WASHINGTON – Imagine a foreign potentate who uses his official position to promote his private businesses. Who makes face time with visiting dignitaries a perk for his paying customers. Whose top aide urges the citizenry to embrace products sold by the sovereign’s daughter.
For two months now, Americans have not had to imagine any of this. They have been living it.
As President Donald Trump enters his third month in office, he has already established at least one record, however dubious: the president most open and willing to use the prestige of the White House to enrich himself and his family.
“I’m at a loss,” said Robert Maguire, an investigator with the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that advocates for more transparency in government and campaigns. “This idea that the presidency is something to enrich your private interest to the extent he’s doing, not by going on the speaking tour or getting a big book deal after he leaves office, but while he’s in office, sort of milking the office for all it’s worth ― it’s tacky.”
For years, Trump made sure to feature one of his properties and his name-emblazoned jetliner in each episode of his reality TV show “The Apprentice.” Just so, over the past seven weekends, Trump has visited his hotel in Washington, D.C., his golf courses in Palm Beach County and, most frequently, his Mar-a-Lago resort there. The weekend of March 11 – only the second in a month and a half that he did not travel to Florida – he had lunch with top aides at his golf course across the Potomac River from the White House. He did not play golf. He did not stay overnight. All he did was have lunch.
And with each of these visits have come the attendant media coverage, with photos and videos of his for-profit enterprises.
“He should not use his official position to promote his businesses. That doesn’t make him a good businessman. That makes him a bad president,” said Richard Painter, the former top ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush’s White House.
Trump’s White House did not respond to emails for this story. And even some of his usual defenders declined to do so on this topic. “It’s the full employment act for people who write about ethics,” said one former campaign official on the condition he could speak anonymously.
Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based GOP consultant who often defends Trump, said he couldn’t really offer a sincere defense on this one. “I think he enjoys being at his own properties. He has pride in them. He is comfortable in them. He feels he has a level of control over them,” he said. “Should he not be allowed to go to his own properties?”
He should not use his official position to promote his businesses. That doesn’t make him a good businessman. That makes him a bad president." -- Richard Painter, former top ethics lawyer for George W. Bush's White House
Trump’s behavior has no precedent, going back to at least the turn of the last century, ethics experts say. Even in the presidency most often associated with open corruption, it was Warren Harding’s Interior secretary, not Harding himself, who had taken bribes in the Teapot Dome oil lease scandal.
Presidents in recent years have taken care to place their assets in blind trusts, to eliminate possible perceptions of conflicts between their personal interests and those of the United States.
“I don’t think any president in modern history has had a serious conflict,” Painter said.
At a Jan. 11 news conference, though, Trump declared that the president of the United States was legally incapable of having any conflicts of interest, and that, if he chose to, he could serve as president while also running his businesses.
Rather than place his assets in a blind trust – in which he would not even know what holdings he owned, let alone be able to control them – Trump merely turned over temporary managerial control to his adult sons. And they, in turn, have been aggressively marketing the Trump brand abroad, taxpayer-provided Secret Service contingents in tow.
Eric Trump earlier this month even boasted about how well it is going. “I think our brand is the hottest it has ever been,” he told the New York Times.
Meanwhile, the family of his brother-in-law and top White House aide, Jared Kushner, is reportedly negotiating a deal with a Chinese firm that analysts are calling unusually favorable to the Kushners. It would allow them to dramatically reduce their liability on a nine-figure loan on a Manhattan high-rise. At the same time, Kushner has emerged as Trump’s informal but possibly most influential foreign policy negotiator and has already met with Chinese leaders among others.
Kushner’s wife, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, has been the beneficiary of a different top Trump aide. Kellyanne Conway, reacting to news that department store chain Nordstrom was dropping Ivanka Trump’s clothing line because of poor sales, in a TV interview from the White House briefing room urged viewers to take action.
“Go buy Ivanka’s stuff,” Conway told Fox News on Feb. 9. “I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer later said Conway had “been counseled” about her remarks – but Spicer himself had defended Trump’s involvement in the episode, saying he had every right to write angry tweets about Nordstrom because they picked on his daughter.
“He ran for president. He won. He’s leading this country,” Spicer had said at the previous day’s White House press briefing. “For people to take out their concern about his actions or his executive order on members of his family, he has every right to stand up for his family and applaud their business activities, their success.”
Spicer further has defended Trump’s refusal to put his assets in the blind trust and his repeated choices to use his own properties for both time off as well as official meetings. Indeed, in early February, Spicer began referring to Trump’s for-profit Palm Beach resort – which doubled its initiation fees from $100,000 before Trump’s election win to $200,000 now – in this manner:
“This weekend, the president will be shifting the operation of the White House down to the winter White House at Mar-a-Lago,” Spicer said from the briefing room podium.
It’s the full employment act for people who write about ethics." Former Trump campaign official
Spicer’s and Conway’s words, though, merely reflect the attitude set from the top by the most openly transactional and self-dealing president in modern times.
During his campaign, Trump insisted on using both his own private jetliner for travel and his own office tower as headquarters – even though he could have saved his donors millions had he rented space in a less expensive building and chartered a more efficient plane.
For months as he traveled the country, he spoke about how he had given money to politicians over the years with the expectation that they would later do what he wanted on a particular issue. He then accused his opponents of taking money from “special interests” with that same understanding.
He spoke about how he would treat someone nicely if that person had treated him nicely – even using that rationale to defend Russian President Vladimir Putin from charges of murdering his political opponents.
That attitude has continued even after his election, to the point where he appears to feel obliged to mingle with dues-paying members of Mar-a-Lago and his other properties. During the transition, he visited with a dinner reception at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, during a weekend trip there and bragged about all the Cabinet interviews he was planning to hold there the next day. He has reportedly solicited Mar-a-Lago guests for their thoughts on policies he is considering.
And during the visit of Japan’s prime minister to Mar-a-Lago last month, Trump introduced Shinzo Abe to club members hosting a wedding reception. “They’ve been members of this club for a long time,” Trump explained. “They’ve paid me a fortune.”
“This pay-to-play game has got to stop. He’s president of the United States. It’s corruption of government,” said Painter, now a law professor at the University of Minnesota and part of the legal team suing Trump over the payments his hotels are receiving from foreign entities, possibly in violation of the Constitution.
The Center for Responsive Politics’ Maguire said Trump’s behavior has disproven predictions by those who believed he would evolve to meet the decorum expected of the presidency. “The expectation was, once he gets into office, of course he won’t be like this,” Maguire said. “And, of course, he has.”