Just four blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, diplomats from oil-rich Bahrain entertained guests in a lavish ballroom at the Trump International Hotel Wednesday, an event that critics said embodied growing concerns about foreign leaders booking Trump properties to try and curry favor with the next American president.
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“I’m very concerned about it,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee. “If folks want to win favor with the president, they go to his hotel. When they meet up with him, the first thing they will say is ‘we are staying at your hotel, we took out 30 rooms for a week.’”
It is not known what motivated Bahraini officials to move their annual “Bahrain Day” celebration from the Ritz Carlton to the Trump Hotel – embassy officials did not respond to phone and email messages. They were equally tight-lipped Wednesday, where the event went off behind heavy security.
It was just one of several events booked at the Trump property by Washington insiders and foreign leaders. Tuesday night, it was the conservative Heritage Foundation, introducing donors to Vice President Elect Mike Pence.
Next week, the embassy of Azerbaijan has booked the Trump Hotel’s “Presidential Ballroom,” at an estimated cost of $100,000, for a Hanukkah party with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Trump has disputed the notion that booking rooms in his Washington hotel will engender good feelings with him.
“They’ll say I have a conflict because we just opened a beautiful hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, so every time somebody stays at that hotel, if they stay because I’m president, I guess you could say it’s a conflict of interest,” he told the New York Times. “It’s a conflict of interest, but again, I’m not going to have anything to do with the hotel.”
But the Bahrain event clearly bothered human rights officials, who have tried to draw attention to the declining conditions in a country accused of condoning torture, even threats of rape, against political opponents.
Michael Posner, who served until recently as the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, called Bahrain an “increasingly intolerant government,” where “essentially the political opposition has been outlawed.” “The leader of the opposition is in jail and will be there for years,” he said.
Posner told ABC News he believes Bahrain and other countries are using misguided gestures, such as booking the Trump hotel ballroom, to try and build rapport with the next U.S. administration.
“I think a lot of governments around the world that depend on a strong relationship to the United States are trying to figure out in a Trump administration what is it going to take to curry favor?” Posner said.
The Trump hotel in Washington is further complicated because the historic building it occupies, the Old Post Office Pavilion, is owned by the federal government and leased to the Trump Organization for $250,000-a-month, plus additional costs based on the success of the hotel venture.
When President Elect Trump takes office, Cummings said the arrangement will essentially make him both landlord and tenant.
“I mean come on now,” Cummings told ABC News. “There's something wrong with that picture.”
Trump may solve that problem as early as next week. He has scheduled a news conference for Dec. 15 to announce his plans for stepping away from his vast global business, which operates the Washington hotel and numerous others.
That said, he also boasted in his interview with the Times that “occupancy at that hotel will be probably a more valuable asset now than it was before, O.K.?”
“The brand is certainly a hotter brand than it was before,” he said.