Amid all the outsize craziness emanating from the Trump White House, it’s easy to lose track of all of the smaller devolutions of norms that might seem relatively trivial, but when taken together, add up over time to produce what really is at bottom a corrupt and kleptocratic regime.
On one front after another, relentlessly and constantly, Donald Trump is turning his time into the White House into a just-in-time marketing opportunity, with no penny too small to turn down.
This past weekend at Mar-a-Lago, guests paid up anything between $600 (for club members) to $750 (guests) to attend the annual New Year’s Eve party hosted at the Trump-owned resort that Trump himself refers to as the “Winter White House.” That was a hefty price hike for the celebrants — last year, the event cost between $500 and $575.
That’s wasn’t the first 2017 price increase for Mar-A-Lago. Early in the year, the club doubled its initiation fee from $100,000 to $200,000. At the time, Norm Eisen, the former White House ethics czar for the Obama administration and now the chair of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, told The Post that the sudden 100 percent increase could only be described as “naked profiteering.”
As for Sunday’s night’s festivities, Eisen said on Twitter:
There’s no question that some of this spending by Mar-A-Lago guests is inspired by an effort to make nice to someone who could fairly be described as the most powerful person on the planet, never mind in the United States. It’s hardly the first example of it.
In the wake of last year’s white supremacists rally and Trump’s failure to unequivocally condemn it, numerous charities who traditionally held functions at Mar-A-Lago began to cancel en masse. But then they were replaced by any number of right wing concerns, at least some of them not exactly looking to use a charity or political gala for the traditional purpose, which is to make a buck for themselves. Instead, they wanted the money to go to Trump.
“We’re supporting our president,” conservative activist Steve Alembik told The Post last year, admitting he didn’t expect his “Truth About Israel Gala” to make much, if any money at all.
This, too, should have been a scandal. I mean, someone all but admitted they were holding an event at Mar-A-Lago that they expected to earn nothing from while the president of the United States profited. It was not widely seen as a scandal.
There’s plenty more of this. Prior to Trump’s election, his Washington-based hotel was projected to lose $2.1 million in the first four months of 2017. Instead, it netted a profit of $1.97 million during the same period. There is little doubt that spending by people who want to get in good with the president is partly responsible for that unexpected business bonanza.
And remember when Trump said that no, he wouldn’t put his business in a blind trust but he would keep a hand’s off approach to his business? The Daily Beast reported that the director of revenue management for Trump’s Washington hotel sent an email to a friend discussing a meeting he’d had with the president, at which Trump asked “about banquet revenues and demographics.” As president, he went on to assure his correspondent, “DJT is supposed to be out of the business and passed on to his sons, but he’s definitely still involved.”
The news cycle moved on. It’s like it didn’t happen.
Once corruption — and make no mistake, this is what this is — gains a toehold in public life, is extremely hard to dislodge. It feeds on itself, contributing to a breakdown in norms among everyone. If the guy on top sees no need to forego short-term profits in an effort to maintain appearances and, in fact, sees his time in the White House as a way to increase the amount of money he is earning in real time, why on earth should we expect anyone else behave any more honestly or ethically?
And that is, in fact, what we are seeing happen. Companies with business pending before the United States’ regulators are announcing year-end bonuses, claiming they are tied to the recent tax reform package, a transparent an effort at cozying up to power as there ever was. Any number of members of Congress who voted yes on that plan stood to benefit it. So too does Donald Trump, the man who signed it into law.
The breakdown of precedent is, well, unprecedented. Howl all you want about former presidents and their family members charging Wall Street banks hundreds of thousands of dollars for a speech and a few hours of their time, but at least they had the enough commitment to civic life and the public good to wait till they left the White House to put their hand out.
No longer. Thanks, Trump.