An investigation by USA Today last summer found that in the 12 months after he clinched the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, “70% of buyers of Trump properties were limited liability companies – corporate entities that allow people to purchase property without revealing all of the owners’ names.
That compares with about 4% of buyers in the two years before.
When it comes to wringing bucks out of this administration, no one can match President Donald Trump himself for the sheer depth and breadth of his national grift.
Hell, the way he’s set things up it’s virtually impossible to even capture its scope.
Thanks to presidential ethics laws that never contemplated a businessman president who would not follow the political norms of divesting himself of his businesses, disclosing his taxes and generally trying to avoid conflicts of interest, much and possibly all of this is legal if unseemly.
“The president can’t have a conflict of interest,” Trump noted even before he took office, perhaps confusing a technical matter of law for a broader matter of ethics.
We can start with the truly big money.
Forbes’ Dan Alexander and Matt Drange estimated last month that Trump rakes in at least $175 million annually from commercial tenants like the state-owned Industrial & Commercial Bank of China.
Which companies specifically and how much money exactly?
It’s impossible to say because federal disclosure laws don’t require an accounting of where his businesses get their money. This was not a problem with previous presidents, who divested themselves and disclosed.
Trump on the other hand does nothing more than the minimum legally required. Not knowing who’s paying the president how much money? That seems like it might be a problem.
“Take any hot-button issue of the past year, and there’s a good chance Trump’s tenants lobbied the federal government on it, either in support of or in opposition to the administration’s position,” Forbes noted, adding that at least three dozen known Trump tenants have “meaningful relationships with the federal government, from contractors to lobbying firms to regulatory targets.”
In one case, even the federal government is paying rent to the president.
And that’s just one avenue for filling the Trump-branded, solid gold trough. Foreign governments have been quick to figure out how to stay on the president’s good side.
They’ve “donated public land, approved permits and eased environmental regulations for Trump-branded developments, creating a slew of potential conflicts as foreign leaders make investments that can be seen as gifts or attempts to gain access to the American president through his sprawling business empire,” McClatchy’s Anita Kumar reported in January.
The Chinese government has granted Trump at least 39 trademarks, some of which had been previously rejected, since he took office;
Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, has also gotten at least seven since she joined the administration. It’s good to be the king or in the royal family.
But wait, there are still more ways to enrich the most powerful man in the world. His company still sells real estate, after all.
An investigation by USA Today last summer found that in the 12 months after he clinched the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, “70% of buyers of Trump properties were limited liability companies – corporate entities that allow people to purchase property without revealing all of the owners’ names. That compares with about 4% of buyers in the two years before.
“Overall in 2017, the paper reported, Trump’s companies “sold more than $35 million in real estate … mostly to secretive shell companies that obscure buyers’ identities.”
Mysterious investors suddenly pouring tens of millions of dollars into Trump coffers once he became the Republican nominee and then the president?
Nothing suspicious here: Please move along.
And then of course there are the day-to-day ways Trump rakes in the dough by mixing and matching his presidential activities with his own properties.
As mentioned last week, he spent one third of his first year in office visiting his own commercial properties.
And he wasn’t alone: According to a January report by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, more than 100 executive branch officials and members of Congress also visited Trump properties during his first year in office; at least 40 special interest groups held events at Trump properties; and at least 11 foreign government’s paid Trump businesses.
The Kuwaiti Embassy, for example, held a National Day celebration at Trump’s Washington, D.C. hotel last year and then again last month.
As one Asian diplomat told The Washington Post way back in the early days after the 2016 election, going to Trump’s hotel only makes good sense:
“Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?'”
Before assuming office, Trump vowed to donate the hotel profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury. Months later, however, the Trump Organization admitted that tracking all money from foreign governments was “impractical” but that it would donate profits from guests self-identifying as representatives of foreign governments.
Last week, the Trump Organization announced that it had indeed donated profits from “foreign government patronage” but declined to disclose specifics like, as The Washington Post’s David Farenthold and Jonathan O’Connell wondered, “How much was donated?
Which Trump properties were included in this accounting? Which foreign entities had paid money to Trump’s businesses?”
And neither Trump nor his team have been shy about promoting the brand, mentioning his private businesses at least 35 times during his first year in office, according to CREW, giving new meaning to the concept of earned media.
Overall, the report found, political groups spent more than $1.2 million at Trump properties during his first year in office, after never having spent more than $100,000 “in any given year going back to at least 2002.”
Norm Eisen, the former Obama administration ethics czar who now chairs CREW noted in a tweet on Friday that the group’s report had described Trump’s as “the most unethical presidency” and added: “Year two has been even worse—& it’s just getting started.”
Without precedent in U.S. history we have a president who sees profit as the natural and immediate spoils of office.
Not only have Trump’s predecessors ordinarily divested and disclosed, but the Founding Fathers wrote protections into the Constitution in the form of emoluments clauses making it illegal for the president to receive gifts from foreign governments or, domestically, from the federal and state governments.
Trump faces several lawsuits arguing that he is violating these clauses through his businesses. One was thrown out in December but others endure and may be gaining traction.
And who is footing the bill for the lawyers defending Trump’s ability to turn a buck (or millions of them) off of his office? Why the U.S. taxpayers are. Of course.
It is useful to periodically step back and catalogue the extent to which Trumpism is corrupting our governance. The Washington Post reported last month that 9 of 22 of Trump’s initial picks for Cabinet-level jobs, 40 percent, “have found themselves facing scrutiny over their actions.”
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s interest in using a military plane for his honeymoon travel stirred criticism (he ended up flying commercial); his travel habits too were investigated by his department’s inspector general, who cleared him of wrongdoing while noting that in future he should provide greater detail to justify the use of government-funded planes.
The “Securities and Exchange Commission late last year dropped its inquiry into a financial company that a month earlier had given White House adviser Jared Kushner’s family real estate firm a $180 million loan.” The company in question, Apollo Global Management, was one of those mentioned in the Times article as having given Kushner’s business a large loan after meeting with him in the White House. “I suppose the best case for Kushner is that this looks absolutely terrible,” Public Citizen’s Rob Weissman told the AP.
The matter of profiting from the presidency is a case of like father, like son-in-law and it will no doubt continue in full force.