Donald Trump attracted a reputation over the years as a ruthless and unscrupulous businessman. He said on the campaign trail that having been “greedy all my life,” he now wanted to be greedy on behalf of the American people — but nobody seriously believed him. Marco Rubio warned that Trump was a “con artist,” and Ted Cruz labeled him “completely amoral.” Liberals, needless to say, were not kinder in their judgments.
From the day Trump announced his candidacy until the day he took the Oval Office, the smart take on him was that he was running on a lark, as a publicity stunt, or to lay the groundwork for some business endeavor.
Yet since his ascension to the White House, conventional wisdom has developed an odd tendency to describe his inability to make major legislative changes as an indication that his presidency is failing. It's certainly true that Paul Ryan’s speakership of the House is failing, arguable that Mitch McConnell’s tenure as majority leader of the Senate is failing, and indisputably true that the Koch brothers’ drive to infuse hardcore libertarian ideological zeal into the GOP is failing.
But Trump isn’t failing. He and his family appear to be making money hand over fist. It's a spectacle the likes of which we've never seen in the United States, and while it may end in disaster for the Trumps someday, for now it shows no real sign of failure.
The Trumps have unprecedented conflicts of interest
During the campaign and for much of the transition, Trump liked to at least vaguely allude to the idea that as president, he would separate himself from his business empire and do something to provide the public with transparency on his taxes. Since winning, he’s made clear that’s not going to happen. The day-to-day management of the companies is in the hands of his two oldest sons, while his oldest daughter and her husband (both of whom run substantial businesses in their own right) serve as high-ranking officials in the White House.
But don’t just take my word for it. Multiple reports have found that no meaningful separation exists:
- Derek Kravitz and Al Shaw reporting for ProPublica have confirmed that the terms of the trust in which the Trump Organization is held allow the president to pull money out of the company at any time.
- Eric Trump says he is giving his father regular updates on the state of the Trump Organization, on a “probably quarterly” timeline but with no specific commitments.
- Donald Trump Jr. is not only a top executive at the Trump Organization but also does surrogate interviews on behalf of the president.
Beyond that, of course, there’s the fundamental reality that everyone knows Trump owns properties like the Trump National Golf Club or Trump Tower because they have his name slapped on them.
Trump is even profiting from his golfing weekends
To an extent, this allows Trump to simply funnel money directly into his own pockets. Like many previous presidents, he golfs. And like all presidents who golf, when he hits the green, he is accompanied by Secret Service agents. The agents use golf carts to get around the courses. And to get their hands on the golf carts, they need to rent them from the golf courses at which the president plays. All of this is fundamentally normal — except for the fact that Trump golfs at courses he owns. So when the Secret Service spends $35,000 on Mar-a-Lago golf cart rentals, it’s not just a normal security expense — Trump is personally profiting from his own protection.
The Secret Service has, similarly, paid $64,000 for “elevator services” in Trump Tower. This is a fairly normal kind of expense for the agency, paying a building money to defray the inconvenience of taking elevators offline so they can be inspected for security purposes. But, again, there is nothing normal about the president personally profiting from the security procedure.
When Trump’s sons fly around the world doing business deals, they too are protected by Secret Service agents whose bills the federal government covers — even if they are staying at Trump properties.
There is something grating about this, especially from a president who is making a big show of donating his salary to charity. Trump is directly pocketing what could easily amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in direct payments from the Treasury, while simultaneously claiming to be serving for free. What’s more troubling, however, is indirect financial entanglements into which we have little real visibility.
It’s now easy to funnel money into the first family’s pockets
Ivanka Trump, for example, was granted five trademarks by the Chinese government on the very same day she had dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Also on that day, Ivanka’s father decided to break his campaign pledge to officially designate China as a currency manipulator. That decision, by all accounts, reflected the growing clout inside the White House of National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and his key ally Jared Kushner, who happens to be Ivanka’s husband and in a position to directly gain or lose from China’s decisions regarding his wife’s trademark applications.
There’s of course no way to demonstrate a quid pro quo there, but the basic dynamics are clear.
Kushner emerged as a “shadow diplomat” smoothing over US-Mexico relations, according to a February 10 Washington Post article, and by April 10, the same journalists were reporting that he has “the freedom to act as a shadow secretary of state, setting up his own channels of communication with world leaders.”
Back in February, Bloomberg reported that “[a]s countries around the world figure out how to influence the new U.S. administration, China is going straight to the top: Trump’s immediate family.” Kushner and Ivanka Trump were guests of honor at a Chinese New Year celebration organized by the Chinese Embassy in Washington, and the trademark applications are just part of the overall package. China is on good terms with Trump’s family, and Trump’s family has helped keep China on good terms with the United States.
Similarly, Ivanka was closing business deals in Japan while simultaneously joining her father in meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Corruption changes policy, not always for the better
This same trend can easily point in darker directions. The Trump family has business interests in the Persian Gulf, and Trump’s foreign policy is moving the United States into much closer alignment with the Gulf monarchies, including deeper involvement in a disastrous war in Yemen and abandonment of any pretense of caring about human rights in Egypt.
Further from the center of media attention, an eye-opening report by Allan Nairn for the Intercept says that “[a]ssociates of Donald Trump in Indonesia have joined army officers and a vigilante street movement linked to ISIS in a campaign that ultimately aims to oust the country’s president.” The movement includes current and former army officers looking to evade accountability for past crimes during Indonesia’s period as a military dictatorship, but also “Hary Tanoe, Trump’s primary Indonesian business partner, who is building two Trump resorts, one in Bali and one outside Jakarta.”
In a normal administration, it would go without saying that American attitudes toward civil strife in Indonesia — no matter how misguided — were driven primarily by policy considerations and not by the president’s personal financial interests. With Trump, we have no such assurance.
Trump could get away with it
Donald Trump is currently a moderately unpopular president, and it's entirely typical for the president’s party to lose ground in the midterms. Under the circumstances, it wouldn't be all that surprising if Democrats swept to a narrow majority in the US House of Representatives in 2018, which would put them in a position to launch the kind of oversight and investigations that could bring the Trump clan to heel.
Then again, the basic outline of the 2018 Senate map is so favorable to Republicans that for Democrats to net as much as one seat would be a remarkable achievement. And district boundaries in the House are so favorable to the GOP that Democrats could win the national House popular vote by a bit over 5 percent and the GOP would retain their majority.
After that, who knows. Most presidents are reelected. Congressional Republicans have made it clear that there will be no investigations into any potential scandals as long as they run the show. Perhaps there will be a recession in 2020 or Trump will get us embroiled in a war that causes a large number of American casualties. But one hopes he won’t.
And certainly the basic task of avoiding recession or ruinous war is compatible with both inability to obtain major legislative achievements and ample ability to milk the presidency for all it’s worth. If it happens, it will look like failure to a lot of people who do care a great deal about politics and public policy. But Trump won’t be one of them.