The presidency was never meant to be a profit center for a nepotistic, money-grubbing family. But that was before the Trumps moved in.
This scandal is lying in plain sight, overlooked because of the constant stream of missteps, outrages and distractions that come and go at an exhausting pace. While everyone watches his Twitter feed, President Donald Trump is using the White House like a marketing agency for his family brand. This is not normal or acceptable – and it surely isn’t what laid-off factory workers and coal miners had in mind when they jumped on the “populist” Trump train.
Last week, Ivanka Trump opened a retail store inside Trump Tower, her father’s New York skyscraper, to sell her eponymous foreign-made handbags and other items. We can now finally dispense with the notion that she is an “unpaid” adviser to the president.
It’s not a very big store – more of a glorified kiosk, really – but the conflict of interest is obvious. She and her husband, Jared Kushner, are in positions where they can influence U.S. policy toward the countries where her products are made, such as China, Indonesia, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh. The store is located where it can siphon money from Trump-supporting tourists who make pilgrimages to Trump Tower while visiting the sights of Manhattan.
This is just the latest example of how the Trump family is seeking to monetize the presidency. We haven’t seen anything like it since 1977, when Jimmy Carter’s brother started hawking Billy Beer. (President Carter, at least, had the decency to be embarrassed.)
As is the case with other family members, including the president, Ivanka Trump has refused to divest herself of her business interests. Instead, the Trumps and Kushner have put them into trusts – but in a way that provides not even a fig leaf of probity.
That’s because the businesses – including the Trump Organization, the president’s umbrella enterprise – are still operating and are being run by family members whose aims are pecuniary, not patriotic. Do you believe for a moment that Trump pays no attention to how his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, are handling his company? Or that Ivanka Trump and Kushner are unaware of what his siblings are doing with the troubled Kushner family real estate empire and Ivanka’s fashion line? I don’t.
Consider this sequence of events: Trump is elected president in November 2016. The membership initiation fee at his Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago, doubles to $200,000 in January 2017. Following his inauguration, Trump spends 34 days thus far – fully one-tenth of his presidency – at Mar-a-Lago, mixing freely with members in a setting hidden from the prying eyes of the news media.
If you had a corporate or private cause to plead with the president of the United States, and you had ample resources, might you consider a $200,000 Mar-a-Lago membership a promising investment? I think you might.
The Trump International Hotel in Washington, just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, has become what The Washington Post called “a kind of political clubhouse” for Trump associates and organizations, such as political action committees, that support the Trump agenda. Last month, for example, the Trump 2020 campaign held a “VIP reception” there that cost $30,000, according to the Post, and featured deviled eggs and lobster BLTs.
There are plenty of other nearby hotels that could have hosted such an event – the W, the Willard, the J.W. Marriott. The campaign just happened to choose one whose profits accrue to Trump’s bottom line.
Likewise, for some reason, the Trump International has become a popular place for foreign delegations to stay while visiting Washington. Many legal scholars believe this line of business violates the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution prohibiting federal officials from receiving gifts or profits from foreign governments. At least three lawsuits have been filed seeking clarification from the courts.
It is true that Trump and his family have lost some business. Many if not most of the charities that once used Mar-a-Lago for their annual galas have decided to go elsewhere this year. Ivanka Trump’s product line was dropped by Nordstrom and Nieman Marcus because of low sales. Skittish investors have backed away from deals that could rescue Kushner from his potentially ruinous $1.8 billion purchase of a white-elephant Fifth Avenue office building.
But the presidency isn’t supposed to be a matter of pluses and minuses on a balance sheet. The president campaigned on a pledge to clean up Washington. Instead, he has created a huge new federally protected wetland – the Trump Family Swamp, Inc.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.