The Trump Organization announced on Monday that it is moving into the budget hotel business — capitalizing on Donald Trump’s popularity in Middle America. The idea is an ethics nightmare.
The organization plans to launch the chain of hotels in small towns around the country, the kinds of places Trump visited during his campaign stops, according to the New York Times. This new venture takes its cues from the president’s “America First” theme — and the hotels will be decorated with patriotic flair and feature American-made products. The organization plans to launch this experiment in Mississippi, a state that turned out heavily for Trump during the election, with a Trump campaign donor.
The new venture is a reflection of how the Trump family has approached the presidency: as a way to profit from Trump’s politics. The organization has already come under scrutiny after foreign diplomats booked rooms in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, around inauguration (Trump said he would donate the profits, but as of mid-March, there was no evidence he had done so) — and Trump tends to spend his time golfing at clubs he owns, meaning the Secret Service needs to funnel money directly into the president’s pocket in order to protect him.
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.
Now it seems the Trump Organization is trying to make money from the last places in the country where the president remains overwhelmingly popular: rural, working-class America. It’s an unusual project for the Trump Organization, which until now has focused exclusively on luxury properties and hotels, many of them abroad. But right now that brand is taking a hit due to controversies over the president’s policies and conduct.
The project raises yet more ethical issues for a president whose young administration has shown general disregard for potential conflicts of interest. Trump refused to divest from his business interests when elected (his sons are now in charge of running the Trump Organization), and will profit from any new business opportunities involving the Trump Organization.
Because Trump still earns money from his business — and hasn’t released his tax returns — it’s impossible to guarantee that the president is not motivated in his policy decisions by a desire to enrich himself and his family.
Capitalizing on his campaign and presidency to launch a new hotel chain does not mean that Trump is doing anything illegal. But ethics experts have been pushing Trump to completely separate himself from his businesses to eliminate the appearance of impropriety. The director of the US Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, has repeatedly urged Trump to sell his assets and put them in a blind trust, which he hasn’t done.
During a January event at the Brookings Institution, Shaub criticized Trump for not doing so:
We can’t risk creating the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for profit. That’s why I was glad in November when the president-elect tweeted that he wanted to, as he put it, “in no way have a conflict of interest” with his businesses. Unfortunately, his current plan cannot achieve that goal.
The Trump Organization insists that “there is no political thought” to the latest real estate project and that Trump’s name will not appear on the hotels, but it’s clear Trump does not make any effort to separate business and politics.