Donald Trump owns a Washington, D.C., hotel. One of the stipulations of the lease for that hotel site, a building owned by the federal government, is that no elected official may “share” or “benefit” from the lease. Donald Trump is now an elected official.
The national effort to dodge and weave on this one, however, remains weird.
Kevin Terry, the GSA’s contracting officer in charge of the hotel lease, referred to the issue in a Nov. 11, 2016, email to Trump’s company, forwarding an article from the news site BuzzFeed that said his agency had acknowledged the potential conflict of interest.
“FYI – A fair amount of nonsense,” Terry wrote. His email, which was obtained by Bloomberg News, went to two other GSA employees as well as to an executive with the Trump Organization, the umbrella group that oversees the president’s various businesses.
Terry would go on to rule on behalf of the GSA that there was no issue with the lease because, well, Trump wouldn’t “benefit” while in office. He would forgo “benefiting” while in office, and then receive his “benefits” later, and somehow the Trump Organization collecting the money in a brown paper bag for a few years and passing it to him only after he takes a final helicopter ride back home counts as him not “benefiting” from the lease at all. It seems akin to arguing that robbing a bank is all right so long as you don’t spend the money until you’re out of the country, but what do we know. We are not financial geniuses of the sort that have long dominated public law-interpreting in this country.
But it’s not just the GSA itself taking a remarkably relaxed view of rules and laws that didn’t appear to have much wiggle room in them until Trump showed up and simply pushed them over. Bloomberg’s own recounting of the shenanigans is representative of what is now a national press pastime of both-sidesing the story into a fine paste:
While a constitutional clause bans officials from accepting gifts or payments from foreign governments, Trump’s lawyers say it doesn’t forbid standard, arms-length business transactions. They’ve pledged to donate the estimated income that Trump’s hotel businesses earn from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury.
The original promise to wall off foreign government payments so as to disallow Trump’s profiting on them appears to have lasted only until the first time a reporter asked them if they were indeed following through on it, after which the hotel declared that sorting out those profits would simply be too difficult.
Now it appears the new “pledge” is that they will make a guesstimate of how much income those foreign payments are bringing to their coffers and will donate that estimated value; there is no word on how the “estimate” will be conducted when the original accounting was discarded as too tedious a task, and no word on why this new pledge will end any differently than the first.
Those documents [submitted by the Trump Organization] said Trump himself would receive no income from the hotel while in office. Instead, the hotel will maintain any such earnings for its own business purposes, the correspondence said.
Those earnings will become available to Trump the afternoon after leaving office. He is not forgoing them, but delaying them. This does not count as a benefit? Aside from that—is there evidence this is even true? Trump is both famously circumspect about his income and famously flexible about things he has previously promised; what, precisely, is the enforcement mechanism here?
Critics say Trump will nonetheless benefit if the hotel succeeds.
This is not a critics say-worthy sentence. Putting critics say here is akin to writing that critics say apples fall downward. It is transparently obvious that Trump will benefit if the Trump Organization’s hotel succeeds. It requires no trigonometry to reach this conclusion: if a business owned by a businessman becomes more profitable, the businessman will benefit. That we are at the point where a business-oriented press outlet is controversializing the notion is deeply weird.
It doesn’t even require that the hotel be profitable. If the Trump Organization has a greater value after Trump’s presidency than before it, Trump has benefited. If he makes not a cent of income for four years but during that time has boosted the profile of the hotel, now a den for attention-seeking foreign dignitaries and Trump-friendly corporate and government meetings, the hotel has a greater value than when he began.
Unlike predecessors, Trump hasn’t divested from his far-flung business holdings or placed them in a blind trust. Instead, he transferred his ownership interests — part of a net worth that Bloomberg has valued at roughly $2.9 billion — into a trust overseen by his adult sons and a longtime employee of the Trump Organization.
And it will be turned back over to Trump immediately after leaving office. We are just glossing over the hasn’t divested part as if it were considered optional all along, a rule to be enforced on peanut farmers but too onerous for the gilded class. We’re just glossing over the “trust” that consists of putting his son’s name on the tax returns for the duration, conducting business as usual, using the powers of the state to turn private corporate assets like Mar a Lago into new market opportunities to be redeemed at will.
There is the strong taste throughout of a new standard being applied to Trump that would have been—we think?—inconceivable only a year ago, and it appears to have come about entirely because Trump simply decided he, in his capacity as business “titan,” simply wasn’t going to abide by those previous ethical norms. Rather than calling this out as alarming, it appears that the political class is attempting to pretend that the old ethical rules still apply, there is just wiggle room that was undiscovered until Trump required discovering them.
It feels very Wall Street, in the worst meaning of the name. There were rules; the rules became inconvenient to the gilded class; the rules were discarded; the punditry and political leaders rushed to explain that the rules didn’t mean inconvenient things to begin with; the cash is pocketed; and all eyes turn to the next inconvenient rule.
It feels like Bloomberg is attempting to make the case that an ethical rule still exists despite it clearly being bent to the point of absurdity—as if we are, as a nation, more invested in pretending that the rule exists (it makes us feel dignified, and civilized) than hashing out what happens when powerful figures decide it doesn’t. It feels like all of the press and punditry is invested in this game, in fact. Perhaps the emoluments restrictions apply and perhaps they don’t; perhaps Trump is profiting off of his government actions but perhaps it doesn’t count if he waits to cash the checks; perhaps we once had rules that government buildings could not be used as profit centers for government officials but that was because we hadn’t yet had a government official who really, really wanted to financially gain from one.
We’re beating around the bush on this one and it is all very strange. Yes, he’s profiting off the presidency. You could argue it’s the only thing he seems to have truly invested his time in. But by God we’re not going to admit that’s what happening, because it would make all those rules and laws we invented look so very fragile, if one loudmouth blowhard was all it took to knock them over.