January 22, 2020, 15:37

The controversy over the Air Force’s stays at a Trump hotel, explained

The controversy over the Air Force’s stays at a Trump hotel, explained

President Donald Trump defended the US Air Force’s increasingly frequent overnight stays at a Trump resort in Scotland on Monday — even as the military branch itself opened an investigation into the matter.

The Air Force announced Sunday it will review its spending practices at the Trump Turnberry Resort in Ayr, Scotland, after a weekend of reports that military members were staying there during increasingly common refueling stops at a nearby private airfield. These reports raised concerns taxpayers are helping to enrich the Trump family through improper military spending.

On Monday, Trump pushed back on Twitter, arguing that there’s nothing wrong with the stays and claiming that he wasn’t behind them. “NOTHING TO DO WITH ME,” he wrote.

However, the visits to Trump Turnberry do, in fact, have something to do with the president. Though he ceded day-to-day management to his children, he still owns and benefits from the resort, as he himself pointed out.

The financial rewards Trump has reaped from his hotel and resort holdings have been an issue for the president for some time, and he has faced increased scrutiny over government spending at his business interests in recent weeks due to much-publicized transactions by two of his top officials.

Just last week, Trump was criticized for “suggesting” Vice President Mike Pence stay at a Trump Organization property in a remote area of Ireland while in that country for meetings in Dublin. Trump later denied he had made any such suggestion, but Pence stayed at the resort anyway. That visit came a week after Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, faced censure for booking the president’s Washington, DC, hotel for a $30,000 Christmas party.

Given that context, the Air Force’s spending has drawn attention and concern, particularly because overnight stays in the area have increased dramatically since Trump entered the White House — so far this year, there has been a 500 percent increase in the number of overnight stays compared to 2015.

It is not clear if President Trump personally had anything to do with this uptick, nor is it clear if any Air Force officials pushed for military members to stay at the Turnberry in order to help the president profit. However, it is clear that at least some found the stays unusual, with at least one military member complaining their per diem was too low to cover food at the resort. And since the rooms were not provided free of charge, it is also clear that the stays benefited the president.

That fact concerns the president’s critics, who fear that his businesses are — at best — being financially buoyed by his office, and that — at worst — are an avenue through which individuals, corporations, foreign countries, and even the military can curry favor with the country’s chief executive.

The controversy over Air Force spending at the Trump Turnberry, briefly explained

Public questions over the Air Force’s spending at the Scottish resort first arose following a Friday Politico report that found military members traveling to the Middle East stopped at the property while refueling at the nearby Prestwick Airport, a commercial facility, on a number of occasions. And an earlier report by the Guardian found the airport has offered discounted rooms and complimentary rounds of golf at the resort to military members refueling there.

The House Oversight Committee had quietly been investigating both the stays and refueling stops since June, but so far has had little success in learning more about either; the Department of Defense has reportedly refused to cooperate with investigators.

While stops at Prestwick began during Barack Obama’s presidency, they have increased greatly since Trump became president — since 2017, the US military has spent at least $17.2 million at the airport. CNN found there were only 95 stops at the airport in 2015; in 2016, that number rose to 145, and this year, there have already been 259 stops.

Those stops alone were cause for concern given fuel is generally more expensive at commercial airfields than at military ones like the nearby Lakenheath Air Base in England; the Air Force pushed back against concerns of overspending Sunday, writing in a release, that Prestwick “has been contracted by DOD for fuel at standardized prices.”

The committee was concerned by the expenditures in part because it found the resort, Trump Turnberry, and Prestwick have a symbiotic relationship, and that both were struggling financially until recently.

But Air Force Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas said on Sunday there was nothing out of the ordinary about the stays at the Trump resort, either, telling CNN military members who stayed there “made reservations through the Defense Travel System and used the closest available and least expensive accommodations to the airfield within the crews’ allowable hotel rates.”

The Air Force also said its use of the airport was due to logistical concerns, noting Prestwick “has a large parking area, is open 24/7/365,” and that it has “less aircraft parking congestion than locations on the European continent.”

The fact that overnight stays in the area have been on the rise, however, left some questioning the general’s statement. In 2015, when the airport first began to be used, shortly after Trump bought the resort, there were 40 overnight stays. That number increased to 75 in 2016, 116 in 2017, 208 in 2018, and 220 so far this year. And as these overnight stays rose, so did Trump Turnberry’s fortunes: It went from losing $4.5 million in 2017, to seeing $3 in revenue gains in 2018.

After its initial statements, the Air Force continued to maintain it had done nothing wrong, but admitted that given recent questions over spending at Trump hotels — like Vice President Mike Pence insisting on staying at a Trump property far from his meetings during a recent trip to Ireland — it could see why the public was concerned.

“While initial reviews indicate that aircrew transiting through Scotland adhered to all guidance and procedures, we understand that US service members lodging at higher-end accommodations, even if within government rates, might be allowable but not advisable,” chief Air Force spokesperson Brig. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr. said late Sunday. “Therefore, we are reviewing all associated guidance.”

Thomas added, “The trust and confidence of the American people and Congress is critically important.”

Spending at Trump properties has been under increased scrutiny

Questions over military spending at Trump Turnberry come amid increasing concern that President Trump is financially benefiting from his presidency.

Trump has claimed he has lost between $3 and 5 billion being president, a figure financial experts have disputed. While some of his properties have seen a decline in attendance, others have seen a boom in visits by his administration officials, and even foreign actors. As Vox’s Riley Beggin has written:

The president has argued no there is nothing underhanded about this spending, much like he said he’s done nothing wrong with respect to the military member stays at Trump Turnberry. He released a similar statement about Pence’s stay at his Irish resort, defending it by arguing the vice president stayed there so he could “stop and see his family.”

While Pence did include a visit to his ancestral home during the visit, he was there on his country’s business, for meetings with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and other local officials in Dublin, which is 180 miles away from Trump’s Irish resort. And although he later walked back his comments, Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short said the vice president chose to stay there after the president mentioned it, “I don’t think it was a request, like a command. I think that it was a suggestion.”

That stay helped the president in the short term with a taxpayer-funded cash infusion that could total in the tens of thousands given that hotel’s rates, and in the long term with marketing as Trump’s Irish property can now say a sitting president and vice president have both stayed there. Claims like that come with great financial benefits, with Politico finding Trump properties visited by the president brought in millions more than they had before his visits.

The president’s visits to his resorts, Pence’s stay, and foreign spending at Trump properties in general have concerned ethics officials and members of the House Oversight Committee, who fear that by refusing to divest himself of his business interests Trump has not just opened the floor to corruption — such as businesses looking to crest regulatory hurdles buying up extended stays at his hotels — but that he has also placed himself in danger of violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits presidents from receiving payments and gifts from foreign governments.

In fact, concerns over foreign actors’ spending at Trump properties has spawned two lawsuits that argue the president has indeed violated that clause; the Department of Justice is defending the president in these suits, arguing he’s done nothing wrong.

It is into this charged situation that the Air Force — which, like all branches of the military, typically works to stay above politics — has waded.

It maintains the whole affair is a misunderstanding, and that it wants to “be considerate of perceptions of not being good stewards of taxpayer funds that might be created through the appearance of aircrew staying at such locations.”

In its investigation will review its guidelines for overnight stays, and will look into whether any changes need to be made in order to avoid any perceptions of impropriety. As it moves forward, the House Oversight Committee plans to continue its investigation as well, although whether it can overcome the lack of cooperation it has faced thus far at the Pentagon remains to be seen.

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