Though the Trump family’s use of higher office for personal enrichment is a well-documented grift, these ploys live in the shadow of the administration’s flashier scandals and are rarely able to grab public attention for long.
Two events this past week could place the grift in the forefront: Trump convincing Vice-President Mike Pence and his retinue to spend taxpayer dollars at his resort in Doonbeg, Ireland, and Trump reportedly ordering the Air Force Guard to throw money toward his Turnberry golf course and hotel in Scotland.
According to a report from Politico, C-17 military transport planes operated by the Air Force have been stopping over the past two years at Glasgow Prestwick, spending $11 million on fuel at the small airport that just happens to be 30 minutes north of Trump Turnberry. Though the fuel would be substantially cheaper if it was purchased at an allied military base — like the nearby Lakenheath Air Base commonly used for overseas fill-ups — it appears the administration favors the small, debt-ridden Scottish airstrip to help keep it afloat and maintain a key travel hub for the Trump property. Prestwick has been in financial trouble since at least 2013, when it was nationalized; in June, the Scottish government announced that the airport was up for sale, calling it “integral” to the success of the Trump property.
Likewise, Air Force cash appears to have found its way onto Turnberry itself. This spring, members of the Air National Guard stayed at the resort, though the crew’s per-diem wasn’t enough to cover meals at the Trump property. (At least they weren’t missing much.) In September 2018, a unit of the Maine Air National Guard also spent a night at Turnberry. Like the Scottish airport, the luxury resort isn’t doing all that well. As recently as 2017, Turnberry turned a seven-figure loss, and Trump has also personally loaned $144.6 million to keep the place afloat.
The Air Force on Sunday ordered a review of the rules governing where personnel stays on overseas trips. In a statement, an Air Force spokesperson said crew members staying at Trump’s hotel is not against the rules, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
“Even when aircrews follow all directives and guidance, we must still be considerate of perceptions of not being good stewards of taxpayer funds that might be created through the appearance of aircrew staying at such locations,” Air Force spokesperson Brig. Gen. Edward Thomas Jr. said.
Trump tweeted Monday that the aircrew’s decision to stay at his hotel had “NOTHING TO DO WITH ME.”
The Scottish situation, already questioned by House Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijiah Cummings and under review by the Air Force, proves that Trump is willing, time and again, to use public resources for his private interest. As New York’s Jonathan Chait notes in an assessment of Mike Pence’s stay at Trump’s Irish resort, it’s not necessarily the size of the ploy, but the intent that’s important:
It might seem strange for Trump and Pence to incur the awful publicity that comes with engaging such corruption in broad daylight, especially when the payoff — a handful of additional customers at a resort — is relatively small. But it is precisely that disjuncture between the brazenness and the scale that makes this episode significant. Pence is establishing the principle that Trump is entitled to profit from his office, and — far more importantly — his participation signals his culpability in the scheme …
The point of asking Mike Pence to violate government ethics on Trump’s behalf is not to put a few more dollars in Trump’s pocket, but to put Mike Pence in his pocket.
The point of routing military spending to a Scottish airport to boost access to his golf course is that the president considers the taxpayer purse to be just another loan source — and we all know how well he treats his lenders. But Trump is willing to move military funds around for his political goals as well: Last week, the Pentagon announced that $3.6 billion of the Defense budget would be taken away from 125 projects and presented to the effort to build a southern border wall — though Trump already has $1.375 billion earmarked for wall funding and has built just 46.7 miles of new barriers as of July.