“Drain the swamp” was a signature promise of Donald Trump’s first campaign: He would uproot corruption from the capital and install a government that served ordinary Americans, not the special interests. That pledge has not merely gone unmet, like most of his campaign promises. It has been shattered by a president and an administration unprecedented and unapologetic in their mingling of public and private interests. In an unfettered second term, the self-dealing would be epic.
Mr. Trump promised to completely isolate himself from his businesses. “I may never see these places again,” he famously said during a rally in August 2016. “Because I’m going to be working for you, I’m not going to have time to go play golf.”
The reality, as Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), points out, has proved to be “quite the opposite,’’ with his businesses “a constant presence in his presidency.” The president, who is exempt from government conflict-of-interest laws, refused to follow the practice of his predecessors in severing ties to his existing businesses or putting his assets in a blind trust. He retained ownership, ostensibly putting his two adult sons in charge while still enjoying the benefits of any profit.
And Mr. Trump, according to data compiled by the watchdog group, has spent one out of every three days he has been in office at one of his businesses, more than half of them at golf resorts. The trips have helped propel a stream of revenue to the Trump Organization from federal agencies and Republican campaign groups, according to Post reporters who ferreted out the fact that more than $900,000 in taxpayer money has been spent on rooms, resort fees, golf carts and other expenses. That total might not be complete because the Trump Organization won’t disclose what it has collected and the administration has not been forthcoming — in keeping with the president’s secrecy when it comes to such financial matters as his tax returns.
Taxpayers aren’t the only ones picking up the tab at Mr. Trump’s properties. Foreign dignitaries seeking to curry favor with the administration, businesses needing government approvals for their ventures and state GOP officials wanting to stay on the right side of the president seemingly know it is best to stay at Mr. Trump’s Washington hotel or one of his other properties. It has yet to be determined whether the president, as is alleged in pending lawsuits brought by CREW and state attorneys general in D.C. and Maryland, is violating the Constitution’s anti-corruption, or emoluments, clauses by accepting benefits from foreign or state governments through the luxury hotel.
What is certain is the unseemliness of the president of the United States using his public platform to promote his private properties. He stopped plans to build a new suburban campus for the FBI because he didn’t want the downtown site to be redeveloped into a hotel that could compete with his Trump International and then later engineered that money be included in the pandemic relief bill for rebuilding FBI facilities at the current site. He tried to have his luxury golf club near Miami host a gathering of world leaders for a Group of Seven summit. He had Vice President Pence stay at a Trump resort in Ireland even though his meetings with Irish leaders were on the opposite side of the country. He is reliably reported to have pressed the U.S. ambassador to Britain to try to get the British Open golf tournament held at one of the Trump family’s golf resorts in Scotland.
“This president has a habit of doing things out in the open, which are completely improper or even illegal and somehow ... the average person thinks, ‘Well, if he’s doing it out in the open it must be OK; I must not completely understand the rules.’ But it’s not,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I), a member of House leadership who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said of the many intersections detailed by Politico between Mr. Trump’s presidency and his businesses.
No, it’s not. It is not okay that Mr. Trump thumbed his nose at rules and sensibilities about nepotism and installed his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, in White House jobs for which they had no qualification. It is not okay that Ms. Trump snared valuable trademarks from China for her business while in her White House job. It is not okay that Mr. Trump’s adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, use their political privilege to advance their financial interests, even charging taxpayers for costs associated with business trips — such as the nearly $100,000 it cost for Donald Trump Jr.’s jaunt to India to sell luxury condominium projects. It is not okay that Mr. Trump doesn’t care about employees in the executive branch violating Hatch Act prohibitions about partisan political activity while on the job; he even encourages it.
Mr. Trump has set a tone in which public service is seen as a way to enrich and pamper oneself at taxpayer expense. It is hard to remember which Cabinet member booked travel on pricey charter jets, who accepted Wimbledon tickets as a gift, who brought his wife along on trips on the taxpayer dime, who outfitted his office with a $43,000 phone booth and who commissioned a $31,000 dining room set.
Given Mr. Trump’s example, it is also no surprise that his administration is stacked with business insiders and lobbyists who shape policy to benefit the industries they once worked for — and likely will return to after their stint in government. To head up the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Trump chose a denier of climate change with ties to Big Oil. After an ethics scandal forced his resignation, a former coal lobbyist replaced him. Par for the course in Mr. Trump’s swamp.
Mr. Trump has made clear that he believes “my generals,” the Justice Department and the rest of U.S. government are there to serve his private and personal interests. If voters do not take their government back, they can expect it to have been remade into a second Trump Organization four years from now.