The two investigative reports, one from USA Today and the other from the government watchdog group Public Citizen, together show how Trump’s refusal to divest himself from his global business holdings has created a new ecosystem, outside the view of the public and the oversight capabilities of other branches of government. In the new Trump ecosystem, the world’s wealthiest people and corporations can buy direct access to the president, simultaneously lining his pockets while achieving their own personal or policy goals.
For the first time in the nation’s history, USA Today concludes, “wealthy people with interests before the government have a chance for close and confidential access to the president as a result of payments that enrich him personally.” This Trumpian ecosystem is completely unprecedented; as former Office of Government Ethics director Walter Shaub told the newspaper, “We never thought we’d see anyone push the outer limits in this way.”
Our system is not prepared to hold Trump or these outside influence peddlers accountable because no one — not the framers of our Constitution or lawmakers of any era in U.S. history — ever anticipated a president who would retain a lucrative stake in such a far-reaching business empire once in office, despite the blatant and extensive conflicts of interest it has set in motion. Worse, no one envisioned that a president would so brazenly snub his nose at ethical standards intended to uphold the simple credos that access to the president of the United States is not for sale and the presidency is not a profit-making enterprise.
It’s precisely because such contempt for ethics was unimaginable that no constraints against Trump-like behavior were ever put in place. And now we are beginning to see the effects of his running roughshod over the standards that distinguish a functioning democracy from a kleptocracy.
The USA Today report shows how Trump, despite his claims that he would “drain the swamp” of lobbyists, has simply given wealthy people direct access to him. All they have to do is pay the hefty membership fees at one of his private golf clubs. Initiation fees can exceed $100,000, and members pay annual dues on top of that.
USA Today’s reporting methods on this story themselves reflect the Trump administration’s utter disdain for transparency, a crucial component of government accountability. Trump has abandoned the Obama-era policy of releasing the White House visitor logs maintained by the Secret Service and has refused to release records of visitors to the private clubs he has treated as his weekend White Houses, such as the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., and Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. The clubs’ membership rolls are secret as well. As a result, the public doesn’t know who is paying to see the president, or why.
But USA Today was able to determine who the members of Trump’s clubs are by using social media and a publicly available website where golfers post their handicaps. The paper discovered that those members include “dozens of lobbyists, contractors and others who make their living influencing the government” and who now have direct access to him based on their ability to afford the fees at clubs owned by Trump.
As a result, these club members could be influencing Trump’s thinking on a range of issues, using their wealth and access to shape policy, operating out of public view and in the confines of the luxurious private accommodations only available to the nation’s wealthiest people.
Meanwhile, the Public Citizen report, aptly titled “President Trump, Inc.,” is even more shocking, if that’s possible. It details how Trump’s promise before assuming office to transfer control of his business empire to his sons “merely amounted to reshuffling his businesses holdings, with himself remaining the ultimate beneficiary.” In this “meaningless shell game,” Public Citizen notes, “each of the entities to which Trump transferred his assets ended up under the control of a revocable trust that operates for the benefit of Trump.” As a result, Trump is open to being paid, influenced and, as the report warns, even “leveraged” by an adversary — suggesting that some might try buying access to influence the president’s actions, while others might use information about his business liabilities against him, possibly making him vulnerable to a different sort of manipulation.
Public Citizen was able to trace the president’s holdings using his federally required financial disclosure forms, which are less detailed and revealing than his tax returns would be but still showed that he maintains a “stake in more than 500 businesses, with many of those businesses holding stakes in one another in a bewildering tangled mess.”
These businesses include his golf clubs and hotels, like his new one in Washington that has become both a new hub of official Washington and a profit center for the president and his family. Yet despite being complicated, these disclosure forms nonetheless provide “a roadmap to wealthy individuals or corporations, foreign or domestic, friend or foe, to select their preferred vehicle to ingratiate themselves to, or gain leverage on, the president of the United States,” the report notes.
In the old days, meaning as recently as a year ago, rich people and corporations looking to influence government would donate to political campaigns and super PACs. Trump has made all of that superfluous to influencing his presidency, with the added bonus (for him) that the payments increase his personal wealth.
The country is facing an avalanche of crises, from natural disasters to the Russia investigation to Trump’s venal immigration policy to North Korea. Yet holding Trump accountable, and fixing oversight so that it actually works for the new ecosystem he has created, might be one of the greatest emergencies Congress faces, before Trump’s approach becomes the new, and normalized, way of doing business in Washington. But the GOP-controlled Congress is unlikely to act to rein in Trump’s ethical transgressions when it comes to his self-dealing. With no accountability, Trump will continue to rewrite the rules, opening the door for a future of new abuses — perhaps including some that, just as in the pre-Trump era, we cannot even imagine now.