In a press briefing on October 17, 2019, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney announced that the United States would host the 46th G-7 summit at the Trump National Doral Miami, a golf resort in Doral Florida owned by the Trump Organization. The announcement provoked widespread concern (see here and here) that this choice would violate the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, which bars any person “holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States]” from “accepting any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign state,” as well as the Domestic Emoluments Clause, which bars the President from receiving any emolument, other than his salary, from the United States or any of the individual states. Following two days of complaints—not only from the ethics watchdogs and the President’s Democratic opponents, but also from some of his Republican allies—the White House abandoned the plan. So, the situation appears to have resolved itself. Nonetheless, the particular argument that Mulvaney advanced to defend against the anticipated Emoluments Clause complaints is worth considering—and debunking—lest this argument arise again in another context.
To be clear, the White House’s attempt to host the G-7 at a Trump Organization venue appears to be part of the same pattern of self-dealing that has already prompted multiple lawsuits against Trump for alleged violations of the Emoluments Clauses. As Mulvaney said on Fox News this past Sunday, “[President Trump] still considers himself to be in the hospitality business, and he saw an opportunity to take the biggest leaders from around the world and he wanted to put on the absolute best show.” Although the proposal to host the G-7 summit at the Doral resort was dropped, Mulvaney’s admission is worrying because there are reasons to suspect Trump chose the Doral property to benefit himself financially. (Consider the fact that in 2004, when the United States hosted the summit on Sea Island the organizers served 45,000 meals and paid the resort owners $3 million to reserve the entire property for 10 days.)
When Mulvaney detailed the White House’s decision-making process for the G-7 venue on October 17, he claimed the administration used neutral criteria when it made this choice (which is a bit hard to swallow given that Mulvaney stated the President suggested Doral), and that Doral was actually the best location (an assertion that is hard to assess without knowing the other venues the White House was considering). Furthermore, Mulvaney also argued that there was no Emoluments Clause violation because Doral would host the event “at cost”—that is, that Doral would only charge the government for the cost of the goods and services provided, and would not make a profit. On its face, this sounds plausible. After all, if Doral—and hence the Trump Organization—does not earn any profits on the G-7 meeting, but merely breaks even, then how can Trump have received an “emolument” from the U.S. government? If anything, the Trump Organization would have provided the U.S. government with a venue and associated amenities at a discounted rate.
Despite its superficial plausibility, there are three flaws with the argument that running the event “at cost” would eliminate any Emoluments Clause problem: