Among the barrage of Donald Trump’s scandals, legislative failings, and Twitter tantrums, that appear in the news with constant regularity, there are plenty that seem to fall through the cracks. One of these concerns Trump’s businesses and his holding power as president. Despite promising to divest himself from his businesses while in office (he hasn’t), Trump is actively profiting from the presidency, which the founders never intended. While we still don’t have his tax returns to shed light on whether his behavior benefits his business’ ledgers, we know taxpayer money has been flowing to some of his businesses like Mar-a-Lago. However, despite the public seeing their tax dollars flow directly to the Trump Organization every time he goes golfing at his resorts and the rules being laid out in the Constitution, nobody has tried to stop this.
Previous presidents have disclosed and divested, so this hasn’t been a problem. After all, the Founding Fathers wrote protections into the US Constitution with emoluments clauses making it illegal for presidents to receive gifts from foreign governments or federal and state governments. Now Donald Trump did promise to release his tax returns during the campaign, and divest himself from his business while in office to avoid conflict of interests. After all, he promised to “drain the swamp” which his supporters think it meant that he’d stop corruption in Washington DC like limiting access to lobbyists, curbing deals with foreign governments, and refusing to profit from the White House. Yet, unlike his predecessors, he’s does nothing more than the legal minimum required.
However, we must understand that corruption and egregious abuses of power makes Donald Trump who he is. In fact, since he came to Washington DC, the United States has seen an unprecedented attack on presidential ethics. Trump campaign donors have gotten cushy White House jobs. Goldman Sacks bankers wrote the GOP tax plan. But most importantly, Trump hasn’t divested and most likely had no intention to in the first place. He doesn’t care about conflicts of interest. So he’s still making money.
First of all, the Trump Organization is huge private company with properties and business interests all over the world. But we don’t have a clear picture of exactly how big and valuable it is. According to a February 2018 Forbes report, Donald Trump rakes in at least $175 million a year from commercial tenants like the state-owned Industrial & Commercial Bank of China. But it’s impossible to say which companies pay him and how much because federal disclosure laws don’t require an accounting of where his businesses get their money. So we don’t know where the money’s coming from and how much he’s getting. Since he hasn’t released his tax returns either. And that’s a big problem since Trump probably has many conflicts of interest that could influence public policy. As Forbes noted, “Take any hot-button issue of the past year, and there’s a good chance Trump’s tenants lobbied the federal government on it, either in support of or in opposition to the administration’s position.” In fact, according to Forbes, at least 3 dozen Trump tenants have “meaningful relationships with the federal government, from contractors to lobbying firms to regulatory targets.”
In addition, foreign governments have been quick to figure out how to get on Donald Trump’s good side. According to a January McClatchy article, they’ve “donated public land, approved permits and eased environmental regulations for Trump-branded developments, creating a slew of potential conflicts as foreign leaders make investments that can be seen as gifts or attempts to gain access to the American president through his sprawling business empire.” The Chinese government has granted Trump at least 39 trademarks since he took office while his daughter and senior adviser Ivanka has received 7 since she joined the administration.
Then there’s the fact the Trump Organization still sells real estate. Last summer, a USA Today investigation found that during the last year Donald Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, “70% of buyers of Trump properties were limited liability companies – corporate entities that allow people to purchase property without revealing all of the owners’ names. That compares with about 4% of buyers in the two years before.” According to the paper, overall in 2017, Trump’s companies, “sold more than $35 million in real estate … mostly to secretive shell companies that obscure buyers’ identities.” So since Trump became the Republican nominee and later president, mysterious investors have poured millions of dollars into his coffers.
Of course, the most obvious Donald Trump uses his position as president to promote his own business interest is through mixing and matching his presidential activities with his own properties while charging Secret Service and transportation costs to taxpayers. As Washington University professor Kathleen Clark told ProPublica, “Trump appears to be commandeering federal resources in order to maximize revenues at Trump properties, and he does this by visiting properties close to the White House. And when he travels to the golf courses in Florida, Virginia and New Jersey, other agencies that are involved in supporting the president end up spending money.” In fact, he spent 1/3 of his first year in office visiting his own commercial properties. Every Trump appearance at his properties is a marketing event. According to financial disclosures, Trump hotel revenue soared over the past few years. In 2015, records show just $16.7 million in hotel and resort revenues. In 2016, that income more than doubled to $33.8 million. Since Trump moved into the White House, Trump hotel income jumped about 80%, reaching $60.8 million in 2017. Sure in late 2016, Trump opened the Old Post Office Hotel in Washington DC despite the clear guideline that, “No elected official of the Government of the United States…shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease.” Since then, it’s become the go-to hotel for any foreign visitor looking to win favors from the Trumps as well as headquarters to GOP activity in DC.
