Late Tuesday night, the White House press office sent out photos of President Trump visiting Texas to see the floods unleashed by Hurricane Harvey. In each photo, the president was wearing a white hat that read “USA” in blue letters. On Sunday, the White House put out photos of Trump monitoring the storm and the floods from Camp David, wearing a similar hat — this one in red, with white letters.
You, too, can wear one of these hats. They are, apparently, the “official USA 45th presidential hat.” They’re sold exclusively online by Trump’s reelection campaign, and they cost $40 each.
The president, in other words, was decked out in campaign gear while representing the people of the United States during a massive natural disaster. And the U.S. government made sure everyone saw him wearing it.
Trump may not have violated a regulation in doing so, but there is a difference between what is technically legal and what is ethically right. This president, though, has shown time and again that when he could personally benefit, he has no problem shoving decades of ethical norms out of his way. Turning hurricane relief into product placement is just the latest sign that Trump doesn’t appear to care about the concept of appearances of conflict of interest.
In 1973, Richard Nixon released his tax returns to the public while under investigation, saying “people have got to know whether their president is a crook.” Every president elected since has released his, thinking that they could at least clear the ethical bar set by Nixon — until Trump. Presidents for decades have placed their assets in a blind trust or widely held public assets such as Treasury bills — until Trump. They did not do these things because the law required them to, but because they were the right things to do, to show the American people that they were free from financial conflicts of interest. For the president of the United States, the appearance of a conflict of interest can be just as bad as the conflict itself. The American people need to have confidence that the president is making decisions in their interest, not to benefit his bottom line.
Unfortunately, financial conflicts of interest dominate this White House. As many of his businesses started to falter along with his approval ratings, Trump has spent 75 days at Trump-branded properties he still owns and earns profits from, properties that have advertised potential access to him in their brochures. These trips come with seven-figure price tags for the American people. And it’s his preference to use — and show off — Trump properties for meetings with foreign dignitaries, having hosted the prime minister of Japan and president of China at Mar-a-Lago. In September, he plans on meeting with foreign leaders at his Bedminster, N.J., golf course during the U.N. General Assembly, instead of the traditional meeting places, hotels or the United Nations itself.
Then there’s the issue of the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution, which prohibits profits from foreign governments and which my organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is suing Trump over in a first-of-its-kind case. His D.C. hotel is a magnet for those wishing to gain influence over Trump, including foreign officials, which may be why the hotel, which is more than half-empty, is still turning a surprising profit by charging what are believed to be the highest prices in Washington.
This is an administration that has placed an emphasis on Trump family businesses all along. Special counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway got rapped on the knuckles for standing in front of the presidential seal in the White House briefing room and saying on television, “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff … It’s a wonderful line. I own some of it … I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.” Trump’s response to Conway agreeing to receive ethics training — training she should have received on her first day — was reportedly to disagree with even that response, believing that she was “merely sticking up” for his daughter.
Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner have also had their share of ethics issues with businesses they own. Like her father, Ivanka stepped down from her business, but did not sell her stake in it, continuing to profit off clothes made in foreign factories. Kushner recently raised eyebrows when it came to light that he originally failed to disclose dozens of financial holdings, including one in a potentially conflicted asset: a real estate trading platform valued at about $800 million.
In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy instructed his fellow Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Trump appears to ask first what his country can do for his business and his family, regardless of how that appears to his fellow Americans.
Given how often the presidency overlaps with Trump’s personal interests, it should come as no surprise that the president and the White House are showcasing apparel sold exclusively on his campaign website. This administration is in the business of Trump, and it’s business as usual.