They dress nice and probably smell good, and most of them don’t even muss the furniture. Wealth gives them the patina of respectability — the American reflex of deference to the rich. But make no mistake: The Trump family and assorted cronies are using the highest office in the land to stuff their pockets.
The presidential sleaze involves everything from using public money to promote and enrich Trump properties to pay-to-play schemes that allow companies to buy influence at many levels. At its core is a nepotistic operation that puts family interests ahead of country.
Donald Trump’s presidency may look like a theater of incompetency: armada going in the wrong direction, forgetting what country he bombed but remembering what he had for dessert, major promises broken with a shrug.
But one thing Trump has accomplished in his first 100 days is ensuring that his family can use the vast reach of the federal government for private gain. By God, they seen their opportunities and they took ’em.
So, Ivanka Trump gets lucrative Chinese trademarks for her clothing line on the same day she dines with the Chinese president. Would this deal have happened if her father wasn’t in the midst of breaking a promise to hold China as a currency manipulator? Why did Trump’s travel ban not include Muslim-majority countries where the family has extensive business ties? And why did Trump congratulate a Turkish tyrant for consolidating his dictatorial powers?
The last question, at least, Trump has answered. “I have a little conflict of interest because I have a major, major building in Istanbul,” he said in 2015. Conflict of interest is the quaint term for this kind of thing. Call it what it is: corruption. And some of it may involve impeachable offenses.
Because the Trump White House is a business with the shades closed — the visitor logs no longer available to the public, the tax returns a dark secret — we cannot know how extensively the Trump clan is making foreign policy to help its holdings. The family has extensive entanglements in China, the Philippines and Turkey, to name just a few “conflicts.”
And Jared Kushner, who has a far-reaching diplomatic portfolio, is also a beneficiary of many businesses backed by unnamed foreign partners, as my colleague Jesse Drucker reported last week.
It’s clear now that the reason Trump — in defiance of all ethical standards for the office — has refused to divest his business interests is that the levers of executive power directly help Trump Inc.
Turning management over to his sons is a farce, one you would expect from a man who ran a casino into bankruptcy, stiffed plumbers and carpenters, and defrauded thousands of people at a phony “university.”
Trump makes money every time a foreign diplomat or favor-seeking industrialist stays at one of his hotels or becomes a tenant in one of his buildings. On top of that, influence peddlers pay him through his campaign. In the first three months of the Trump presidency, his 2020 campaign spent almost $500,000 on hotels, golf clubs and restaurants owned by the Trump family.
Trump, certainly, knows where it’s all going. After promising not to talk business with his father, Eric Trump admitted that he will discuss “the bottom line, profitability reports and stuff like that” with Dad.
He also said, “Nepotism is kind of a factor of life.” Well, yes — in kleptocracies, dictatorships and monarchies. For years, the United States has worked to eliminate nepotism in backwater regimes. Now it’s the role model for inbred charlatans.
It’s bad enough that taxpayers funnel money to the Trumps when the president brings his entourage to his for-profit club in Florida, Mar-a-Lago. But what about that Mar-a-Lago marketing piece that you and I paid for on an official government website?
The same administration that wants to zero-out public money for the arts used public money to inform people of Trump’s exquisite taste in private property. The post has since been taken down.
Last week Trump proposed a huge tax cut for himself and the businesses he and his family own. He would have saved $31 million, in the one year for which we have his tax return, under his plan. At the same time, he wants to take away college scholarships for the poor and gut funding for cancer research.
His associates take their cue from the top. Michael Flynn, the man who led the lock-her-up chants against Hillary Clinton, possibly broke the law by failing to disclose the big sums he got from foreign governments. And Kellyanne Conway violated the rule against public officials’ promoting private businesses when she plugged Ivanka’s product line.
A lot of this will be resolved in lawsuits, and perhaps impeachment. Meanwhile, Trump continues to debase the office. He spent four hours at the White House with Sarah Palin and Ted Nugent, the no-talent musician who called President Barack Obama a “subhuman mongrel.” The guests posed, in thug mode, before a portrait of Hillary Clinton — a fitting image for a host who has turned the home of Lincoln and Roosevelt into a House of Grifters.
Timothy Egan is a New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author based in Seattle.