Watchdog: Foreign groups among spenders at Trump properties

More than 60 groups, including foreign governments, political campaigns and business organizations, spent money at Trump-branded properties across the U.S. last year, according to a report Tuesday by a watchdog group that has long been critical of how such spending could be used to influence the president.

Public Citizen, which compiled media reports and publicly available government data, cited moves by groups associated with at least three foreign governments — Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Kuwait — to book rooms and host events last year at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

It also counted at least 16 business trade groups and two companies that used Trump properties for meetings and events, while 35 political candidates or organizations — all of them Republican — staffed fundraisers and other events at Trump locations.

Then-President-elect Donald Trump moved a year ago to give up direct management of the company and turn it over to his sons, but he kept his financial ties through a trust that allows him to continue withdrawing funds. The report says that arrangement "has presented a unique set of conflicts that previously were unimaginable for the president of the United States."

"Donald Trump entered office with the most blatant and potentially corrupting conflicts of interest in the history of American politics and things only got worse from there," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a liberal-leaning nonprofit based in Washington. "Business is booming at the Trump International Hotel in D.C., not because of the decor but because corporations and foreign governments want to curry favor with the president."

Public Citizen's report found that spending by such outside groups totaled more than $600,000. And it also detailed that his own campaign organization spent nearly $750,000 for fundraising and other events at Trump properties over the first three quarters of 2017, according to the group's analysis of federal campaign spending data. Much of that was rent paid at the campaign's headquarters at Trump Tower in New York.

A Trump administration spokeswoman, Lindsay Walters, declined to discuss the report. Trump Organization officials were not immediately available to respond to emails from The Associated Press.

Public Citizen's report noted that the biggest spender of all was a public relations firm working with the Saudi government, which spent $270,000 for lodging and catering last year, according to foreign agent disclosures filed with the Justice Department. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and other Malay officials stayed at the hotel last September during an official visit, but no figure was made available for the stay. And Kuwait's ambassador booked the hotel for an undisclosed amount last February for an annual gala.

Two pro-Turkish organizations that work to aid business and political relations between the U.S. and Turkey also booked the Trump hotel last May for an undisclosed amount. One of the host groups, the Turkey-U.S. Business Council, was chaired at the time by Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish businessman who had hired Michael Flynn's consulting firm in 2016 to perform lobbying and research that aided the Turkish government. Fired by Trump after a brief stint as national security adviser, Flynn agreed late last year to aid the special counsel's probe of Russian meddling into the 2016 election.

Big business use of Trump properties ranged from the American Petroleum Institute's March board meeting at the Trump International to payday lender trade group Community Financial Services Association's annual conference at the Trump National Doral in Miami.