayed in New York near Central Park, and I stayed at the Trump Tower,” Zelensky told Trump, according to a rough transcript of the July 25 call released Wednesday.
Zelensky’s comments mark the first known example of an interaction Democrats and government ethics experts warned about when Trump took office: that foreign leaders would try to influence Trump by spending money at his properties and telling him about it.
Other Ukrainian officials have also patronized Trump properties. A top Zelensky aide met at Trump’s D.C. hotel in July with Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, a frequent patron of the hotel himself, according to the New York Times. A lobbyist who registered as an agent of Zelensky’s with the U.S. government hosted a $1,900 event at the D.C. hotel in April, according to a federal filing.
Internal hotel listings of “VIP” guests at the hotel, obtained by The Washington Post, show that Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, associates of Giuliani’s in his efforts to build connections with Ukraine, stayed at the hotel in April 2018 and were listed as Trump loyalty-card members and repeat customers.
“This is what we’ve been warning about for years: proof directly from the White House that a foreign leader is trying to get in Trump’s good graces by telling him he stayed at his hotel,” said the advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in a statement.
Another advocacy group, Public Citizen, tweeted: “The Ukrainian president telling Trump that he spent money at his New York hotel is an important reminder that our president violates the Constitution’s emoluments clause every. single. day.”
It remains unclear whether the stays were illegal. Zelensky may not have entered office at the time of his stay at Trump International Tower, overlooking Central Park in New York.
A spokeswoman for Zelensky declined to say when the president’s New York stay took place, but Zelensky posted several images from New York City — including a video jogging in Central Park — on social media in March 2018. That was 14 months before Zelensky entered office and more than six months before he entered the race for president in Ukraine.
Legal experts said the timing made that visit unlikely to violate the foreign emoluments clause, which bars the acceptance of gifts “from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” In three lawsuits winding their way through the court systems, Democrats and business competitors of Trump allege that Trump violates the emoluments ban by accepting payments from foreign leaders.
“The attempt here is to find a quid pro quo and the argument could be that Trump gave [Zelensky] something to reward him for staying at the hotel a year or so earlier,” said Boston College law professor George Brown. Based on the available information about Zelensky’s stay, Brown said, “I think it’s a weak argument.”
Other foreign leaders — including from Kuwait, Bahrain and Malaysia — haven’t been bashful about holding events at the Trump hotel in D.C., and when the crown prince of Saudi Arabia made his visit to New York last year, members of his entourage also stayed at Trump’s New York hotel.
Attorney General William P. Barr plans to hold a holiday bash at the D.C. hotel in December that will cost a minimum of $30,000, according to documents obtained by The Post. In court, Justice Department attorneys have argued Trump has done nothing wrong. Trump’s company, which did not return a request for comment, donates what it calculates to be profits from foreign business to the U.S. Treasury.
Still, the idea behind the foreign emoluments clause, said University of Iowa law professor Andy Grewal, is that “if a foreign leader is paying you, then that’s a violation.”
“If he is just going on a summer vacation as a private citizen with his wife, that’s a different story,” he said.
On Wednesday, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) launched an impeachment inquiry over Trump’s attempts to persuade Zelensky to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, other House Democrats pushed for more information about Trump’s hotel business.
In a morning subcommittee hearing, Democrats on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee asked why officials from the General Services Administration — the agency that leases the Old Post Office to Trump for his D.C. hotel — have repeatedly refused to hand over financial records and legal memos related to the project.
According to the lease agreement between the Trump Organization and the GSA, the government should receive a cut of earnings after the hotel hits certain financial benchmarks. But the agency has not disclosed information about the hotel’s performance, following a request from Trump’s private lawyers that it be withheld.
“How do we know what the income is? How do we know how GSA is calculating the profits?” said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), Transportation Committee chairman. “We don’t know whether we are getting a damn penny out of this thing or not.”
Dan Mathews, head of the GSA’s Public Building Service, said that last year the agency received just the base annual rent from the Trump Organization of $3 million. He said the agency was reviewing how much more information to release.
Republicans on the committee called the hearing politically motivated. Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.), the top Republican on the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, said the panel should be focusing on infrastructure improvements or disaster relief rather than investigating the hotel project “because of the perception of wrongdoing.”
Meadows pointed out that the property was losing money for the government before Trump turned it into a luxury hotel that is now producing government revenue.
“This is a good deal for the American taxpayer,” Meadows said. “We can deal with the emoluments issue separately.”
Meadows knows the hotel well, as his campaign has spent $11,435 there, according to campaign finance filings.