By Michelle Cottle [October 16, 2020]
For anyone attempting to understand Donald Trump’s presidency — to really grasp its essence — the place to look isn’t the White House or the federal agencies or even the Supreme Court, with its expanded conservative majority. The lurid heart of Trumpist Washington lies within the grand, Romanesque-revival building at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th Street, Northwest: the Trump International Hotel.
Built at the close of the 19th century, the structure originally served as the city’s main post office, a towering tribute to public service. Under Mr. Trump, it now stands as both a monument to and a tool for advancing the endless spectacle of self-dealing and corruption that has come to define this president, his family and much of his administration.
On any given day, a glut of lobbyists, lawmakers, foreign agents and other favor-seekers come through the Trump International, schmoozing with administration bigwigs — on occasion the president himself — and spending gobs of cash. This ritual not only strokes the president’s ego — What a swank place you have here, sir! — it enriches his family business, ownership of which Mr. Trump has refused to divest himself.
We aren’t talking about a few overpriced martinis or breakfast meetings but, rather, some serious, high-dollar hobnobbing. In the six months ending in March 2017, the government of Saudi Arabia spent at least $270,000 at the hotel. The National Shooting Sports Foundation dropped at least $62,000 there in 2018, according to a Times report last weekend, which also noted that the National Automobile Dealers Association has used it as a base for meetings with policymakers, spending close to $80,000. Groups hosting posh events there range from the Philippine Embassy to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to the FLC Group, a Vietnamese conglomerate. (Those who responded to The Times’s inquiries denied inappropriate motives.)
The appearance of impropriety is not confined to the family’s Washington hotel. From Scotland to New Jersey to Florida and beyond, Trump properties have raked in tens of millions of dollars from those seeking to curry favor with, or at least express their appreciation for, the president.
“An investigation by The Times found over 200 companies, special-interest groups and foreign governments that patronized Mr. Trump’s properties while reaping benefits from him and his administration,” the paper reported, concluding that the president has “built a system of direct presidential influence-peddling unrivaled in modern American politics.”
Some of Mr. Trump’s more egregious self-enrichment projects have failed. Most notably, his plan to host this year’s Group of 7 meeting at the Trump National Doral resort near Miami met with so much political blowback that he quickly abandoned the idea. But at this stage, his clan’s routine self-dealing barely raises an eyebrow.
The president’s campaign contributors, large and small, also do their share to support the first family. This cycle, Trump businesses have received more than $4 million from the president’s campaign-related committees and the Republican Party, according to the latest numbers from the Center for Responsive Politics. This includes $380,000 that the campaign spent on a “donor retreat” at Mar-a Lago. The campaign also has been paying around $37,500 a month for space in Trump Tower in Manhattan.
Even Americans who don’t support Mr. Trump are filling his coffers. Each time the president, a family member or certain top administration officials visit a Trump property, taxpayers foot the bill for the security details that must tag along.
On a 2019 trip to Ireland, Vice President Mike Pence stayed at a Trump resort located on the far side of the country from where his official meetings were being held. (In addition to whatever taxpayers spent on lodging, the additional ground transportation cost nearly $600,000.)
The Washington Post has estimated that the U.S. government had paid well over $1 million to the president’s company since he took office in costs associated with the Secret Service. This includes at least 530 nights at Mar-a-Lago and 950 nights at the president’s club in Bedminster, N.J.
Taxpayers are also footing part of the bill for business trips by the Trump kids. In January 2017, Eric Trump jetted down to Uruguay to check on one of the Trump Organization’s condo projects, costing Americans around $98,000 in hotel rooms for the Secret Service and embassy staff members. Two trips the following month, one by Eric to the Dominican Republic and one by Eric and Don Jr. to Dubai, ran taxpayers nearly $250,000 for Secret Service expenses such as airfare, lodging and ground transportation.
In May of 2018, China awarded Mr. Trump’s golden child, Ivanka, seven trademarks for her now-defunct lifestyle brand, right around the same time her father was pledging to save a major Chinese telecommunications company, ZTE, from going belly up. Ivanka’s office said there was no special treatment involved.
What’s good for the Trump family is, apparently, also good for the family of Ms. Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, and their business interests. In May 2017, Mr. Kushner’s sister played up her brother’s position as senior adviser to the president when pitching some of Kushner Companies’ real estate developments to prospective Chinese investors through a federal program that provides fast-track visas to wealthy foreign investors. The project “means a lot to me and my entire family,” she told them. The company denied any impropriety.
Also in 2017, both Citigroup and Apollo Global Management, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, made large loans to Kushner Companies after White House meetings between Mr. Kushner and top executives from those firms. The involved parties insisted that the loans had nothing to do with Mr. Kushner’s position — that, in fact, his family’s business had not even come up in the discussions. The $184 million loan from Apollo came through in November. The next month, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission dropped an investigation into Apollo. While there was no indication that the two episodes were related, the timing was a tad unseemly.
Foreign entities know a soft target when they see one. In early 2018, The Washington Post reported that officials in at least four countries — China, Israel, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates — “have privately discussed ways they can manipulate” Mr. Kushner “by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience,” according to U.S. officials familiar with the related intelligence reports.
In politics, as in life, the fish rots from the head. And many members of the administration seem to have embraced the first family’s ethical flexibility. Among the top officials to depart under allegations of self-dealing or other misuse of taxpayer money were the secretary of the interior, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the secretary of health and human services and the secretary of veterans affairs. Impressively, Wilbur Ross remains the commerce secretary, despite reports of multiple sketchy financial dealings.
Forget Abraham Lincoln’s Team of Rivals. Mr. Trump will be remembered for assembling a world-class Team of Grifters.
The Trump campaign world presents its own opportunities for self-enrichment. Before being ousted as campaign manager this summer, Brad Parscale had been facing scrutiny both for the campaign’s profligate spending and for the lavish lifestyle he had adopted since joining Team Trump. Following Mr. Parscale’s demotion, the campaign began an audit of spending during his tenure, according to Business Insider. (The campaign has denied that Mr. Parscale is being targeted by the review.)
Mr. Parscale features prominently in recent allegations that the Trump re-election effort has been violating campaign finance laws. In late July, a nonpartisan watchdog group, the Campaign Legal Center, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing the campaign and a related fund-raising committee of masking $170 million in spending to vendors and Trump family members by funneling the payments through companies run by Mr. Parscale and others formed by the campaign’s lawyers. Among the outlays in question are fat salaries for Eric Trump’s wife, Lara, and Don Jr.’s girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle. The campaign has denied any wrongdoing.
But I bet you could have guessed that by now.
With so much grift and graft and self-enrichment swirling about, it’s amusing — and yet horrifying — to recall that Mr. Trump ran in 2016 as a tough, independent outsider who would bring in the “best people” to help him clean up political corruption. Today, as election night looms, the president’s campaign has reportedly booked the Trump International Hotel in D.C. for a victory party. Rooms sold out months ago.
Forget draining the swamp; the president slapped his name on it and began charging admission.
Ms. Cottle is a member of the New York Times editorial board.