There is at least one thing President Trump and George Washington have in common: Both the first and current presidents said they didn't want to be paid for the job.
Near the end of Washington's inaugural address, the wealthy landowner and Revolutionary War commander who'd accepted no salary for his military service said that he “must decline as inapplicable to myself any share in the personal emoluments which may be indispensably included in a permanent provision for the Executive Department.”
Trump, meanwhile, has said since the early days of his campaign that he would not take a salary, stating at a stop in New Hampshire that “if I’m elected president, I’m accepting no salary, okay? That’s not a big deal for me.” In a Twitter Q&A, he said, “I won't take even $1.” And in a "60 Minutes” interview shortly after he was elected, Trump said he might have to take $1 a year, but would not take a salary, claiming, “I've never commented on this, but the answer is no.”
Presidents receive a salary because the Constitution requires it, stipulating that the amount cannot be changed while a person is in office. U.S. law puts the president's annual paycheck at $400,000, plus $50,000 in expenses.
As a result, Washington did take a salary of $25,000, a sizable sum for the times. And as of Monday, we know that Trump's “intention right now,” according to what press secretary Sean Spicer said in a briefing, is to donate his salary at the end of the year. “He made a pledge to the American people, he wants to donate it to charity and he'd love your help to determine where it should go,” Spicer said to reporters.
The irony, of course — at a time when questions continue to be asked about overlapping interests between Trump's presidency and his businesses — is that one of the very reasons the framers wanted the president to take a salary, even if they were wealthy enough not to need it, was to avoid potential conflicts of interest. It was also designed to send the signal that anyone — not just the wealthy elite — could become president, and served as a reminder that the president is a public servant to the citizens who pay him a salary.
Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley said in an interview that in the case of Washington, a wealthy landowner, taking a salary meant that if a bad fate befell his properties, having a salary could keep him from succumbing to the temptation of potential corruption. “You come in, you have all these rich holdings, but if for some unforeseen reason a storm wipes out all your crops and now you're broke and in debt, you would at least have money to live on,” and not become “beholden to moneyed interests.”
In Trump's case, Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer said the question is not about the conflicts of interest that could come up if the government did not pay him a salary, but the ones that continue to be raised about potential entanglements between his business and his presidency. “He can tell voters I'm not taking a salary — I'm obviously not someone who is looking to take a profit” from being president, Zelizer said. “But that's not really capturing the bigger problem.”
Many Americans, he says, “don't follow all the ins and outs of the news,” for example, about how hosting events at Mar-a-Lago in Florida could benefit membership at the club he owns or other potential repercussions of Trump's decision to retain ownership of his business.
“For him to say to them, 'I'm not even taking a salary,' that sounds really good,” Zelizer said.
Meanwhile, by offering a salary for the presidency, the framers intended to encourage people of any background to run for the job — not everyone, of course, had the character or money of Washington. In the Federalist paper No. 73, Alexander Hamilton wrote that “there are men who could neither be distressed nor won into a sacrifice of their duty; but this stern virtue is the growth of few soils.”
If Trump indeed donates his salary this year, he won't be the first president to do so; presidents John F. Kennedy and Herbert Hoover, both of whom were wealthy, also donated theirs. But the more presidents make a show of giving away their fortunes, or of talk that they won't accept a salary, the more it could create an expectation that presidents do so in the future.
Former House and Senate speechwriter Rob Goodman explained it this way in a November essay in Politico: “In such a political culture, we would increasingly question the capacity of anyone other than the wealthy to serve the public with integrity,” he said in arguing why Trump should take a salary. "Trump’s pledge is a powerful statement for a nation of booming inequality."
It's already a well-studied paradox of the presidency, noted Barbara Perry, presidential studies director at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, that Americans tend to vote for wealthy presidents, however much we may want presidents to “be like us.” “We hate the plutocrat, but we sure vote for really wealthy people to be president,” she said.
Trump, she said, has twisted this paradox, as he has with so many other political norms, with a strategy that seems to say “I don't need to downplay how much money I have. In fact, I will play up how much money I have. Rather than try to be like the common person, I will show you how uncommon I am.”
Indeed, it was concerns about wealth and inherited power that also played a role in the decision by the framers to give presidents a salary. The president's paycheck “has remained important as a reminder that you’re a public servant, and when you receive a salary, the person who gives the salary has some rights,” Zelizer said. “The job is not an inherited right. This isn’t an aristocracy.”
A businessman president should get that, Zelizer said, whether he ultimately donates the money or not: “Donald Trump understands the power of pay. When you pay someone, you can fire them.”