SecAF Pick: No Need to Ban Military Use of Trump Properties

By Katie Bo Williams

September 12, 2019

President Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Air Force has promised lawmakers that she will look into military policies related to whether U.S. servicemembers should be allowed to spend government funds to stay at properties owned by the president — but stopped short of condemning the practice. 

What we need to do is have rules and regulations that are applied evenly in that are thoughtful and do include appearances in those rules and regulations,” Barbara Barrett told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during her confirmation hearing on Thursday morning. “But…they should not be specific to any particular owner.”

Air Force crews have routinely lodged at Trump’s luxury Turnberry resort in Scotland en route to different locations, Politico reported. Defense officials say that the stays have been well within the per-diem rate allowed by a routine Air Force travel system, and that no policies were violated during the Turnberry stays. On Sept. 9, Air Force officials announced that they would review their procedures for choosing overnight lodging for personnel.

That hardly mollified Democrats who say the stays violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause that bars public officials from enriching themselves through government functions.

Related: Tracking Trump’s National-Security Conflicts of Interest

Related: Court OKs Suit Over Foreign Payments to Trump Business

Related: Why Trump Is Wrong About His Conflicts of Interest

The appearance, wholly apart from the reality, of the president profiting from Department of Defense expenditures at properties he owns is absolutely unacceptable,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told Barrett. “Wouldn't a clear policy, as you've suggested, against violations of both the domestic and the foreign emoluments clause prevent the commander-in-chief from profiting from Department of Defense expenditures?”

I understand the question and I understand the concern, but if there were a shareholder in a company that owns hotels, should that be excluded from military housing or military involvement?” Barrett said.

The president’s conflicts of interest have become hot currency on Capitol Hill this fall, as lawmakers return from the lengthy August recess. The revelations about the Turnberry stays have sparked a House Oversight Committee investigation into military spending at Trump-branded properties. Democratic lawmakers are pushing for the Senate to bar the Pentagon from spending money at the roughly five dozen Trump properties around the globe. The House-passed version of the National Defense Authorization Act includes the measure. It is currently being married up with the Senate-passed version in conference. 

Trump has battled back against the accusations on Twitter. 

"I know nothing about an Air Force plane landing at an airport (which I do not own and have nothing to do with) near Turnberry Resort (which I do own) in Scotland, and filling up with fuel, with the crew staying overnight at Turnberry (they have good taste!). NOTHING TO DO WITH ME," he tweeted Monday. 

Barrett, appearing alongside Trump’s pick for Army secretary, current Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy, took the brunt of questions from committee lawmakers who don’t know the former diplomatic and civilian pilot as well as they know the previously-confirmed and widely-liked McCarthy. Barrett also faced tense questioning from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., on the use of fifth-generation F-35 jets to conduct counterinsurgency missions in the Middle East — long a controversial use of expensive aircraft designed to combat the far more sophisticated China and Russia — and from Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., about funds appropriated for upgrades to a drone unit training facility Holloman Air Force Base and since reprogrammed to help pay for Trump’s border wall. 

But few of the questions hammered Barrett personally or her credentials. 

McCarthy sailed through the hearing, occasionally facing tough questions about administration policy but little criticism of his own record. 

By Katie Bo Williams // Katie Bo Williams is the senior national security correspondent for Defense One, where she writes about defense, counterterror, NATO, nukes, and more. She previously covered intelligence and cybersecurity for The Hill, including in-depth reporting on the Russia investigations and military detention issues. Before her journalism career, Katie Bo worked in thoroughbred horse racing, helping breed, sell, and prepare the next generation of Kentucky Derby winners. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia. A native of Goochland County, Virginia, she now lives in D.C. and can usually be found haunting one of the various bookstores on Capitol Hill.

September 12, 2019