Trump was asked a version of that question specifically over the weekend.
“I want them to try it,” Trump said. “And it may work, and it may not work. But if it doesn’t work, it’s nothing lost by doing it. Nothing.”
That’s not entirely true, given both the possibility of negative side effects and that Trump’s promotion of the drugs has led to some shortages in their availability for those hoping to use the drugs as prescribed.
He went on to describe the drugs as a “very special thing.”
Given Trump’s background and his touting his own businesses as president, a number of his critics have speculated that he might be motivated by personal financial interests in hyping the drugs. Perhaps, the theory goes, he’s making money on the sale of the medication, so he keeps hyping it.
That case gained some ammunition from a New York Times report published Monday night.
“Mr. Trump himself has a small personal financial interest in Sanofi, the French drugmaker that makes Plaquenil, the brand-name version of hydroxychloroquine,” the paper reported. The story later went into more detail: “As of last year, Mr. Trump reported that his three family trusts each had investments in a Dodge & Cox mutual fund, whose largest holding was in Sanofi.”
Those looking for a smoking gun had it. There was the financial motivation they’d suspected all along, sitting there in black and white.
The problem with looking for smoking guns, of course, is that one tends to see a lot of gun-shaped objects as guns and a lot of wisps as smoke.
In this case, that the Times story mentions Trump’s personal stake in the sixth paragraph of a story titled, “Trump’s Aggressive Advocacy of Malaria Drug for Treating Coronavirus Divides Medical Community” suggests that the paper’s own reporters don’t really think that the motivation was financial. “From key investment, Trump profits on promoting coronavirus drug” is a much catchier story. But if that’s not reinforced by the data, it’s a hard story to run — and the idea that Trump’s motivation was those investments is not reinforced by the data.
At issue is a fund from a firm called Dodge & Cox called, cleverly enough, the Dodge & Cox International Stock Fund. Trump’s personal financial disclosure indicates that he holds shares in the fund through three different family trusts. The fund’s largest holding is, in fact, in Sanofi.
That said, only 3.3 percent of the fund’s holdings are in that company. What’s more, Trump’s disclosure, filed in May, shows that the three trusts each hold between $1,001 and $15,000 in the Dodge & Cox fund. In other words, Trump’s stake in Sanofi from each trust is between $33 and $495 — or between about $100 and $1,500 in total. However much he overstates his net worth, Trump is still worth nearly $3 billion, according to Bloomberg News, mostly as a function of the property he owns.
That Sanofi investment would therefore constitute between 0.000003 and 0.00005 percent of Trump’s net worth. If you were worth $100,000, it would be like worrying about the nickel in your pocket.
The idea that Trump is hyping hydroxychloroquine to boost Sanofi assumes that he knew that his trusts included a fund that had, among other investments, a stake in the company. That’s not a fair assumption. Those family trusts each include dozens of different investments, most of which are in the $1,001-to-$15,000 range. The three trusts each also include between seven and 12 significantly larger investments. In Trump’s personal financial disclosure, he reports earning between $15,001 and $50,000 from each fund annually. That, again, is a small fraction of his income, much less his net worth.
There are, of course, some necessary caveats. We don’t know how much Trump’s trusts might have invested in other companies since his last disclosure was released. It’s a snapshot of the past, not of the present. It’s also the case that some of those urging Trump to promote the medications might have a financial stake in doing so.
We come back to the cui bono question: What’s the value to Trump in hyping the drugs? If nothing else, we can all agree that there is almost certainly something in it for the president, given how much focus he’s put on it.
The most logical answer is what it was Monday. By now, the use of the drug has become a benchmark in the political culture wars, with Trump allies echoing his calls for the drug as a sign of their confidence in his instincts and as a way of promoting what they see as an optimistic view of the pandemic. The president is probably also promoting the drug because it offers a big political upside — getting to say he was right and the experts were wrong — with a small downside. (If the drugs continue to prove not to be particularly useful, precedent suggests that he will simply ignore the time he spent promoting them.)
Trump focuses a lot on the bottom line. But the bottom line is often his own political value and not just his literal net worth. In this case, the former remains the more likely motivator.