Attorney General William Barr is planning a holiday bash at his boss’ hotel in downtown Washington.
The party at the Trump International Hotel, Washington, DC, could wind up costing more than $30,000, according to The Washington Post, which first reported on the party and its details. A Justice Department official told CNN that the party is not an official Justice Department event and will be paid out of Barr’s pocket.
Still, it is raising concerns from ethics experts and comes as the Justice Department defends President Donald Trump’s businesses in court over claims that they’re benefiting unlawfully from his position.
“On the letter of the law, this isn’t a violation, however it doesn’t look good. That’s not nothing when we’re talking about the chief law enforcement officer of the country and his private activity,” said Liz Hempowicz, the director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.
“It contributes to this idea that you have to be putting money into an entity that will benefit the President – if not today, then down the road – personally to stay in his good graces,” Hempowicz said.
Barr consulted career ethics officials at the Department of Justice, who determined that ethics rules did not prohibit him from hosting the event at the Trump hotel, the Justice Department official said.
The official said Barr did not select the Trump hotel to curry favor with the President, noting that he had originally booked space for the party – an annual event that he throws for family and friends – at Washington’s Willard Hotel. However, that hotel had to cancel on him after they realized they’d double-booked the evening.
Barr also tried the Mayflower Hotel, another stately building in downtown Washington, but it too was unavailable to hold his event on his date of choice, December 8.
The Trump hotel declined to comment to CNN citing its customer’s privacy, as did the Willard. CNN has reached out to the Mayflower Hotel and the Trump Organization for comment.
Barr, a longtime advocate for strong presidential authority, has had his independence as the country’s chief law enforcement officer called into question by the left throughout his tenure. He drew criticism earlier this year for downplaying certain damning elements of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report in statements that helped set the first public narrative as it was released.
Trump no longer runs his sprawling business empire, having handed that responsibility to his adult sons before he took office, though he still benefits from them financially.
According to a contract Barr signed with the Trump hotel that was obtained by the Post, the party will draw a guest list of about 200 people and include a buffet and four-hour open bar.
Depending on his menu selections, Barr’s party could run north of $45,000, according to calculations by the Post, and the contract stipulates that he pay at least $31,500, even if he cancels the event, the paper said.
The patrons of Trump properties – in particular the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC – have been at the heart of significant court cases over whether the President’s business interests run afoul of a constitutional anti-corruption provision that dates back to the country’s founding, called the emoluments clause.
The Justice Department has defended the President after the governments of Maryland and the District of Columbia challenged Trump’s ability to take payments for the hotel’s services from foreign government and US state leaders.
Maryland and the District of Columbia lawyers alleged officials from foreign governments or states like Maine booked the hotel to win favor with the President, leaving other District and Maryland entertainment facilities and hotels at a disadvantage. That lawsuit was dismissed when Trump won on appeal, but they continue to press the case.
Congressional Democrats have brought another case regarding Trump property revenue from foreign governments and their ability to approve such business holdings, and that case too is on appeal.
The Emoluments Clause says elected officials cannot collect proceeds from foreign powers. A trust currently holds the President’s business assets, the Trump International and the Trump Organization itself.
The Trump International – on Pennsylvania Avenue and within sight of the White House and the Justice Department – is the favored destination for Trump and first lady Melania Trump when eating outside the White House, and it has become a gathering point for Trump supporters as well as for groups with business before the administration.
The hotel won its lease on federally owned property in 2013, well before Trump’s election.