WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump has left a trail of broken promises and unaccomplished goals in his first 100 days in office. Yet Trump has changed the White House in one major way: He has used the pomp and prestige of the presidency to serve his own bottom line.
When Trump announced on Jan. 11 that he would not divest from his multibillion-dollar international business, he broke with decades of ethical norms. Dollars flowing into his business during his time in the White House will accrue to his personal benefit. More than that, the Trump brand has gotten a permanent makeover thanks to the intangible assets the Office of the President of the United States bestows.
In his first 100 days, Trump has routinely advertised the link between the presidency and his brand. He has stated that ethics and conflict-of-interest laws and constitutional provisions do not apply to him. He has embraced the nepotistic practices more typically seen in pseudo-democracies and dictatorships by installing Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump as senior White House advisers.
This casual attitude about ethics has trickled down in his administration. His aides promoted his family’s business on television, U.S. embassies promoted his properties on government websites and his unpaid advisers have advocated for their self-interest. This is not even to mention his disgraced former national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, lying about payments from foreign governments and meetings with foreign diplomats.
Trump’s subversion of the presidency to serve his interests came after he campaigned on a decidedly anti-corruption message to “drain the swamp” and called his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton “the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency.”
Fred Wertheimer, an expert in ethics and campaign funding, helped pass and institute the regime of ethics and campaign finance laws and norms that Trump now barely acknowledges as applying to him. From his work at the nonprofit Common Cause in the 1970s to his current role as head of Democracy 21, Wertheimer has seen and fought against many forms of Washington corruption, including Watergate, the campaign finance abuses of the 1990s, Jack Abramoff’s corrupt lobbying and the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.
“President Trump is the worst president we have had in modern times in terms of issues involving ethics, conflicts of interest, protecting the integrity of the presidency and the government,” Wertheimer told HuffPost.
Wertheimer explains the situation like this: “The president maintains a worldwide business that licenses his name for fees. At the same time, he’s serving as president. His family members, his daughter, his son-in-law maintain their business operations. This is what happens in countries all over the world where leaders use their office to enrich themselves and open the door to corruption and influence buying.”
Trump’s family business specializes in one thing: brand management. Trump says he’s a dealmaker, but his true skills lie in advertising and marketing. He has licensed his name to more than 50 real estate properties around the world, earning him tens of millions of dollars in revenue. And he has already turned the presidency into a marketing tool for his for-profit interests.
“I think our brand is the hottest it has ever been.”
“Everything he owns has increased value not as a result of him but as a result of the presidency, and they have said so,” Wertheimer said. “His brand is no longer Donald Trump. His brand is President Donald Trump.”
Eric Trump, who now runs the Trump Organization with his brother Donald Trump, Jr., told the New York Times in March, “I think our brand is the hottest it has ever been.”
As he did on the NBC reality TV show “The Apprentice,” Trump makes sure his properties are advertised to his supporters and cable news viewers on a regular basis, permanently imbuing his business with the presidential brand.
Trump has visited a Trump-owned property on 31 of his first 100 days in office ― and on some days he’s visited more than one. The press reports on each visit, essentially advertising the property to the public as the federal government pays money directly to the property to rent space, rooms and even golf carts. The State Department and at least three U.S. embassies even advertised one of his properties online in April when a blog post about Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort was shared on government websites and on their social media accounts.
He has spent seven of his first 14 weekends as president at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, using the resort to conduct official presidential business. He hosted an open-air situation room when he consulted with Japanese President Shinzo Abe on how to respond to a North Korean missile test launch on the resort’s wide-open outdoor patio.
On another Mar-a-Lago weekend, this time when Chinese President Xi Jinping was visiting, Trump made the decision to fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at an air base in Syria.
Trump’s visits make his for-profit resort a permanent part of presidential history, which wouldn’t matter except that he’s the one who benefits financially.
The presidential visits to Mar-a-Lago also afford members unprecedented access to the president ― for a fee. (The resort doubled its initial membership fees from $100,000 to $200,000 days after Trump assumed the presidency.) Members can also bring guests hoping to get the president’s ear.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) ― who was a bitter rival of Trump’s during the GOP primaries ― helped facilitate a meeting between Trump and Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana, two former conservative presidents of Colombia, at Mar-a-Lago earlier this month, where they lobbied Trump to oppose the peace deal between the current Colombian government and the country’s left-wing FARC rebels. The two former presidents were able to secure a private meeting with him at Mar-a-Lago when a member reportedly brought them in as guests.
