Vice President Mike Pence has spent his trip to Ireland trying to explain why he decided to spend two nights in a village nearly 200 miles away from his scheduled meetings in Dublin—at a struggling golf club owned by President Donald Trump. The president has been accused many times of self-dealing and faced no consequences, but the administration hasn’t helped itself in this situation: The controversy intensified on Tuesday when Pence’s chief of staff said that Trump “suggested” the location.
Is it possible that this latest dubious use of a Trump property by a Trump official is going to actually become a real scandal?
Trump’s past success brushing aside ethics complaints about his business indicates he has a good chance of breezing past this one as well. But the administration sure seems to be bungling its response.
Pence’s office is doing what it can to walk back the harm it already did. The office asserted on Wednesday that Trump “at no time” directed Pence to stay at the resort “and any reporting to the contrary is false.” (Trump has gone so far as to deny he spoke to Pence at all about the resort.) Still, at least one prominent Democrat has accused Trump of corrupt motivations and several publications have taken note that Pence’s office has muddled its justification for the accommodation.
“Mike Pence Keeps Changing His Story on Why He Went 200 Miles Out of His Way to Line Trump’s Pockets,” reads one Rolling Stone headline. “Mike Pence’s stay at Trump’s Doonbeg resort reeks of corruption,” the Washington Post’s editorial board declared. The New York Times story on the controversy made the paper’s front page.
Pence’s office offered two main lines of reasoning for the decision. The first is that the Secret Service has experience working at the club in Doonbeg, a village on the opposite side of the country from Dublin—because Trump himself stayed there earlier this year during a trip to Europe, when he met with the Irish prime minister. (Trump, bafflingly, argued at the time that he was meeting the prime minister in the small village for “convenience.”) The result, according to Pence’s chief of staff , is that the club owned by the president is now an ideal location for a government official to stay because of that experience.
But Politico reported on Tuesday that the hotel was not, in fact, easier from a security standpoint. Former Secret Service agents told the publication that location decisions are usually not made based on security factors and that the agency employs the same kinds of security methods no matter the location.
Pence then offered another reason: his desire to eat at a pub in Doonbeg owned by a distant cousin and connect with his family’s roots. It made sense, in this telling, that he would stay at the Trump International Golf Links & Hotel, given the club’s ability to house his staff and security detail. “If you have a chance to get to Doonbeg, you’ll find it’s a fairly small place, and the opportunity to stay at the Trump National in Doonbeg, to accommodate the unique footprint that comes with our security detail and other personnel, made it logical,” Pence said.
Pence’s office also insisted it had minimized the cost to taxpayers by negotiating room rates. But, according to CNN, “multiple White House officials expressed disbelief that Pence’s office thought spending two nights at the Trump International Golf Links & Hotel was a good idea.” There’s also the matter of transportation costs: The resort was an hourlong motorcade to an airport and a 140-mile, taxpayer-funded flight on Air Force Two from Dublin. Because Pence stayed at the Trump resort on Monday and Tuesday night for meetings held Tuesday, he had to make the trip multiple times.
Trump’s list of potential conflicts of interest and other ethical missteps—including, as in this case, possible violations of the domestic emoluments clause, which bans the president from profiting off his office beyond his salary—is long. It’s also not the first time Trump has suggested that Cabinet members and other advisers stay at Trump properties. In those cases, as with other self-dealing scandals, Trump faced no serious political consequences. (On the matter of the domestic emoluments clause, several federal courts are waiting to hear lawsuits related to Trump’s businesses, including the Trump International Hotel in Washington.) It’s difficult to imagine a controversy over Pence’s lodging making much of a difference. But it’s possible, at this point, it may at least garner enough public outrage to become a full-blown scandal.