The latest examples of the president profiting from government and special interest business to his properties have brought into focus the dangers of blurring private gain with the nation’s highest public office—and are a direct result of the President's failure to divest from his business interests.
In the past week alone:
- Vice President Mike Pence stayed at President Trump’s Doonbeg resort in Ireland, despite his official meetings being 183 miles away, in Dublin;
- The public learned that the Air Force has spent tens of millions at a struggling Scottish airport near Trump’s Turnberry resort, helping keep afloat an airport central to Turnberry’s success;
- We also learned that Air Force troops have stayed at Turnberry up to 40 times, despite the availability of less expensive and closer hotels;
- Yet another special interest group paid the president’s company to hold a costly event (headlined by Cabinet officials) at Trump’s Washington hotel.
Pence’s choice to stay at a Trump resort instead of somewhere—anywhere—else would be troubling on its own, since it means that taxpayer funds are helping pad the president’s bottom line.
But what makes it even more ethically problematic is that the vice president had to additionally spend almost $600,000 in taxpayer money to shuttle back and forth between Trump’s hotel and his official meetings on the other side of the country.
The Air Force, for its part, has conceded that the military frequenting Trump’s property in Scotland can at least present the appearance of impropriety—which can undermine the public’s confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the government.
The misuse of taxpayer resources isn’t the only concern that arises from the President’s failure to divest.
If President Trump gets his wish to hold the next G7 meeting at his Doral resort in Miami, foreign governments would be essentially forced to spend money at his hotels. Not that some governments don’t already do that voluntarily.
Lobbyists representing Saudi Arabia spent more than $270,000 to put up a group of veterans at President Trump’s D.C. hotel as part of a lobbying campaign.
Reporting has shown that foreign governments are taking advantage of myriad ways they might be able to influence the president, from hosting events at Trump-branded properties and buying property in Trump-owned buildings.
And these are just the most obvious examples. With a business empire as diverse and far-flung as President Trump’s, we cannot be sure who is using the President’s businesses to curry favor with the Trump administration, and how they are doing it.
Federal conflict of interest laws would require any other executive branch employee to divest from financial assets that may pose a conflict with their official duties. And although those laws do not apply to the president, every other modern president—both Republican and Democrat—have behaved as if they did, and divested before entering office.
President Trump, in contrast, appears to be treating this loophole in conflict-of-interest laws as a perk of the presidency.
Thankfully, there are solutions. Several provisions of HR 1, the “For the People Act,” would help close the presidential conflict of interest loopholes.
One provision codifies the norm that the president and vice president act as though they are bound by the conflict of interest statute: it requires the president and vice president to divest all financial interests that pose a conflict by converting them to cash or placing them in a qualified blind or diversified trust.
It would also require the president to disclose certain business relationships. This would mean President Trump would have to either sell his conflicting assets—hotels, golf courses, and all—for cash, or convey their value to a trust with an independent trustee whose duty is to dispose of the conflicting assets and keep the operations of the trust secret from the president.
Other provisions prohibit the use of federal funds at businesses owned by the president, meaning Vice President Pence, the Air Force, and any other federal agency or employee would be prohibited from spending federal money to stay at a Trump resort.
HR 1 also would bar contracts between any Trump businesses and the federal government, limiting the president’s ability to personally profit by hosting international summits like the G7 at one of his resorts.
HR 1 passed the House, but has yet to receive a hearing in the Senate.
Much of the uncertainty surrounding the President’s conflicts of interest and how they are determining U.S. policies and procedures can and should be solved by smart policy changes.
President Trump may be the first president in recent memory to so brazenly use public office for private gain; but without meaningful ethics reforms, he might not be the last.