But what the public doesn’t know is that Donald Trump wasn’t the only political and/or business figure to visit his properties. According to a January 2018 report by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, during Trump’s first year in office, his properties hosted more than 100 executive branch officials, 30 members of Congress, and more than a dozen state officials. Trump’s properties also hosted events held by at least 40 special interest groups. At least 11 foreign governments and 6 foreign officials have appeared on Trump properties since 2017. The Kuwaiti Embassy held a National Day celebration in 2017 and 2018 at Trump’s D.C. hotel. While one Asian diplomat told the Washington Post shortly after Trump’s election that going to his D.C. hotel makes perfect sense, “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?'” In the business sector, USA Today found that executives from 50 government contractors and 21 lobbyists hold Trump club memberships.
The Center of Responsive politics sorted the spending of political committees at Trump properties with Donald Trump’s own campaign events topping the list. In 2017 alone, Trump’s 2020 campaign spent $760,064 at buildings he owns. And since Trump still owns these properties, he and his family make extra money every time he holds a fundraiser. Since Trump’s DC Hotel is only a block away from the Justice Department and close to the White House, anyone who wants to make a contribution to Trump’s pockets simply books events there. Same goes for New York’s Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago. In 2016, the RNC spent $146,521 at Trump properties and $173,416 in 2017.
Before assuming office, Donald Trump vowed to donate his DC hotel profits from foreign governments to the US Treasury. However, to no one’s surprise months later, the Trump Organization admitted that tracking all foreign government money was “impractical.” But it promised to donate profits from guests self-identifying as foreign government representatives. Yet, in early 2018 the Trump Organization announced that it had donated profits from “foreign government patronage” after all but declined to disclose specifics like as the Washington Post speculated, “How much was donated? Which Trump properties were included in this accounting? Which foreign entities had paid money to Trump’s businesses?”
Furthermore, neither Donald Trump nor his team have shied away from promoting his brand. After the 2016 election, Trump signaled he’d spend a great deal of time at his Mar-a-Lago in Florida. In turn, the club doubled its membership fees to $200,000 before taxes and charged $175 more to $600-$750 for its New Year’s Eve party. From January to August 2017, 2/3 of the 50 executives and lobbyist club members played golf on days Trump was. White House spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway promoted Ivanka brands on Fox News for God’s sake. During his first year in office, Trump mentioned his private businesses at least 35 times according to CREW estimates. Overall, their report found that political groups spent over $1.2 billion at Trump properties during his first year in office, after never having spent more than $100,000 “in any given year going back to at least 2002.” CREW chair and former Obama ethics czar Noah Eisen tweeted that the group’s report described Trump as “the most unethical presidency,” adding, “Year two has been even worse—& it’s just getting started.” In the fall of 2017, the Trump Organization debuted Trumpstore.com where you can buy all other-than-made-in-the-USA #MAGA gear, which is just another Trump family cash grab.
Nor is Donald Trump the only one in his family profiting from the presidency. In June 2018, the Washington Post reported: “Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter and son-in-law, brought in at least $82 million in outside income while serving as senior White House advisers during 2017, according to new financial disclosure forms released Monday. Ivanka Trump earned $3.9 million from her stake in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, while Kushner reported over $5 million in income from Quail Ridge, a Kushner Cos. apartment complex acquired last year in Plainsboro, New Jersey. The filings show how the couple are collecting immense sums from other enterprises while serving in the White House, an extraordinary income flow that ethics experts have warned could create potential conflicts of interests.” Allowing Ivanka and Kushner retain their outside income sources is remarkable since Cabinet officials are required to divest themselves from their holdings or abide by strict rules imposed by a blind trust. Shortly after the inauguration, the State Department’s web page promoted Melania’s jewelry line. The Secret Service has even provided protection for Trump’s family as they go on business trips as well, with their expenses being paid on the taxpayer dime.
