Trump’s Tax Returns Confirm Need for Unprecedented Ethics Laws for Future Presidents

Issues
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Donald Trump walking with trees in the background.
United States President Donald J. Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC. Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Pool via CNP/MediaPunch.

From the beginning of the Trump administration, President Trump’s refusal to divest from his businesses has raised ethics flags: holding a global hospitality empire was bound to cause conflicts of interest, and it did.

Now, The New York Times reporting on Trump’s tax returns reveals why the highest office in the country was not enough incentive for Trump to divest from his businesses. Using the vast power of his office, the president has used American government to prop up his struggling personal business empire—a use of public office for private gain unseen in modern times.

As much of the president’s massive debt comes due in the next four years, the question that the American public has had to ask since the beginning of the Trump presidency looms large: for whose interests is Trump working--the public’s or his own?

And more importantly, why is the American public just now receiving a fuller picture of the president’s finances—more than five years after he announced his intention to serve in the highest office in the U.S.?

The next step is for Americans to get the transparency they deserve surrounding any president’s financial dealings and how they may affect official decision making.

The solutions to ensure that Americans get that transparency include H.R. 1, which would require candidates for president and vice president to submit copies of their tax returns for the last 10 years to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

H.R. 1 also requires the President to disclose all conflicting financial interests and provides that no federal funds can be spent at any business owned or controlled by the president or any member of his family.

A closer look at many of the official decisions made by Trump throughout his presidency bring the need for these reforms into sharp relief.

Trump’s Official Decisions From a New Perspective

Extensive reporting has covered the ways in which presidential decisions, like where the president stays on official trips, are used to funnel money into his struggling properties. Through 274 visits to his own properties, the president has pocketed more than $1.1 million of U.S. government money.

These decisions must be looked at in context of his massive business losses and the imminent threat of debts being due.

We now know that Trump’s golf courses in Ireland and Scotland have reported losses of $63.3 million. These significant losses may explain why Trump has been using government business to financially support those properties.

For example, 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. Air Force troops have stayed at Turnberry up to 40 times, despite the availability of less expensive and closer hotels.

On an official trip in 2019, Vice President Mike Pence stayed at Trump’s Doonbeg resort in Ireland, despite his official meetings being 183 miles away in Dublin.

Closer to home, at Trump National Doral golf resort near Miami, Florida, Trump reported losses of $162.3 million. He has invested an additional $213 million in the property, but he has a $125 million mortgage coming due in three years.

Doral’s poor financial situation perhaps sheds light on why Trump was adamant about hosting the G7 Conference at the golf resort. This decision would have forced the U.S. and foreign governments to spend money at a Trump property.

Even though the plan never came to fruition amid public outcry, the president’s insistence makes sense: he needed the money to cover his losses on the property and pay off his debt.

We must even more seriously question the broad policy decisions Trump has made to use the levers of government for personal profit. Trump’s hotels in Turkey provide a revealing example. His hotels in Istanbul are two of his assets that are profitable—they earned him $13 million, including more than $1 million in licensing deal money since he entered office.

Turkish businessman and chairman of the Turkey-U.S. Business Council Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, helped negotiate the licensing deal for Trump’s hotels there. Yalcindag has since lobbied the Trump administration on U.S. policy toward Turkey.

Trump’s business success in Turkey, in light of his many business interests that are failing, may help explain why Trump has sided with Turkey and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when it seems antithetical to longstanding U.S. foreign policy.

In July 2019, Congress advocated for sanctions against Turkey after it purchased a Russian-made missile system. Trump advocated for negotiations instead of sanctions, despite bipartisan support for sanctions in Congress.

Subsequently, Trump pulled U.S. soldiers out of northern Syria, allowing Turkey to invade the region and launch an offensive against the Kurdish minority. The Kurds were a longtime U.S. ally in the region’s fight against the Islamic State group.

Trump himself admitted in 2015: “I have a little conflict of interest because I have a major, major building in Istanbul. It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers—two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.”

It now seems likely that the president is relying on his profitable assets to help cover his other losses and debts, and a continued cozy relationship with Turkey may help ensure that result.

Other foreign policy choices also raise eyebrows in light of the new reporting. Shortly after Trump was elected, lobbyists for the Saudi government reserved blocks of rooms at Trump’s District of Columbia hotel, paying for an estimated 500 nights at a hotel that has reportedly lost $55.5 million through 2018, according to tax records.

The Crown Prince also reversed a trend of declining room rentals in Trump’s Manhattan hotel in 2018.

Trump has since been friendly toward Saudi Arabia. He vetoed a resolution passed by Congress that would end U.S. assistance to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in war-ravaged Yemen. He has also taken pains to avoid holding Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

It’s possible that many other considerations are animating Trump’s desire to go out of his way to be friendly with the Saudi government, but it certainly cannot hurt that they have been willing to pump cash into the president’s money-losing businesses.

What’s Next?

Congress should pass reforms like those in H.R. 1 and require the president to submit publicly available copies of his tax returns for the last 10 years to the FEC. Congress should also require that the President divest all conflicting financial interests and prohibit the use of federal funds at any business owned or controlled by the president or any member of his family.

These reforms will provide much needed transparency and accountability relating to presidential conflicts of interest.

Delaney's work focuses on government ethics, accountability, and transparency.