The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump presidency: On track to becoming the most corrupt in U.S. history?

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Is Donald Trump the most corrupt president in American history? We may not be able to give him that title quite yet — after all, he’s only been president for a year. But he sure is working hard at it.

In the endless outpouring of craziness emerging from this administration, where allegations that the president of the United States paid a porn star $130,000 in hush money to keep quiet about an adulterous affair get almost no media attention, you may have missed some recent stories that go to the heart of the conduct of Trump and his administration. So let’s round them up:

  • A report out today from Public Citizen details how foreign governments, corporations and trade associations have been patronizing Trump’s properties since he took office. You might say, “Well there’s not necessarily any quid pro quo there,” which is true. But it’s also true that everyone knows that Trump is a man of uncommon greed and pettiness, and if you’re coming to Washington or holding an event, you might as well line Trump’s pockets while you do it, whether you’re the government of Saudi Arabia or the American Petroleum Institute, as a gesture of good will that might pay off later. As an Asian diplomat told The Post right after the election, “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor’?”
  • A review by BuzzFeed of all Trump Organization condominium sales since the 1980s shows that 1,300 sales totaling $1.5 billion were made in cash by anonymous shell companies. “Those two characteristics signal that a buyer may be laundering money, the Treasury Department has said in a series of statements since 2016.”
  • According to an investigation by USA Today, “President Trump’s companies sold more than $35 million in real estate in 2017, mostly to secretive shell companies that obscure buyers’ identities.” The use of these shell companies exploded once Trump became the Republican nominee for president. “In the two years before the nomination, 4 percent of Trump buyers utilized the tactic. In the year after, the rate skyrocketed to about 70 percent.”
  • Eric Trump has repeatedly claimed that his foundation, recently rechristened “Curetivity,” is able to hold fundraising events at Trump properties for free, but as the Daily Beast reports, this is false. In 2016, Curetivity paid Trump properties nearly $150,000, meaning that if you went to a charity golf tournament the group held, part of your tax-deductible contribution went into the president’s bank account.
  • McClatchy reports that foreign governments in places such as Indonesia and Panama have suddenly become eager to accommodate Trump properties, doing things like building roads and sewer systems to maximize the value of a property. “And in other countries, governments have donated public land, approved permits and eased environmental regulations for Trump-branded developments, creating a slew of potential conflicts as foreign leaders make investments that can be seen as gifts or attempts to gain access to the American president through his sprawling business empire.”

That’s just what’s been reported in the past two weeks.

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

At this point we should say that there are a variety of activities that might go under the heading of “corruption.” We used to refer to it as graft — using the offices of government for financial gain, whether through bribery or other means — but it doesn’t stop there. Actions can be corrupt even if they’re legal, and we also talk about corruption in a broader sense that encompasses non-financial wrongdoing as well. Many would consider Richard Nixon the most corrupt president in history, but his most serious crimes didn’t involve lining his pockets. He twisted the apparatus of government to his own personal ends, ends that were often about self-protection.

A Trump real estate project illustrates the questions that can arise about the intersection of President Trump’s business interests and his work as president. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

What distinguishes Trump from all his predecessors is the fact that he barely conceals his intentions. After a lifetime spent not only manipulating the economic, legal, and political systems to increase his wealth but publicly bragging about his ability to do so, there was little doubt that he’s continue in the same vein as president. He refused to divest himself from his businesses, then held a press conference standing next to piles of what were almost certainly stacks of blank paper inside blank folders that he claimed were the “documents” he had to sign to effect the transfer of those businesses to his sons.

But as the director of revenue management for the Trump Hotel in Washington wrote to an acquaintance in an email obtained by the Daily Beast, “DJT is supposed to be out of the business and passed on to his sons, but he’s definitely still involved.” This too surprises no one.

That’s not to mention that the Republican tax bill could barely have been designed better to maximize the benefits to Trump himself, particularly the dramatic cut in taxes on “pass-through” companies, which will be worth many millions of dollars to the president, because the Trump Organization is essentially a collection of hundreds of pass-throughs. Of course, we don’t know exactly how much he’ll gain, because unlike every other president and presidential candidate in decades, Trump continues to refuse to release his tax returns. This despite the fact that there is no president in history whose finances are in more urgent need of public examination.

Even if we don’t know all the details, we know that Trump and his family are making out like bandits. And we know that he has set a tone that those below him will take to heart, one that says conflicts of interest are no big deal, ethics are for losers, and you should grab what you can. As historian Robert Dallek put it last November:

“Like Nixon, Trump has created a culture in his administration in which people feel comfortable with corruption. Trump himself has shown a complete indifference to democratic norms, to rule of law, and that sends a pretty clear signal to the people beneath him.”

So it’s no accident that, for instance, one Cabinet member after another seems to think that flying commercial is for suckers. And I promise you, before this presidency is over we will hear many more stories of underlings who figured that there are no more rules and their time in government is a great time to get rich.

Before Trump came along, the idea that any president of either party would use the presidency as a nonstop business opportunity was almost too absurd to contemplate. Now most people find it barely worthy of getting upset about, especially when there’s so much else going on.

But if the Democrats take back one or both houses of Congress in the fall, they should make investigating the corruption of President Trump and this administration a top priority. Only if it’s exposed and there are consequences can we reinstate the norm that presidents ought to have a higher motivation than using the Oval Office to make themselves richer.