House minority leader Kevin McCarthy doesn’t think elected officials spending money at businesses that President Donald Trump owns and profits from is a big deal. He’s wrong.
On the heels of a string of stories about Trump administration and military officials patronizing the president’s properties — like Attorney General William Barr spending $30,000 on a party at the Trump International Hotel, Vice President Mike Pence going far out of his way to spend a night at Trump’s resort in Doonbeg during a diplomatic trip to Ireland, and the Air Force increasingly using a Trump resort in Scotland for overnight stays — McCarthy was asked during his news conference on Tuesday if he has concerns. He indicated he does not.
“The president’s resorts are hotels that he owns, that people are traveling. It’s just like any other hotel,” the California Republican said. “I don’t know that that’s different than anything else. Is it different than if I go and stay or eat at a Marriott here or eat at the Trump?”
.@GOPLeader: "The President's resorts are hotels that he owns, that people are traveling. It's just like any other hotel... I don't know that that's different than anything else. Is it different than if I go and stay or eat at a Marriott here or eat at the Trump?" pic.twitter.com/sKQHJa0Hmo— The Hill (@thehill) September 10, 2019
But government and military officials directly lining Trump’s pockets by spending money at his hotels, resorts, and restaurants is not in fact equivalent to patronizing the Marriott. On the contrary, it is the textbook definition of one form of corruption.
Becoming president is not supposed to be a money-making venture
Trump broke decades of precedent by refusing to divest from the businesses he still owns and profits from while president. There’s good reason divestment was the norm: Presidents are supposed to make policy decisions based on the public good, not what’s best for their personal bottom line.
Because Trump never divested, he still profits from every dollar that is spent booking a hotel room, event space, or buying a Trump-branded product. That opens him up to the risk of another form of corruption: If you want the president to do political favors for you, lining his pockets by patronizing his businesses is a good way to go about it. On the other hand, spending money at the Marriott when the Trump International Hotel is an option could be perceived as a slight.
Trump has argued that since he’s not directing anyone to spend money at his properties, there’s nothing wrong with people like Pence and Barr doing so. It’s just free-market competition, and he happens to be selling products and services that people like.
Trump claims he played no role in Pence's decision to patronize a hotel he still owns & profits from in Ireland, but then provides a plug for his properties.— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 5, 2019
"I have a lot of hotels all over the place, & people use them because they are the best ... people like my product." pic.twitter.com/588Zul6d7f
But the reality is that the president owning and profiting from a business while he’s in office creates market-distorting incentives for people to line his pockets.
Corporations and foreign governments have already seemingly figured out that spending money at Trump properties is a good way to curry favor with the president. Vox’s Riley Beggin recently ticked through a number of examples:
T-Mobile spent $195,000 at the DC hotel while its merger was pending government approval, lobbyists for the Saudi government spent $270,000 on rooms at the hotel in 2016 and later paid for hotel rooms for five days in Trump’s New York hotel that were expensive enough to boost its revenue 13 percent for the quarter.
The Embassy of Kuwait has held celebrations at Trump’s DC hotel, as has the Embassy of the Philippines. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and the Prime Minister of Romania have both been seen at the hotel. The list goes on.
Trump’s ongoing ties to the Trump Organization also puts the president in a position to abuse his office by leveraging it for free promotion for his businesses, as Trump is currently doing with his push to hold the 2020 G7 at his struggling golf resort in Doral, Florida.
Kevin McCarthy should and probably does know better. But he’s spent the last three years defending the full range of Trump’s excesses, from racist chants at his rallies to Trump’s insistence that each of the more than 20 women who have accused him of sexual misconduct are lying.
In that contest, blatant corruption is simply the latest thing McCarthy is willing to normalize as part of his loyalty to Trump. And by insisting it’s no big deal, the Republican minority leader is insulting Americans’ intelligence in the process.