How Maine’s former governor became a Trump emoluments poster boy

Posted at 8:25 AM, Feb 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-19 10:25:54-05

Former Maine Gov. Paul LePage was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential bid in 2016. “I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” LePage, who spent much of his eight years in office mired in self-created controversies, told a conservative radio host about his backing of Trump. “So I think I should support him because we’re one of the same cloth.”

LePage didn’t just like Donald Trump the person. He also liked Donald Trump’s hotels, too. As governor, LePage spent more than $22,000 from the state budget at Trump properties in his final two years in office. All told, LePage and his administration booked 40 rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington — paying between $362 and $1,100 per room, according to some remarkable reporting in the Portland Press Herald.

LePage’s stays at Trump’s DC hotel have become part of a broader lawsuit accusing the President of violating the emoluments clause in the Constitution — essentially alleging that Trump is profiting from his office via the various properties around the world that bear his name.

To get more on what LePage did — and how they figured it all out — I reached out to Scott Thistle, who has been working on this story for the Press Herald for the better part of the last 18 months. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: This story seems like it took a very long time. Describe the process — from when the idea germinated until publication.

Thistle: The idea germinated when we noticed soon after President Trump was elected LePage was making frequent trips to Washington, DC. We first asked for travel receipts for LePage’s travel in March 2017. His administration never produced any of the records we asked for beyond a copy of his daily calendar, which wasn’t very informative besides showing several private meetings in DC.

Cillizza: None of these records came out while LePage was in office. Coincidence?

Thistle: We actually did get some records from the State Police while he was in office. The State Police staff the governor’s Executive Protection Unit and officers travel with him. While heavily redacted, those records included room service receipts for the restaurant inside the Trump International Hotel. We were able to cross reference other charges like room charges and valet charges and they matched to the penny standard charges for the hotel. LePage’s office then confirmed they had stayed at the hotel but still did not release any receipts. Our first story on this ran in July of 2017 but we did not know at that time the extent of the visits to Trump International. The administration of LePage’s successor turned over 2,000 pages of receipts after LePage left office.

Cillizza: Put the $170,000 spent by LePage in context. How unusual is this?

Thistle: The $170,000 is the amount LePage’s office spent on all out-of-state travel over the last two years of his final term in office, essentially 2017 and 2018. That figure compares to about $45,000 the previous governor spent on out-of-state travel his last two years in office. LePage spent about $22,000 at the Trump hotel, meals and lodging. The previous governor spent about $9,000 on out-of-state lodging.

Cillizza: Did LePage or anyone around him ever offer any explanation for his choice to stay at the Trump Hotel so often?

Thistle: They never explained why so often but did say they were getting the best rate for the area and it was better than any rate at comparable competitors — which was not actually true. LePage did not respond to our requests to explain this, but did repeat this explanation on talk radio in Maine again on Monday.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “Paul LePage spent so much taxpayer money at the Trump hotel because _________.” Now, explain.

Thistle: “Paul LePage spent so much taxpayer money at the Trump hotel because he could.”

He was unswayed by either the reporting on the stays or the pending federal emoluments lawsuit. He and his staff continued to book rooms there well into late 2018.This was also after LePage called the federal judge who allowed the lawsuit to move forward an “imbecile.” He apparently saw nothing wrong with staying at the hotel on the Maine taxpayers’ dime.