As the White House hypes an announcement that President Donald Trump donated his salary from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), it’s worth considering the many ways in which the president’s supposed generosity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham announced on Twitter that Trump is “honoring” a promise he made “to donate his salary while in office,” and has decided to gift his latest quarterly $100,000 installment to HHS “to support the efforts being undertaken to confront, contain, and combat #Coronavirus.”
President @realDonaldTrump made a commitment to donate his salary while in office. Honoring that promise and to further protect the American people, he is donating his 2019 Q4 salary to @HHSGov to support the efforts being undertaken to confront, contain, and combat #Coronavirus. pic.twitter.com/R6KUQmBRl1— Stephanie Grisham (@PressSec) March 3, 2020
First of all, however, it’s worth remembering that the budget proposal Trump released just last month proposed a 10 percent cut to HHS’s budget that amounts to billions of dollars. Viewed in that context, $100,000 is a pittance. Essentially, Trump is actively working to dismantle HHS and other government agencies that respond to outbreaks like the coronavirus while falsely posturing as their generous benefactor.
Second, to the extent that Grisham’s tweet is meant to suggest that Trump is making personal sacrifices to benefit the American people, that’s misleading too.
The presidency is a moneymaking venture for Trump
Trump broke decades of precedent by refusing to divest from his business interests when he took office. As a result, he still owns and profits from the Trump Organization. And his most recent financial disclosure indicates that his $400,000 salary is peanuts compared to the money he has flowing in.
According to that disclosure, the hotel Trump owns just blocks from the White House brought in nearly $41 million in revenue in 2018, a $400,000 increase from the year before. And beyond income from Trump’s numerous properties, the Trump Organization made more than $20 million in real estate sale revenues in 2018.
Trump has also benefited from reimbursements from Secret Service expenditures at the properties he owns and profits from — properties that he, and therefore the members of the Secret Service who protect him, regularly visit. Last month, the Washington Post reported on records showing nearly $500,000 in such payments — and it’s likely there have been more expenditures where those came from, as the Secret Service has stonewalled efforts from Democratic members of Congress to get a full accounting.
Walter Shaub, senior adviser for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the former director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), told Vox on Wednesday that Trump’s salary “is a drop in the bucket compared to what he brings in by monetizing the presidency or compared to what he costs taxpayers with his frequent trips to promote his own properties. It’s also offset by what Trump’s company charges the Secret Service for the privilege of protecting him.”
Alluding to the standard presidential practice of placing assets in a blind trust when taking office, Shaub noted that it would be interesting to compare Trump’s $400,000 annual donations “to what he would have paid an independent trustee to manage his holdings for him and create a true firewall or what he feared he would lose if he had to sell his assets in a hurry.”
“This isn’t altruism,” Shaub added. “This is an investment in public relations as he profits off his high office.”