Trump has also visited the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., twice since his inauguration to dine on his favorite well-done steak with ketchup at the hotel’s BLT Steak restaurant
The hotel is the perfect symbol of how Trump has intertwined his personal business interests with the operations of the U.S. government. The federal government actually owns the historic building the hotel occupies, which means Trump is both the landlord and the tenant at a property that is actively generating profits for his family. Trump’s lease with the General Services Administration technically prohibits elected officials from taking part in it ― but now that Trump heads the executive branch, the agency has decided that provision doesn’t apply to him.
Hotel management has already taken advantage of Trump’s presidential glow to pitch foreign governments on staying there. Less than 10 days after Trump won the election, his D.C. hotel hosted a gathering for about 100 foreign diplomats and tried to convince them to book rooms there when they stayed in Washington.
“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!’” one diplomat explained to The Washington Post. “Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’”
“This is just like companies that hire the Chinese princelings as a way of getting their permits agreed on.”
Since then, the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have booked rooms or hosted events at Trump’s hotel. A business group affiliated with the government of Turkey will host both Turkish and American government officials at its annual conference at the Trump hotel in May. (While Trump promised to hand over foreign profits from his hotel to the U.S. Treasury, his company has not answered questions on how it will do so.)
Sarah Chayes, an expert in government corruption at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told HuffPost that it is no surprise that foreign governments with high rates of corruption are happy to put money in the president’s pocket. That’s because they recognize the arrangement.
“What all his bombast and straight-talking hid is the fact that this is very similar to the structure of governments I’ve been looking at in places like Azerbaijan, Honduras, Serbia, Nigeria, you name it,” Chayes said.
Chayes isn’t alone in her comparison. Former U.S. diplomats to countries with high rates of corruption and nepotism agree.
“I think that by the example they’re setting you can bet that is going to filter down throughout American governance and throughout the global commercial world,” said Joseph C. Wilson IV, ambassador to Gabon and Sao Tome Principe from 1992 to 1995.
The commercial enterprise Trump is most involved in ― high-end real estate ― is already known around the world for infamous cases of corruption and money laundering through shell companies. In 2015, the Department of Justice launched a pilot program requiring real estate buyers to disclose their real identities in a handful of major U.S. cities.
But that program did not apply to real estate purchases in Las Vegas, where Milan Investments, a limited liability company with anonymous owners, paid $3.1 million to buy 11 condos at the Trump International Las Vegas, which Trump co-owns. Because of the hidden ownership, it’s impossible to know if the sale was purely commercial.
Comparisons of the Trump administration to corrupt foreign regimes go beyond the many opportunities for influence that his continued ownership of his business creates. They also extend to the employment of his daughter Ivanka Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner as top White House aides.
Both Ivanka Trump and Kushner maintain loose connections to their own corporate enterprises. In fact, the day Ivanka Trump sat next to China’s Xi and his wife at a Mar-a-Lago dinner, the Chinese government approved five new trademarks for her company. Her company continues to apply for trademark protection around the world as sales of her brand soar thanks to her increased publicity.
“This is just like companies that hire the Chinese princelings as a way of getting their permits agreed on,” said Chayes, who blew the whistle on corruption in Afghanistan and studies kleptocratic networks around the world.
The presidential brand even extends to Trump’s adult sons, who have been assigned to run the family business in his stead. Even though the Trump Organization promised to halt any new foreign deals after Trump assumed office, Donald Jr. and Eric Trump still travel overseas to check on the family’s deals that were already underway. When they travel, as they have to Canada and Dubai, they show up with Secret Service in tow.
Not only is it costly for the taxpayers to send agents on international business trips, but the visual of the president’s sons arriving with armed government protection also serves the interests of the Trump business. “When a person shows up with a gigantic Secret Service contingent, that is a negotiating benefit,” Chayes said. “That improves his negotiating position when he’s negotiating with weaker and smaller countries, which is every other country in the world except China.”
In the U.S., the Trump sons are trying to expand their hotel business. They have so far had difficulty opening new hotels in cities where the president is unpopular. The family’s past cooperation with shady businessmen with unknown foreign sources of investment also posed problems for the Trump sons’ plans to brand a hotel in Dallas. Now they’re hoping to expand in regions of the country where their father is still popular.
“No one has ever tried to pull off what President Trump is attempting here, which is to turn the way in which our democracy functions into the way corrupt countries function to enrich their leaders,” Wertheimer said. “It’s just never been done, and the scale here is enormous.”
“But then again, we’re only 100 days in.”