How Long Until Trump’s Self-Dealing Becomes Our New Normal?
Policy + Politics

How Long Until Trump’s Self-Dealing Becomes Our New Normal?

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Consider this another of your occasional reminders that this is not normal.

Barely six months into his four-year term, President Trump raised something on the order of $10 million at a fundraiser Wednesday night, most of which will go to his reelection campaign in 2020.

After running as a supposed populist who championed the “forgotten” people of the U.S., he raised the money at a $35,000-per-person banquet, crowded with the kind of people whose wealth and influence guarantees that they will never be counted among the forgotten, at least as long as U.S. campaign finance laws remain as they are.

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The banquet was held in Trump’s own Trump International Hotel, just down the street from the White House. The details of how the dinner was financed weren’t available on Wednesday, but there is a long pattern of Trump’s campaign apparatus paying Trump’s personally-owned businesses for services. There’s no reason to doubt that the Trump International received the market rate for hosting a large and expensive event, a rate that would include a margin for profit that will make it back to accounts personally owned by Trump himself.

Trump’s staff kept the media out of the room, assuring that Americans who couldn’t afford the $35,000 donation to the cause didn’t get to hear what he said, except as filtered through paying guests willing to speak to the media. The general sense? He crowed about his election victory. In detail. He abused House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, complained about the media and bragged about Republicans’ recent special elections victories.

To be sure, not everything about the fundraiser was out of the ordinary. Presidents frequently make themselves available at exclusive high-dollar events where, to put it plainly, money buys time with the nation’s chief executive officer. President Obama did this, so did President Clinton and both Presidents Bush.

And despite complaints from the media, these high-dollar fundraisers aren’t always open to the press. The media often get the opportunity to hear a president’s prepared remarks, but it wasn’t that long ago that President Obama’s staff was informing reporters, after the fact, of private gatherings the president had with big donors.

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But Trump raising extraordinary sums for a reelection, just six months into a remarkably unproductive presidency and with the next election more than 1,200 days away, is most definitely not normal. At this point in their first terms, presidents typically are working feverishly to create a record that they will be able to run on when it comes time to campaign for a second term, not worrying about how to finance it.

Even less normal is the seemingly relentless conflation of the Trump presidency with the Trump brand. After breaking precedent by refusing to divest himself of properties and assets before taking office, Trump has repeatedly showcased his properties for high-profile events, from meetings with foreign leaders to last night’s fundraiser. In all cases, the government is obliged to pay market rate for the services delivered by Trump’s businesses, which translates into money in the president’s own pocket.

The extraordinary additional value of the publicity his properties receive from his constant visits to them in his official capacity isn’t easily calculated. But judging by the sharp increase in membership fees at the Mar-a-Lago resort since Trump’s election, it’s far from trivial.

Also unknown is the degree to which his personal businesses are benefiting from individuals, corporations, associations and foreign governments with business before the federal government. Foreign officials have already made it plain that they elect to patronize Trump establishments because of the perceived benefits that might accrue to them from spending money there rather than with the president’s competition.

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This is not normal. But the danger is that it is, through sheer repetition and the onset of outrage fatigue, it will become so.

In other words, this is not normal, yet.