There is income that Trump does accept, of course: income from his stake in the Trump Organization. He earned nearly half a billion dollars in both 2018 and 2019, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, most of it from his private company. While the presidency occupies Trump’s time, the Trump Organization continues to line his pockets.
This unprecedented situation is so well established by now that it barely attracts attention when Trump’s two employers are in conflict or overlap. He spends so much time at Trump properties that, when he leaves the White House early on a Saturday morning, there’s generally no question where he’s headed: to his golf club in Sterling, Va. He has gone there on average about once every two weeks since he took office. It’s just background noise.
So it takes something jarring to represent an unusual tension for the president. Something like the report from the New York Times on Tuesday evening that Trump pushed his ambassador to the United Kingdom to try to secure the British Open golf tournament for Trump’s club in Scotland. The ambassador, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, reportedly tried, with an unclear level of enthusiasm. But there’s no indication that the deal, which would have been unquestionably lucrative for the president’s business, moved very far.
What sets this apart is either the brazenness or the sloppiness. Of course a president shouldn’t ask his ambassador to try to use his position — and the weight of American diplomacy — for a personal financial favor. Past presidents would have been hard-pressed to even approach an action of such apparent corruption, lacking private interests sufficiently substantial to demand such a request. How do we even compare this to anything? Barack Obama asking his ambassador to Canada to have that country buy his house in Chicago to use as a consulate? Even that would have been relatively small by comparison.
Again, though, the alleged British Open proposal isn’t the tip of a hidden iceberg: It’s another boulder on an already apparent mountain of how Trump has boosted and promoted and leveraged and benefited his personal businesses while serving as the nation’s chief executive.
We can start with the implicit promotion of his properties deriving from his constant visits to them. Again, we understand in the abstract that he’s often traveling to Trump Organization properties. But we can then lose sight of how frequent it actually is.
Once every 3.4 days as president, he has gone to a Trump Organization property. He has spent all or part of 374 of his 1,280 days as chief executive at a property his private business owns. Three hundred. And. Seventy-four.
He has spent all or part of more than 130 days at Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Palm Beach, Fla., alone. An additional 95 at his club in Bedminster, N.J. And nearly 90 at his club in Sterling.
As of early 2019, his trips to Mar-a-Lago alone had probably cost taxpayers more than $60 million. By now, using an estimated baseline cost of $3.4 million per trip to the club (a figure derived from data released by the Government Accountability Office), the number is probably more than $100 million.
Most of those costs are for fuel and air travel; Air Force One isn’t cheap. But those trips, in addition to serving as advertisements for the properties and access to the president, also result in income for the businesses. The Washington Post’s David A. Fahrenthold and Joshua Partlow had tallied $628,000 in income going to Trump businesses from the Secret Service alone as of March. Fahrenthold has since obtained new documents showing spending by the agency, including nearly $17,000 spent in late 2017 when Trump was vacationing at Mar-a-Lago over the holidays.
Determining specific overall figures is difficult, requiring transparency from the government that it is often loath to provide. Earlier this week, for example, Fahrenthold finally received data on Defense Department spending at Mar-a-Lago — data from April 2017, Trump’s fourth month in office.
Although those numbers are obscured by bureaucracy, other Trump Organization income is publicly reported: spending by campaigns, including Trump’s.
So far this election cycle, political campaigns have spent nearly $4 million at Trump properties, most of that from Trump’s own campaign and the Republican Party. In other words, a large number of donors to Trump’s reelection effort are, in effect, paying money indirectly to Trump’s personal properties, some of which ends up in Trump’s pocket.
Since he announced his candidacy in 2015, political committees including Trump’s have spent about $22 million at his properties, according to CNN reporting. Trump himself probably doesn’t see much of that money, but it does reinforce a broader point: Those looking to curry favor with Trump, including political candidates, understand the value in paying money to his private business.
When Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke on the phone in July 2019, Zelensky pointedly told Trump that, when he’d visited New York the prior year, he’d stayed at a Trump property. This was not the part of the call that attracted the most attention, but it bolstered an existing pattern.
After announcing a planned merger with Sprint that would require government approval, T-Mobile executives booked more than 50 nights at Trump’s Washington hotel. Lobbyists representing Saudi Arabia booked 500 nights at the hotel over the course of three months after Trump won the 2016 election. Trump’s victory that year also preceded the Kuwaiti Embassy’s decision to move an annual celebration to the Trump International Hotel in D.C.
It’s hard to think that all of this is coincidental. And even if it wasn’t, it hasn’t been proved that such decisions influenced Trump’s views of those countries or of T-Mobile. (The merger was approved by the government last year.) But it is clearly and publicly demonstrated that Trump has no problem in using his position as a way to drive business to the Trump Organization.
You may recall last October when then-acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney suddenly announced that, after a purportedly rigorous search, the government had settled on a location for an upcoming international summit: the Trump Organization’s golf resort in Doral, Fla.
After an outcry, the plan was scrapped. That the vetting process was less than comprehensive was soon made public, however obvious it may have been beforehand. With the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, the summit itself was scrapped.
Mulvaney and Trump had insisted that Doral wouldn’t have made money from foreign governments attending the summit — income that would have conflicted with a constitutional prohibition. It was a dubious claim but also one that obscured the ancillary benefits that the Trump Organization would receive: publicity, photos of prominent leaders on the property, potential income from other attendees, or the influx of media or security members who would also attend.
Trump doesn’t have to steer money directly from the government to his businesses for the businesses to benefit. But he does steer money directly from the government to his businesses by insisting on visiting them twice a week on average over his first term in office.
Did he try to get the British Open at Turnberry? The White House didn’t deny the New York Times’s report. But he’s certainly given the nation no reason to think that he wouldn’t have.