President Trump had a suggestion for Mike Pence: Rather than stay in Dublin during his meetings there with European officials, why not bring his entire family and security entourage to the Trump International Golf Club in Doonbeg, on the other side of the country? Pence, of course, agreed.
Pence’s European trip has become a vehicle to transfer American tax dollars into Trump’s pockets. But the direct impact of this minor grift pales beside the much larger consequence of suborning the vice-president’s participation in Trump’s corruption.
As an ethical violation, what’s notable about Pence going (literally) out of his way to stay at a Trump property is the meagerness of the stakes and the black-and-white clarity of the offense. Any government official below Trump’s rank who engaged in a similar offense would be fired. Just imagine if some assistant secretary was running a hotel on the side and told one of their subordinates to stay there on official business. They’d be fired on the spot.
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.
Trump is generally an outgrowth of the party’s broader authoritarian evolution, but one way in which he is an outlier is his determination to blend his business with his public duties. Before Trump, Republicans never contemplated the idea that a president could run a private business while serving in office. Trump has blurred this line so repeatedly it barely registers when he does so. His staffers promote his daughter’s brand, he touts one of his resorts as a potential host site for next year’s G7 summit, his Washington hotel becomes a marker for foreign and domestic allies to pay tribute — the accretion of small violations gradually implicates the entire party establishment.
Trump’s decision to run his business throughout his presidency is closely linked to his decision to keep his financial information private. Nobody knows just how Trump made his money or who is paying him now. And while Republicans have an ideological incentive to defend other gross aspects of Trump’s persona — like his racism and authoritarianism, which are all inflated versions of endemic tendencies within the conservative movement — they have no ideological incentive to defend his personal corruption. It would be easy for the party to break from Trump’s extraordinary demands to conceal his tax returns and collect payments from interested parties. That makes it all the more crucial for Trump to lock in their support.
Trump has been compared to a mobster by both his enemies and his friends. James Comey, who has faced off with organized crime, observed that Trump’s leadership style eerily follows La Cosa Nostra. “The — the loyalty oaths, the boss as the dominant center of everything, it’s all about how do you serve the boss, what’s in the boss’ interests,” he recalled.
One of the key tools used by organized crime bosses is to implicate their underlings. It’s hard to trust your flunkies until they have actively collaborated in your crimes. Once they have done so, they have demonstrated their willingness to violate the law on your behalf, and surrendered any claim to innocence. 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.
Questioned about his decision by reporters, Pence gave two justifications. First, he said the Trump resort gave him a chance to visit long-lost Irish relatives who live nearby. In other words, Pence’s own account is that he is locating a government delegation 150 miles away from his official meetings for personal reasons. Second, Pence argued that, because Trump himself has taken an official visit to the facility, the Secret Service gained familiarity with it, making it an especially good place to stay:
It is the grift that keeps on grifting.
This post has been updated throughout.