The potential for serious corruption was always implicit in Trump’s presidential bid. We have had wealthy presidents before. But the Bushes, Kennedys, and Roosevelts were heirs to large, diversified fortunes consisting of stocks and bonds that could be placed into blind trusts in relatively straightforward ways.
Barack Obama just owned index funds. Jimmy Carter sold his peanut farm to avoid placing himself in the situation where the president was also the owner/manager of an ongoing business enterprise. Trump never committed to liquidating the Trump business empire, which meant the country would find itself in an unprecedented situation fraught with peril.
But he brushed off these concerns with a range of arguments that critical masses of voters evidently found persuasive. He admitted that he’d been greedy his whole life, but said that as president, “I want to be greedy for the United States.” He promised to separate himself from his businesses and put his assets in a blind trust.
He said he would put forward a tax plan that would cost him a “fortune” and bragged that as a wealthy business owner he bought and sold politicians, but as a politician he’d be too rich to be bought.
This shtick became sufficiently embedded in the conventional wisdom around Trump that it even persuaded some prominent leftists who by no means actually agreed with the substance of Trump’s agenda.
The reality of Trump’s presidency has been just the reverse.
There is nothing blind about his finances — his business empire is merely managed on a day-to-day basis by his adult sons, with whom he is in regular contact and who also work as leading members of his political operation.
His daughter and son-in-law serve as high-ranking officials in the White House, he operates a hotel in the nation’s capital that serves as an informal headquarters for his administration, and he spends a majority of his weekends at his private resorts in Florida, Virginia, and New Jersey.
Some of the grifting that results from this is almost comical, as in the periodic stories about the Secret Service spending thousands of dollars at a time renting golf carts from clubs that the president owns.
But lining his pockets with vast sums of public money is the least of the problems with Trump’s conduct in this regard. The real issue is that by joining one of Trump’s private clubs, wealthy individuals are putting cash directly in the president’s pocket while also gaining access to him. Trump seems to regularly — and quite openly — poll Mar-a-Lago members for their thoughts on the issues of the day. But it’s also an opportunity for more subtle lobbying in unprecedented ways.
Republicans are, in a curious way, often less vulnerable to standard money-in-politics corruption narratives. There’s always a solid baseline case that the reason the party of business and small government is making business-friendly regulatory decisions is ideological rather than pecuniary.
Trump’s regressive tax bill, for example, has almost certainly been a huge financial windfall to his club members. But to suggest a corrupt motive for a Republican president to push a regressive tax bill ignores the fact that all Republican politicians for the past couple of generations have pushed regressive tax bills. That Trump used to promise that he would raise taxes on the rich only to flip-flop later is striking, but ultimately not evidence of corruption.
Not everything the administration does is so cut-and-dried. They proposed a bailout of the coal industry that so flagrantly violated free market principles, for example, that Trump’s own appointees at the Federal Electrical Regulatory Commission ended up vetoing it. Trump’s affinity for coal is, of course, well known. But the fact that the National Mining Association cut a big check to the Trump International Hotel in October can’t have hurt.
The White House is also actively considering a proposal from the Commerce Department to impose stiff tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. This idea is apparently hotly opposed by most of Trump’s foreign and economic policy advisers. Yet as the administration deliberates, the fact that the Metals Service Center Institute, a trade group that favors anti-import measures, held last year’s annual confab at the Trump Doral resort in Miami may play a role.
These examples, of course, are drawn from what’s publicly known based on trade groups’ formally announced events. The basic arrangement through which trade associations, political campaigns, and others seeking to curry favor with the president announce major events at Trump properties is obviously corrupt. But in any situation, the most corrupt behavior will be what’s taking place in secret.
The governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Turkey are on the list of foreign powers that have held parties or conferences at Trump clubs and hotels. And though Trump promised that his family company would stop doing deals abroad during his presidency, Donald Trump Jr. recently took a shockingly corrupt trip to India, where he openly mixed his roles as a government spokesperson and as a salesperson.
But the greater danger is that the same channels through which detectable flows of money travel can also be used for secret payments.
