Timothy L. O’Brien: Mike Pence’s Doonbeg visit proves he’s a giver
Go ahead and forgive yourself if you find some details of Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Ireland confusing.
Although Pence has official meetings in Dublin (on Ireland’s east coast) he and his federal entourage have found lodging in Doonbeg (on Ireland’s west coast). Why Doonbeg? Well, Pence has ancestral ties to Doonbeg, about which he waxed poetic on Tuesday as he explained his decision to burden his team and U.S. taxpayers by staying 125 miles away from Dublin. Even better: Donald Trump owns a hotel and golf course in Doonbeg, which Pence also found inviting.
“If you have a chance to get to Doonbeg you’ll find it’s a fairly small place,” Pence told reporters. “The opportunity to stay at Trump National in Doonbeg, to accommodate the unique footprint that comes with our security detail and other personnel, made it logical.”
Logic may not have been the only factor at work when Pence pondered accommodations. Did the fact that his boss owns a hotel in Ireland figure into the mix, and might the president have suggested that Pence patronize a Trump property? Yes, it would seem — and we know that because Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, told reporters as much on Tuesday morning.
“I don’t think it was a request, like a command… It’s like, ‘Well, you should stay at my place,’” Short said. “It wasn’t like a, ‘You must.’ It wasn’t like, ‘You have to.’”
But by late Tuesday night, Pence’s team had backed off that thought. “We want to clarify that the decision to stay at Trump International in Doonbeg, Ireland was solely the decision of the Office of the Vice President,” Pence’s advisers told a New York Times reporter, Maggie Haberman. “At no time did the President direct our office to stay at his Doonbeg resort and any reporting to the contrary is false.”
The Trump White House, which remains mired in chaos, congressional investigations and financial conflicts of interest, has made a habit of dissembling, lying or contradicting itself. Perhaps Pence’s staff pulled an about-face regarding Doonbeg because even a mini-controversy raises the specter of the president and his sidekick skirting the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clauses. “Emolument” is, essentially, an 18th century word for “bribery” and the clauses aim to keep federal leaders honest by forbidding them from taking gifts, money or other freebies from foreign or domestic entities. In short, they enshrine the quaint notion that good government and good policy is built on ethical leadership.
I don’t imagine, though, that Trump and Pence are overly worried about emoluments violations. Trump flagrantly ignored his own conflicts of interest during his presidential bid and then allowed an overt, slow-motion grift to continue the moment he moved into the Oval Office. Some of the more brazen members of Trump’s team fell by the wayside — think of Tom Price, Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt — when they got caught scooping up too much for themselves. Pence hasn’t made that mistake. He seems to understand that his survival hinges on giving, not taking.
Doonbeg isn’t the first time that Pence has managed to channel money to Trump. Pence’s political committee, the Great America Committee, has spent approximately $224,000 since 2017 at Trump Organization properties, according to the Daily Beast and ProPublica. (Pence’s brother, a freshman congressman, has also been a heavy spender at Trump’s Washington hotel, according to USA Today.) Since 2015, political groups, largely Republican, have spent about $20 million at Trump hotels according to the Center for Responsive Politics and the New York Times. In 2018 alone, foreign governments spent $1 million at Trump properties, and mainly at the president’s Washington hotel, according to the Washington Post.
Attorney General William Barr is in on the action as well. He may spend at least $30,000 to throw a holiday party at Trump’s Washington hotel in December. A Justice Department official told the Washington Post that Barr was forced to hold his bash there because other major hotels were already booked and that “the purpose of Barr’s party wasn’t to curry favor with the president.”
Barr has already curried ample favor with Trump by running interference for him before and after former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 campaign became public. So perhaps he doesn’t need to patronize a Trump hotel as well to stay in the president’s good graces. But as all of those who survive in Trump’s White House know, the president keeps you around if you do as he does. Trump himself recently suggested that next year’s Group of Seven diplomatic summit would do well to make its way to his Doral resort in Florida — in what would be an unabashed mingling of his public duties with his private fortunes — so it’s not hard to discern where the Mike Pences and the Bill Barrs of the world might be getting their cues.
Pence and Barr are also adults and are well aware of the power of public perception. And whether it’s in Doonbeg or in Washington, they shouldn’t kid themselves that lining the president’s wallet isn’t unseemly and corrosive, even if it’s perfectly legal.
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.”