The “Southern White House” is a nearly perfect symbol of the Trump administration’s ethical failings. President Trump has on a number of occasions tweeted or spoken the phrase “Southern White House” in reference to Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach, Fla. Last month, for example, while sitting beside Japan’s prime minister in front of a television crew at Mar-a-Lago, he proclaimed that the club is “indeed” the Southern White House, boasting, “And again, many, many people want to be here. Many of the leaders want to be here. They request specifically.”
But there is no “Southern White House.” The Confederate States of America claimed an executive mansion, first in Alabama and then in Richmond, but the Union’s victory in the Civil War ended that assertion. Other presidents had nicknames for their homes away from Washington, but those were private residences. President George W. Bush, for example, informally dubbed his private ranch in Texas the “Western White House” and even met foreign officials there, but it was a relatively private retreat. The ranch was a personal residence. Bush was not implying a link to government, and he definitely was not selling membership privileges with respect to the unassuming four-bedroom, single-story home on his ranch.
Now, there is only the sitting president’s conflicting financial interest 1,000 miles south of the seat of government. In contrast to the homes of his predecessors, Trump’s ostentatious club is a commercial enterprise featuring guest suites, ballrooms, dining, a beach, pools, a spa, tennis courts, a “chip and putt” course, a fitness center and access to his affiliated golf courses. The phrase “Southern White House” is a transparent marketing pitch, connoting the availability of access to power for a price. Interested parties — be they captains of industry or agents of hostile foreign governments — can buy insider access to a place the president frequents. The initiation fee, which Trump doubled upon winning the election, is $200,000. He may belong to the people now, but the club belongs to him. Prospective purchasers can rest assured that their cash will still reach him.
This “Southern White House” branding is part of a broader effort that aims to lend official sanction to the president’s properties. When a lobbyist announced at a White House meeting that he was a member of one of Trump’s clubs, Trump responded, “Very good, very good.” Hope Hicks once masterfully pitched Mar-a-Lago’s link to government as the fulfillment of destiny, writing in an email to a reporter that, “[T]he president looks forward to using the property as the Southern White House, as it was intended to be.”
This allusion to what Mar-a-Lago “was intended to be” is a sinister distortion of history. Socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post donated the property to the federal government upon her death, in the hope, a friend of hers told the New York Times, that it might serve as a residence for hosting foreign dignitaries to rival those used for diplomacy in Europe. Exorbitant maintenance costs, however, led the government to return Mar-a-Lago to her foundation. Trump later bought the property and established his private club there. Post’s bequest could be read generously as an attempt to provide a venue for productive international relationships. Alternatively, one might cynically understand it as an elitist attempt to put American presidents and diplomats on a footing with sophisticated international counterparts. Either way, her plans became irrelevant when the government disowned the property, and they only withered further when Trump purchased it. Rather than establishing a second house of the people in Florida, he built a profitable leisure center for the privileged.
The link between government and Trump’s financial interests is anything but normal. One popular definition holds that corruption is the misuse of entrusted authority for private gain. We entrust our leaders with great power, and it is their responsibility not only to use that authority solely for our benefit but also to demonstrate that they are using it solely for our benefit. Branding the president’s for-profit club as government-linked demonstrates the opposite.
Trump’s supporters might remind us that he is exempt from the primary criminal conflict of interest statute, 18 U.S.C. § 208, and most of the regulatory standards of conduct. This is true, but past presidents understood that their exemption from ethics requirements was not a reward for attaining high office; it was a practical necessity. The primary conflict of interest statute requires executive branch employees to recuse themselves from — meaning stay out of — any particular matters affecting their financial interests. A president simply cannot recuse from anything without shirking constitutional duties and depriving us of our chief executive official. The standards of conduct, which contain rules on such things as gifts, would be similarly difficult to apply to the president due to protocols of international diplomacy and other matters. Heads of state exchange gifts as signs of goodwill between nations, for instance.
Past presidents knew, however, that it would be wrong to hold themselves to lower ethical standards than those to which they held their subordinates. After all, the whole idea of government ethics is to ensure that power is used for the benefit of the people, and nobody in our government has more power than our president. Accordingly, all past presidents who took office since enactment of the Ethics in Government Act in 1978 fulfilled the spirit of the primary conflict of interest law by either divesting their conflicting financial interests or establishing qualified blind or diversified trusts certified by the Office of Government Ethics. They also adhered as closely as practicable to the standards of conduct, including the provisions on misuse of position.
Trump, who once pledged to “in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses,” failed to live up to this honorable tradition when he took office. Since then he has applied himself vigorously to monetizing the presidency. Making explicit the commingling of personal and public interests, the Trump Tower gift shop has been caught grotesquely hawking a Trump mug bearing the presidential seal, and the Trump Organization ordered tee markers with that seal for his golf courses. Each of his trips to his properties is an advertisement, inasmuch as the media must follow him and that he never misses an opportunity for promotion. Who could forget his recounting that his club was serving “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen” while he was bombing Syria?
I would say Trump is getting the kind of advertising money can’t buy, but we taxpayers are paying tens of millions for him to spend almost a third of his days in office visiting his properties. Some of the money goes into his pocket. We learned last fall that the Secret Service had paid him over $150,000 in golf cart rental fees for the privilege of guarding his life while he golfs. Last month, Public Citizen issued a report finding that Trump’s businesses had billed $15.1 million to campaign, political committee and federal government sources since he first launched his presidential campaign.
The spectacle of businesses, industry associations, politicians, political groups, charities and even countries booking events at his properties suggests that they are using his businesses to ingratiate themselves with him. Even if any have innocent motives, the appearance problem undermines government legitimacy all the same. Trump certainly hasn’t discouraged anyone looking to curry his favor. His businesses don’t refuse service to foreign governments. He has not pledged to stop visiting his properties, nor has he forbid his appointees from attending events at them. The White House doesn’t decline meetings with visitors who stay in his nearby Washington hotel, and sightings of White House staffers at the hotel’s bar are now commonplace.
This profiteering sets a bad tone from the top. It tells the 2.8 million civilian federal employees who work for him that the man at the top doesn’t care about government ethics. This departure from our government’s norms creates a pressure that the government ethics program may not be able to withstand indefinitely, especially if Trump’s successor engages in similar behavior. We have already seen a trickle-down effect on his appointees, with two Cabinet officials ousted for ethics problems and accusations of unethical behavior against EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, as well as a growing list of scandals that seem to erupt weekly, sometimes daily, in this administration. We should hope that his behavior is an aberration and that future Republican and Democratic administrations will restore the ethical norms of government. In the meantime, the phrase “Southern White House” is a symbol of corruption that should set alarm bells ringing.