The debut of the Trump administration has left Americans with major questions about the country's position on numerous issues of world-historical importance: Russian aggression, the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East, leadership on issues of international trade and climate change to name just a few.
But it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are other more pedestrian questions that are going to be extremely hard to avoid in this unprecedented presidency. A few:
Should the president of the United States double as the Pentagon’s landlord? Should the first lady of the United States view the position as an unparalleled opportunity to promote her personal fashion businesses? Should the U.S. General Services Administration be negotiating the terms of a decades-long multi-million dollar building lease with the president’s son?
The refusal of President Trump to divest his ownership of the Trump Organization and the larger Trump family’s extensive efforts to turn their own personal “brands” into money-making opportunities continues to create extraordinary conflicts of interest.
On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that the Defense Department is now actively considering whether or not it should rent office space in Trump Tower in Manhattan. President Trump’s wife Melania and young son Barron still live there, and the president has indicated that he would like to spend some time there as well as in the White House.
With the Secret Service already occupying space in the building (and the city of New York spending hundreds of thousands of dollars every day to protect it), the U.S. military is now trying to decide if it, too, needs to rent offices from Trump’s personal business.
“In order to meet official mission requirements, the Department of Defense is working through appropriate channels and in accordance with all applicable legal requirements in order to acquire a limited amount of leased space in Trump Tower,” a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement to The Times.
That news comes just a day after lawyers representing Mrs. Trump in a libel lawsuit against the British Daily Mail newspaper outlined what appear to be plans to cash in on her position as first lady in a court filing. The lawsuit alleges that Mrs. Trump has been harmed by a false claim that she once worked as an escort, a claim since retracted by the newspaper.
“Plaintiff had the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as an extremely famous and well-known person, as well as a former professional model and brand spokesperson and successful businesswoman, to launch a broad-based commercial brand in multiple product categories, each of which could have garnered multi-million dollar business relationships for a multi-year term during which Plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world. These product categories would have included, among other things, apparel, accessories, shoes, jewelry, cosmetics, hair care, skincare, and fragrance.”
Representatives for Mrs. Trump immediately claimed, despite the plain language of her lawyers’ court filing, that the first lady has no plans to profit from her position, claiming “Any statements to the contrary are being misinterpreted.” Defenders of Mrs. Trump argued that in order to press her case successfully, she needs to demonstrate that the false allegations caused her actual harm, and that the language in the lawsuit is designed to do that.
As all this was going on, President Trump signed over management responsibility for the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to his oldest son, Donald Trump Jr. The building is owned by the federal government and is currently leased to the Trump Organization in an arrangement with the General Services Administration.
The lease contains very specific language stating that no person who holds a position of authority in the federal government may also benefit from the hotel’s operating agreement with the government. Last week, ProPublica uncovered a document showing that Trump had placed his ownership stake in the hotel into a trust operated by his son. Crucially, Trump still owns his interest in the hotel and stands to profit from it, but will not actively engage in management.
This puts the GSA, whose managers literally work for Trump, in the position of negotiating with the president’s eldest son about the future of a lease that directly benefits the president himself.
The situation is giving government ethics experts fits. Former Obama administration ethics lawyer Norm Eisen publicly insisted that Trump, from the moment he took the oath of office, has been in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution. But Trump and his family seem unconcerned.
Indeed, the lack of concern about appearances and conflicts is evident in the White House itself, where Trump’s daughter Ivanka is now attending high-level meetings of economic policymakers despite the fact that she has extensive business interests of her own, and has yet to demonstrate that she has, as promised, removed herself from the management of Trump Organization.
At this point, the enrichment of the Trump family by and in conjunction with multiple agencies of the federal government isn’t something that can be avoided. It is already happening, and there seems to be nothing that will stop it. Certainly, the Republicans running the House and Senate, who have oversight authority over those agencies, have signaled that they have no interest in doing anything about it.
But it’s still important to keep pointing out that while top political leaders and their families in many countries around world routinely cash in on their positions, this is not acceptable in the United States.