Politicians have been bribed in the past, of course. But traditionally, to pull it off requires a level of subterfuge that is itself illegal and courts detection. Bribe money cannot be reported as such to the IRS, but hidden untaxed income — the proverbial cash in the freezer — has a way of getting you caught.
Trump owns dozens of legitimate businesses, however, so bribe payments can be duly reported to the IRS as hotel rentals or real estate investments or whatever else. And he’s broken with decades of precedent by declining to make his tax returns available to the public, while all his financial disclosure forms reveal is that he owns a lot of shell companies named after himself.
One of the cardinal rules of American election law is that politicians cannot take campaign funds for personal use. That’s a critical line between a legitimate contribution and an illegitimate bribe. Trump, however, has erased this line. This weekend, he’s expected to pop down to Mar-a-Lago not only to relax and charge the government for use of his golf carts but also to appear at fundraisers for the RNC and his reelection campaign.
For a politician to personally pocket campaign contributions is a serious crime, but hosting RNC fundraisers at Trump-owned properties completely eviscerates the spirit of those laws. Meanwhile, taking cues from the top, a general tendency toward poor ethics is spiraling down throughout the government.
An early Trump administration controversy that now seems almost quaint came when presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway used a television news appearance from the White House grounds to tout Ivanka Trump’s shoe brand. It wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but this kind of low-level legal violation keeps happening in the Trump era, right up to an apparent Hatch Act violation from Jared Kushner as he touted Brad Parscale’s appointment as campaign manager of the Trump 2020 reelection bid.
But the list gets longer and contains more serious violations:
- US intelligence agencies have reports of multiple foreign governments discussing ways to use Kushner’s business interests to compromise his work for the federal government.
- This week, four political appointees at the Commerce Department lost their jobs after they flunked background checks.
- Even as Ben Carson’s tenure at the Department of Housing and Urban Development was facing an inspector general investigation over improper involvement of the Carson family in public business, Carson apparently demoted a career staffer after she objected to his plan to spend $31,000 on a dining set for his office.
- Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was caught improperly accepting Wimbledon tickets and charging the public for his wife’s travel.
- Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is flying first-class at public expense so he could avoid having unpleasant interactions with fellow passengers.
These kinds of problems will only grow worse the longer Trump’s own conflicts of interests are permitted to go unabated. Maintaining a high standard of ethical conduct across a sprawling bureaucracy overseen by dozens of political appointees is genuinely challenging, even when elected officials are trying to do it.
When the president of the United States doesn’t care about ethics and the predominant attitude of his co-partisans in Congress is that ignorance is bliss, corruption will grow like mushrooms in the shade.
Democrats running in 2018 obviously must and will talk about their ideas on health care, jobs, education, environmental regulation, and more. Still, there is fundamentally no escaping the reality that Trump himself is the central political issue of our time. That’s especially the case as long as the economic and military environment remains basically benign.
And while there’s plenty about Trump to criticize, not every target out there is actually all that sound.
In particular, while dwelling on Trump’s racism is probably smart in some parts of the country, it runs the risk of implicitly conceding that Trump is on white America’s side. The truth, however, is that Trump is on Trump’s side. He’s governing fully within the contours of a baseline pro-business agenda that differs from standard Republican fare largely insofar it involves personal enrichment in an unusual way.
And, critically, the entire congressional Republican Party is in on it. Republicans can easily distance themselves from Trump’s temperamental issues — Paul Ryan often sniffily declines to comment on stray Trump tweets — or dismiss the Russia issue as some kind of “deep state” conspiracy. But the basic reality is that the reason we don’t know who is paying Trump is because Republicans in Congress don’t want us to know.
And importantly, when Democrats are seeking to motivate their own base to turn out, checking Trump’s corruption is a promise they can actually deliver on in the short term. Trump’s clubs’ financial records can be subpoenas. His tax returns can be released. Current and former government officials can be brought in to testify.
None of that will eradicate the inherent conflicts of interest involved in the current arrangement — for that, Trump himself will have to be defeated — but the veil of secrecy around Trump and money truly can be lifted. But to get there, Democrats will need to elevate the issue out of its current sleeper status and find a way to put it on the front pages.