The Trumps Are Already Monetizing the Presidency

Public-private partnership. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Sunday night, Ivanka Trump appeared on 60 Minutes. She was invited on to 60 Minutes because her father is now the president-elect, and she a member of his transition team. Shortly after the program aired, her jewelry company sent the following missive to an email list of fashion journalists.

As far as attempts to cash in on proximity to power go, this is pretty mundane stuff. But it served as a potent reminder that the Trump family is both willing and able to monetize the presidency in ways both unpredictable and unprecedented.

Donald Trump owns a business that has elaborate ties to government agencies, both foreign and domestic. In one of the many heavy-handed symbols the past year of American politics has produced, the president-elect just opened a new hotel blocks from the White House — which operates out of the historic Old Post Office building, which the federal government still owns.

Trump will now get to appoint the head of the bureau that manages that building, a bureau that has tens of millions of dollars in contracts with his company.

This presents a formidable challenge to a man who won the presidency while campaigning against corruption and the “politics of personal profit.” It’s impossible for Trump to insulate himself against all accusations of self-dealing. After all, as a billionaire business owner, he stands to directly benefit from an array of garden-variety Republican policies — tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, abolition of the estate tax, and a Labor Department more concerned with appeasing management than unions, to name just a few.

But Trump has shown no concern whatsoever for maintaining any appearance of propriety. He has decided to shield himself from conflicts of interest by putting his assets into what he refers to as a “blind trust,” but is actually an entity that would allow him perfect knowledge of the assets he holds — and that would be managed by his children, who are also informal advisers to his government, and who may be on the cusp of receiving top-secret security clearances at his request.

Which is to say: an entity that is the opposite of a blind trust.

On Sunday, likely future secretary of State Rudy Giuliani (breathe in, breathe out) offered two radically different defenses of this arrangement.

“You have to have some confidence in the integrity of the president,” Giuliani told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “The man is an enormously wealthy man. I don’t think there’s any real fear or suspicion that he’s seeking to enrich himself by being president. If he wanted to enrich himself, he wouldn’t have run for president.”

Tapper then suggested that when the president-elect explains he will be insulated from conflicts by a blind trust — and then sets up an entity that is the opposite of a blind trust — that might raise real fears and suspicions.

“You realize that those laws don’t apply to the president, right?” Giuliani replied. “The president doesn’t have to have a blind trust. For some reason when the law was written, the president was exempt. I think he’s in a very unusual situation.”

So, per Giuliani, we shouldn’t worry about Trump using the presidency to enrich himself because:

1. We should trust in his integrity (because, implicitly, nothing about his presidential campaign suggested an interest in using public power to promote private interests).

2. Even if he did try to enrich himself, it would be totally legal, because, “for some reason,” the president is exempt from conflict-of-interest laws.

One of these reassurances is false. The other is true, but, also, the opposite of reassuring.

As already mentioned, Trump will have abundant opportunity to enrich himself through policy: Last July, the National Labor Relations Board ruled against the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, which was challenging its employees’ effort to form a union. In November, the NLRB ruled against Trump’s hotel again, for refusing to begin negotiations with that union. Trump will now have the opportunity to appoint all five members of the NLRB.

He will also get to appoint the head of the Internal Revenue Service, which is currently auditing Trump’s taxes.

Trump can also profit off the presidency more directly — throughout his campaign, the GOP nominee collected money from the Secret Service every time its agents took a ride on one of his jets. While he will ride on Air Force One as president, his children, who will be provided Secret Service detail, will likely, often, travel aboard private planes, thereby directing more taxpayer money into TAG Air Inc., Trump’s aviation company. TAG Air collected $6 million during the campaign.

The limits to Trump’s kleptocratic behavior are primarily political. However, the New York Times notes there is one legal restriction that Trump may have to wrestle with:

Perhaps most troubling for Mr. Trump, several ethics lawyers said, is a relatively obscure provision of the Constitution, called the Emoluments Clause, which prohibits any government official from taking payments or gifts from a foreign government, or even from sharing in profits in a company that has financial ties to a foreign government.

Mr. Trump has had business deals with foreign governments or individuals with apparent ties to foreign governments, including multimillion-dollar real estate arrangements in Azerbaijan and Uruguay. His children have frequently traveled abroad to promote the Trump brand, making trips to Canada, the United Arab Emirates and Scotland. Closer to home, the Bank of China is a tenant in Trump Tower and is a lender for another building in Midtown Manhattan where Mr. Trump has a significant partnership interest.

“Doing business with a foreign corporation, be it in Azerbaijan, Turkey or Russia, if is it owned in part or controlled by a foreign government — any benefit that would accrue to Mr. Trump could well be a violation of the Emoluments Clause of the United States Constitution,” said Kenneth A. Gross, a political ethics and compliance lawyer in Washington.

Regardless, it will be up to the Democratic Party to make Trump pay a political price for his self-dealing.

The possibility that Hillary Clinton had leveraged her family’s political power to extract charitable donations from foreign governments — and speaking fees from Wall Street banks — was viewed as so contemptible, the Democratic nominee routinely trailed her opponent on the question of who was more likely to combat corruption in D.C.

Trump and his family are all but certain to pursue schemes far more blatantly kleptocratic than the Clintons ever dreamed of. Democrats must see this fact as a (politically) lucrative opportunity — and milk it for all it’s worth.

The Trumps Are Already Monetizing the Presidency