If Trump were an ordinary executive branch employee, this conduct would most likely violate federal ethics laws. In general, federal ethics guidelines state: “Public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws and ethical principles above private gain. . . . Employees shall not use public office for private gain.” Repeatedly staying at one’s own property and then requiring attendance of other government employees; hiking one’s membership fees to monetize the president’s newfound fame, charging Secret Service for golf carts and other equipment all arguably fall into this category.
More specifically, ethics rules state, “An employee shall not use or permit the use of his Government position or title or any authority associated with his public office in a manner that is intended to coerce or induce another person, including a subordinate, to provide any benefit, financial or otherwise, to himself or to friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity.” Likewise, a government employee is not supposed to “use or permit the use of his Government position or title or any authority associated with his public office to endorse any product, service or enterprise.”
Imagine a Cabinet secretary holding court at his own posh facilities, in essence demanding the attendance of subordinates as well as other government officials, lobbyists and interested parties. He’d be rightfully accused of using his position to make money from properties he owns.
But, you say, the president and vice president are not covered by these ethics rules. That is true, but it begs the question of whether Trump, in a broader constitutional sense, is abusing his office. He took an oath to the Constitution, to, in essence, attend to the people’s business above all else. Instead, he is running his presidency in such a way to maximize personal profit and is sending the bill to the taxpayers.
“Trump’s use of his high office to exact tribute from the multitude of American politicians and hangers-on who are quite willing to fill his coffers in order to win him to their side doesn’t violate the emoluments clauses or constitute high crimes and misdemeanors (unless out-and-out bribery can be proven), but [it] stinks to high heaven anyway,” says constitutional scholar Laurence H. Tribe. “Trump’s selling of the presidency is of a piece with the self-serving and self-aggrandizing approach he has taken to his entire adult life as a user, cheater, and exploiter of others. It’s neither criminal nor impeachable for Trump to besmirch the highest office in the land, but it certainly highlights his unfitness for that office and the burden that his leaving it will lift from America’s soul.”
Trump’s actions also set the anything-goes example for the Ryan Zinkes, Scott Pruitts, Tom Prices and others in his administration. Trump sends a signal that subordinates have free rein to use their time in government to their own benefit — and they’ve done so to an extent we have not seen in modern times, be it on first-class travel or as a job-placement agency for family members.
There is a tendency, promoted by Trump spinners, to claim self-enrichment is acceptable if it isn’t in violation of a specific statute. That’s wrong, and disregards the president’s larger obligations to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” That means putting the country first, something Trump seems temperamentally incapable of doing.