So why is all this a problem? Because it’s against the rules at a constitutional scale. The presidency shouldn’t be a get-rich-quick scheme. No president or First Family member should use the Oval Office to enhance their wealth. With his business interests on his mind, Donald Trump is making decisions as a country’s leader and under the guise of what’s best for the nation. But since he won’t be in office forever, he’s possibly putting Trump Organization interest before public interest. As CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder put it, “Every decision President Trump makes in the course of his job is followed by the specter of corruption. Because of his steady stream of conflicts, we have to question whether each decision he makes was made in the best interest of the American people or the best interest of his bottom line.” CREW estimates that Trump has over 500 conflicts of interest, which a clear picture of a presidency being used to turn a profit and his businesses serving as access points to corridors of power. Bookbinder adds, “Just as we feared, President Trump is not only making money in spite of his official position, in many cases, he’s making money because of it.”
Of course, the courts need to hash out this though with Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court almost a done deal, does this harm the public? (Absolutely). Is there any proof Trump’s violating the Constitution? (Yes, the Emoluments Clause which forbids the president from accepting money from foreign governments). Fortunately, the apparent Emoluments Clause violations haven’t gone unnoticed as several lawsuits work their way through the courts. It appears quite serious as Trump businesses are subpoenaed and ordered to preserve documents. 3-4 suits have been filed so far. Naturally, the Trump administration asked that they’d be thrown out. Again, a judge will decide if Donald Trump’s broken the law. As of March 2018, one suit has been thrown out in December while the others endure and may be gaining traction.
So how is Donald Trump’s legal team defending profiting off the presidency? For one, despite how rich he is, we taxpayers are paying for lawyers to argue that Trump has a right to profit from his presidency. And according to a USA Today article, it all boils down to this: “The taxpayer-funded lawyers are making the case that it is not unconstitutional for the president’s private companies to earn profits from foreign governments and officials while he’s in office.” Further, “The government lawyers and Trump’s private attorneys are making the same arguments — that the Constitution’s ban on a president taking gifts from foreign interests in exchange for official actions does not apply to foreign government customers buying things from Trump’s companies. The plaintiffs, including ethics groups and competing businesses, argue the payments pose an unconstitutional conflict of interest.” Or to quote Trump before he took office, “The president can’t have a conflict of interest.” However, we must keep in mind that Donald Trump doesn’t see himself as constrained to any norm, rules, or even laws. He was born into wealth and privilege and sees himself exempt from certain restraints that get in his way that would land the average person in jail. Profiting off the presidency is political corruption at its finest and not at all normal. Yet, like any con artist businessman, Trump sees profit as natural and immediate spoils of office.
Whether you can agree or disagree with Donald Trump’s actions, it’s very obvious he’s at least violating the spirit of the law. After all, he promised to step away from his interests but didn’t, implying he knew he should’ve before taking office. But it’s still hard to say whether or not a court will throw the book at him since there’s not much legal precedent here. However, since presidential ethics laws never foresaw a businessman president who wouldn’t follow political norms of divesting himself from his businesses, disclosing his taxes, and generally trying to avoid conflicts of interests, much of this may be legal.
Nonetheless, it’s more than just making sure that a president acts in good faith while in office. The real issue here is establishing precedent moving forward. While Capitol Hill seems fine letting Donald Trump get away with anything he wants including Emoluments violations, what can we expect from future presidents? While it’s a test for the courts, it’s also one for how much the public is willing to put up with from our elected officials. If we don’t put our foot down now, what happens when another more competent president goes out of bounds?
But what’s certain is that each day he occupies the White House, Donald Trump continues to profit from the presidency and possibly because he’s the man in the Oval Office. By promoting his business in an official capacity without shame and by offering access and influence to his businesses’ patrons, Trump sends a message to special interests and foreign government that his administration is for sale. This is no message an American president should send to the world since it shows that Trump’s support can be bought with patronage. While most Americans can’t even afford to stay at any of his resorts or visit his golf courses. This isn’t how American democracy should function. Nonetheless, the remaining years of the Trump administration are unlikely to be any different unless the American people and their Congressional representatives demand better.