Given that in the past 24 hours Trump has threatened nuclear war with North Korea, thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for expelling U.S. diplomats from Moscow and publicly attacked his party’s leader in the Senate, it’s easy to lose sight of another ongoing scandal: How Trump continues to line his family’s pockets through the presidency.
It’s unprecedented to have a president who retains a stake in businesses as sprawling as the Trump empire. But Trump has taken business conflicts to yet another level by tying the Trump Hotel so explicitly to the presidency.
Trump’s Washington hotel is the new power hub in Washington. Before he became president, the Trump family company projected the hotel would lose money this year. But instead it has become a profit center, owing to its transformation into “a kind of White House annex,” The Post’s Jonathan O’Connell reported this week.
After spending just one month in the hotel’s public spaces, Post reporters witnessed, among other things, luminaries of Trump’s world, including current White House staffers and former New York mayor and Trump ally Rudolph Giuliani, “posing for selfies at the bar the night Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey,” and former Trump campaign manager-turned-lobbyist Corey Lewandowski sitting in “a black leather chair marked ‘Reserved.'” In July, Republican fundraisers used the space to raise $10 million for Trump’s reelection campaign.
Trump’s tweets and Thursday’s mad, impromptu news conference might eclipse his presidency-for-profit, but don’t forget: his “working” vacation has also been a daily advertisement for his Bedminster, N.J., golf resort, another showpiece in his family’s vast holdings around the world. When Trump is on television, golfing or eating or roaming around Bedminster, it’s free advertising not only for the resort, but also for the Trump brand as a whole.
Of course, we knew this was coming. Before Trump took office in January, ethics watchdogs warned that unless Trump established a blind trust, he risked embroiling himself in unprecedented conflicts of interest. Trump declined to take this step, and although he has left the day-to-day operation of the family companies to his adult sons, he and his family members, including his daughter Ivanka, who works at his side in the White House, still stand to profit from them.
And they have. From the time the Washington hotel opened last year through June 2017, Ivanka Trump has earned $2.4 million from her stake in it.
The Trump Hotel is the most blatant example of how Trump is selling the presidency. No ordinary luxury hotel in a city that boasts more than a few, the Trump Hotel is where foreign dignitaries, lobbyists, White House staff, Cabinet officials, Trump confidants, Republican fundraisers, elected officials, religious leaders and assorted sycophants gather — to see and be seen, to rub elbows with the powerful, to possibly catch a glimpse of the president himself, and, most crucially, to patronize the hotel owned by the most powerful person in the world.
It doesn’t come cheap: Guests have paid, on average, $652.98 a night to stay there, according to the Post investigation; a special cocktail in the bar costs $100, and a bartender might try to sell you a $2,500 bottle of bubbly. With a social media-obsessed president, patrons are eager to post about reveling in the opulence and in praise of the Trump brand.
As Walter Shaub, the since-departed director of the Office of Government Ethics, has said of Trump’s refusal to divest from his business holdings, “a conflict of interest is anything that creates an incentive to put your own interests before the interests of the people you serve.” Trump’s continued stake in the hotel and ongoing promotion of it by using his name as the draw risks the appearance of “using the presidency for private gain,” Shaub told Vox.
But while the D.C. hotel is the most prominent example of Trump profiting off his office, it’s not the only one. Richard Painter, who served as George W. Bush’s ethics counsel, has called the hotel “really just a tip of the iceberg.”
There’s an even more cynical twist to the story that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Consider the working-class voters Trump has duped into believing he’s come to Washington to save their jobs and way of life. They couldn’t possibly dream of spending the kind of money it takes to stay at Trump’s hotel. But Trump is continuing to use one of his chief selling points in running for president — his success as a businessman — to maintain support from this base. And the money Trump rakes in from his hotel feeds that image. For Trump and his supporters, then, those profits are not an abuse of his office, they are proof of the financial success he says is the mark of a strong leader.
Beyond this, there’s another dynamic at work: Trump is able to get away with this sort of self-dealing in part because he’s making a mess on so many other fronts. Because of the sheer chaos of Trump’s presidency — Trump’s erratic behavior, the West Wing mayhem, the cloud of the Russia investigation — this alarming new reality has gone overshadowed, and he has managed to move the ethical goalposts of the Oval Office. The public has only so much bandwidth to absorb the scale and scope of this administration’s unraveling of ethical norms.
One of the biggest challenges of the post-Trump era will be how to restore the norms and standards that Trump has so blithely trashed. Someday, Americans — from the people who run our government to the citizens in every corner of the country — will have to reckon with what he has done, and figure out how to undo it. That process will probably have to start with some basic reminders that the presidency is not for sale.