Americans voted for Donald Trump for a wide variety of terrible reasons. Some thought that the government should be run like a business. Others, that an outsider — any outsider — was more likely to improve their living conditions than an Establishment politician (and/or serial murderer) like Hillary Clinton. A few simply believed that no hardworking, god-fearing American should ever have to hear announcements repeated in Spanish.
Among Trump voters’ most misguided — but, also, most understandable — rationales was that a billionaire would have little temptation to put his own interests above those of the American people. For many Trump backers, the second most beautiful phrase in the English language (after “Lock her up”) was “He can’t be bought.”
The idea that the wealthy are uniquely unsusceptible to bilking taxpayers is one as intuitive as it is baseless. And Trump took full advantage of this flawed folk wisdom: Throughout his campaign, the mogul reiterated the myth that his bid was self-financed — and, thus, that special interests would have no sway over his White House.
What’s more, Trump’s wealth wouldn’t just spare taxpayers the waste, fraud, and abuse that monied interests gift our “broken system” — it would also save them the cost of employing a president.
“The first thing I’m going to do is tell you that if I’m elected president, I’m accepting no salary, okay?” Trump told a crowd in New Hampshire in 2015. “That’s not a big deal for me.”
The week after his victory, the new president made good on that promise: In his first year in office, Trump will save taxpayers $400,000 by waiving the presidential salary.
But while billionaires can afford to turn down a government paycheck, they can also afford to develop a lifestyle that involves flying from one luxury property to another on a whim. And for billionaire presidents, that habit is even more affordable — because American taxpayers foot the bill.
Thus, in his first month in office, Trump has cost taxpayers over $15 million. Per the Washington Post:
Barely a month into the Trump presidency, the unusually elaborate lifestyle of America’s new first family is straining the Secret Service and security officials, stirring financial and logistical concerns in several local communities, and costing far beyond what has been typical for past presidents — a price tag that, based on past assessments of presidential travel and security costs, could balloon into the hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of a four-year term
… Trump’s three Mar-a-Lago trips since the inauguration have probably cost the federal treasury about $10 million, based on figures used in an October government report analyzing White House travel, including money for Coast Guard units to patrol the exposed shoreline and other military, security and staffing expenses associated with moving the apparatus of the presidency.
Meanwhile, Melania Trump’s decision not to move into the White House with her husband is costing New York City $500,000 a day to guard Trump Tower — a total that could reach $183 million a year. And Palm Beach County is preparing to bill Washington tens of thousands for each day that the president decamps to Mar-a-Lago, as the local government is overwhelmed by the security and traffic-management demands of the president’s (near-weekly) visits.
Then, there’s the cost of providing round-the-clock security to Trump’s adult sons, as they pursue their globe-spanning business interests: U.S. embassy staffers paid nearly $100,000 in hotel-room bills to support Eric Trump’s recent trip to Uruguay.
Adding insult to taxpayers’ injury, Trump isn’t just enjoying the public’s largesse — he’s directly profiting from it. To protect Melania and little Barron, the Defense Department and Secret Service are looking to rent space in Trump Tower (where the president will be their landlord).
The Obama family’s travel expenses cost America an estimated $97 million over eight years — enough to provide Fox News hosts with hours of righteous indignation. The Trump family is on pace to exceed that sum in less than seven months.
It is hard to imagine a better issue for Democrats to demagogue.
Trump has no shortage of liabilities. But many of liberals’ favorites are shrouded in complexity: Complain about the president’s contempt for the Emoluments Clause and voters are likely to feel less outraged than confused.
The Trump administration’s Russia connections are well worth investigating, but the president retains plausible deniability against the most serious charges. And anyhow, it’s not clear that the whole imbroglio is salient to anyone who isn’t already on Team Blue. Trump didn’t campaign on his independence from Putin. But he did campaign on the idea that his wealth would save taxpayers money. And now it’s doing the opposite.
This is a story that’s as easy to understand as it is to get mad about. Voters are instinctually hostile to the idea that they have to finance the exorbitant costs of presidential vacations — a fact that Trump, himself, is perfectly aware of.
Democrats want to paint Trump as a faux populist, who only really cares about himself and his cronies. Thus far, they’ve pushed this narrative primarily by highlighting the plutocratic cast of his cabinet picks.
This is a worthy endeavor. But it can be countered with the same myth that established Trump’s populist bona fides in the first place: that the superrich can’t be bought.
By contrast, Trump has no easy way of reconciling his budget-busting lifestyle with his populism. There is no way to explain why you need to fly to your resort in Florida every weekend — thereby forcing Floridians to sit in traffic, Palm Beach police to work overtime, and the federal government to spend millions on security — without sounding like a spoiled brat. If Trump really needs a weekend getaway, he’s free to take a short helicopter ride to Camp David — a vacation spot designed to accommodate presidential visits with minimum security cost and inconvenience to ordinary Americans. But Trump feels entitled to classier confines.
To see how difficult this behavior is to justify, observe White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham’s best effort:
“He is not vacationing when he goes to Mar-a-Lago,” Grisham told the Post. “The president works nonstop every day of the week, no matter where he is.”
A spokesman for Republican senator John Barrasso — a leading critic of Obama’s vacation expenses — offered a similar line: “Former President Obama flew to Florida for the express purpose of a golf lesson and a round of golf with Tiger Woods. President Trump was in Florida with the prime minister of Japan.”
These arguments only accentuate the gratuitousness of Trump’s travel habits: If he’s just going to be working, why can’t he just stay in the White House and spare everyone the trouble? It does not benefit the American people to have Trump handle nuclear crises in the Mar-a-Lago ballroom, rather than the Situation Room. It only benefits himself and the resort he profits from.
For Democrats, Trump’s insatiable appetite for luxury is political gold. They should start mining it.