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'Washington Post' Reporters Record Comings And Goings At Trump's D.C. Hotel

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A few blocks from the White House, it's a grand old building that used to house Washington's main post office. The federal government owns the building and leases it out. And its latest tenant - the Trump International Hotel. That's made it a focus of the debate over conflicts of interest between the Trump administration and the Trump family business. To really understand how this plays out in practice, Washington Post reporters spent every day for a month hanging out in the hotel's lobby. Jonathan O'Connell is the Post reporter who organized the project. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JONATHAN O'CONNELL: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: So your reporters are in the lobby of the hotel. Who are some of the faces they see coming and going?

O'CONNELL: You know, there's sort of this one bucket of folks who are obviously there because they're interested or involved in Republican politics in some way, right? So this is when Sean Spicer was hanging out at the bar. We saw Corey Lewandowski, who worked on the president's campaign, there having a meeting or being interviewed by a reporter. Newt Gingrich strolled through to give a speech to a funeral directors group.

You know, even Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary - he lived in the hotel for six months. And we didn't see him carrying around his little dog, but we've heard from other people who were in the hotel where he kind of carries around his little dog in the mornings and takes his dog out for a walk. That's definitely one set. Another is the protesters. You know, that hotel has become a central target of people who are opposing the Trump administration. And then the last group is kind of tourists.

So not only do you have people who are just sort of interested in the new hotel, but you have people who are Trump fans. You have people wearing make America great again hats and T-shirts and all and just want to kind of see the - see the scene also. So it's kind of a wild mix. There was rarely a boring night when we were there. I just have never seen anything like it.

CORNISH: To go back to that first group, it's not that unusual for a party to kind of coalesce around a certain hangout, right? That happens with any administration in Washington.

O'CONNELL: This is just really dramatically different from that, the main difference being every single cup of coffee, every beer at the bar, every big-ticket reception, every single dollar that is spent there goes to the president's company and ultimately to him. So if there are groups or, you know, other governments, et cetera, who feel pressured to spend money there or who feel like they will have a better chance at having their voice heard by the administration if they stay at the hotel or hold the meeting at the hotel, that is the sort of thing that raises really hard questions for ethical experts who say that this is a big problem. And, you know, legally nobody has figured out a way to prevent this. There are a number of lawsuits targeting the situation and trying to get Trump to either have to sell his hotel or get out of the business in some way, but so far none of them have worked.

CORNISH: Right, 'cause it's not illegal basically.

O'CONNELL: Well, we don't - I mean, like, for instance, like, the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution that people raise whereby the president is prevented from receiving payments or benefits from foreign governments, you know, that's never really been tried in a court before. And lots of people are trying - are bringing cases right now, trying to figure out if he is violating the Constitution in some way. But the cases are moving very slowly, and no one really knows where they're headed at this point.

CORNISH: Speaking of foreign governments, how do foreign-based groups view this hotel and the opportunity to stay there or hold events there?

O'CONNELL: You know, it's very interesting because early on, we did some reporting where we talked to a bunch of foreign diplomats and embassies. And, you know, they felt some pressure to maybe stay at the hotel and hold events there. What's happened since then is that there was enough kind of public pressure about emoluments and the concern about emoluments that the hotel's managers agreed to donate profits from events with foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury at the end of the year.

What they can do still and what they are doing all the time is booking other foreign entities that are not governments. So for instance, we ran into a medical conference that was sponsored by an Italian foundation. And, you know, no one - well, I don't really know what was happening in the meetings - we weren't inside the meetings - and no one does. But we do know that a foreign entity was holding an event at the president's hotel from which he benefitted financially.

CORNISH: What questions do you have going forward?

O'CONNELL: I just don't think people realize how little we know about the money that is being spent at the hotel and how big it could be. We know from - thankfully from some public filings that Republican members of Congress are holding fundraisers there, other conservative groups are holding political fundraisers there. I feel like we're at the tip of iceberg. There's no public log of who stays in the hotel. There are no public filings when you spend money there. So it's a really big avenue for people to spend money and try to curry some favor with the president or his administration.

CORNISH: Jonathan O'Connell of The Washington Post. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

O'CONNELL: Oh, thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.