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House Democrats say foreign entities paid Trump firms millions during his presidency

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A new report from House Democrats documents $7.8 million in payments to Donald Trump's businesses from foreign governments while Trump was in office, and they suggest that the total is likely higher. Investigators say they only had access to documents from the first two years of his term. NPR congressional reporter Eric McDaniel has the details, and Eric joins me now. Hi, Eric.

ERIC MCDANIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So what were these payments for, and who were they from?

MCDANIEL: So the vast majority of this money was actually from China, specifically the state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. That bank signed a lease for space and Trump Tower all the way back in 2008. The Trump Organization told me in an email the bank paid more than $5 million in rent on that pre-existing lease while Trump was in office. So I should say this specifically wasn't new business while Trump was president from a country, say, trying to curry favor. But it's worth noting that taking money from foreign governments while president, even for pre-existing business deals, is still against the law. In fact, it's in the Constitution. Article 1 says you can't accept money or gifts from foreign states while president. And this lease was Trump, who refused to divest from his business, breaking with precedent. He was doing exactly that.

FADEL: So that's the bulk of the money. But where did the rest of it come from?

MCDANIEL: Right. So $7.8 million is that total. There are 20 countries in the records Democrats released - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, India and Malaysia. They each spent more than $200,000 at Trump Hotels and properties, according to the report. And in an email to NPR, a Trump Organization spokesman told me that Trump donated the profit from foreign government hotel stays back to the government, which they say is about $450,000, although we have no way to independently confirm their accounting. And that spokesman said that some of the company's properties, including the hotel in D.C., had pledged not to solicit foreign business, though it's clear they didn't turn away all of it. And as Democrats are quick to point out donating the profit part back isn't really germane when the president is constitutionally prohibited from taking the money in the first place, at least without the express consent of Congress.

FADEL: Eric, why is this report coming out now?

MCDANIEL: It's a good question. Democrats say they've been trying to put it together for seven years, starting with then-Chairman Elijah Cummings, the late congressman who was chair of the oversight committee when Trump took office. But getting the financial records involved going all the way up to the Supreme Court. It took time. That case was decided in July 2020, and they say they still didn't get everything they wanted because Republican lawmakers stymied their requests, they say, after taking control of the House in 2023. But really, it's hard not to see this as tied to the Republican impeachment effort. They voted last month to move forward on an impeachment inquiry into President Biden, which is built around an insinuation, so far without evidence, that Biden was somehow involved in his son's foreign business dealings and used his office as vice president in connection with that work.

Trump Organization officials told me that this report from Democrats is an effort to distract from that impeachment effort, while Democrats say this report is just documentation that Trump was being paid directly by foreign governments while in office, which is, again, at the heart of what Republicans allege that somehow Biden was involved with with his son. So I imagine that's part of the mess of Washington and why we're getting this report now. After all, we're now in a presidential election year. And the choice again appears to be between those two men, President Biden and former President Donald Trump.

FADEL: True. NPR's Eric McDaniel. Thank you for your reporting.

MCDANIEL: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.