Why the Trumps' Travel Expenses Matter
Every previous first family took vacations. No previous first family profited off of them.
In early January, President Donald Trump’s son Eric flew to Uruguay for a business trip. While he was there, Eric visited the unfinished Trump Tower in the resort town of Punta del Este, snapping pictures of the property with which to commemorate the visit on Twitter. To provide security for the trip, Eric Trump took along with him a retinue of Secret Service agents, as is customary for members of the first family traveling abroad with or without the president. According to The Washington Post, the bill for the trip—or at least, the amount of taxpayer dollars spent—totaled $97,830.
That Eric Trump left the country is not unusual; every first family has taken vacations while in office, although President Trump is the first in a generation whose children are old enough to jet-set on their own. The response is typically a textbook case of partisanship at work: The opposition party and its affiliated media outlets vociferously object to this use of taxpayer money; the president’s supporters respond with classic whataboutism, wondering where all this outrage was when the last guy did the same.
But Eric Trump’s trip is different. It’s not just about the cost of the trip, or the partisan hypocrisy at play given his father’s vociferous condemnation of his predecessor using taxpayer money for vacations. It’s not even that the Trumps will likely take international trips on their own fairly frequently compared to previous first children. The problem is that the $97,830 charge was for all intents and purposes a business expense, one of what will likely be many instances of the federal government paying to effectively subsidize the Trump Organization. Not only that, it’s yet another reminder of the president’s refusal to divest from his businesses, a situation that continues to create a multitude of conflicts of interest.
In an alternate universe in which Donald Trump did not become president, Eric’s trip is on the Trump Organization’s dime. The charge, which, according to The Washington Post, went mainly toward covering the costs of hotel rooms for the Secret Service members and embassy staff who accompanied Eric, may never have been incurred in the first place, as the need for a security detail would not have been nearly as high for a private citizen as for the son of the president. In our universe, though, the expense came out of the federal government’s budget, de facto subsidized by the American taxpayer.
Specifically where and how the money was spent remains unknown; there is no definitive answer as to whether any money was spent booking rooms at Trump properties, which of course would represent a conflict of interest, with the president’s company profiting from taxpayer money. Nevertheless, the details that have emerged make it clear that the event was a business trip through and through: Eric Trump spent his time in Punta del Este checking up on the progress of construction, meeting with real-estate brokers who may soon be helping rent the building’s luxury apartments, and speaking at an “ultra exclusive” gathering. In other words, his trip was designed for no other reason than to promote the building and increase its value when it opens, something he achieved using not only funds from the federal government but also the prestige provided by his association with the president, and the federal agents and embassy official who came along because of it.
Much the same can be said of President Trump’s decision to spend the weekend at Mar-a-Lago, his club in Palm Beach, just two weeks after taking office. Amid a steady stream of stories about the Trump family’s unprecedented commingling of their business with the presidency, Trump first attended a ball hosted by the Red Cross before holding a Super Bowl party at his club. Predictably, the trip raised eyebrows from critics who felt that Trump, who continually attacked his predecessor for spending time and money playing golf away from the Oval Office, and who explicitly pitched his campaign in opposition to “crooked” politicians enjoying themselves on taxpayers’ dime, was being hypocritical by doing so himself so soon after inauguration. But the bigger issue here is that the trip represents yet another instance of Trump acting as both businessman and president: During the weekend, the Red Cross, a federally chartered organization, paid around $300,000 for the privilege of hosting the event at the president’s estate, while the Super Bowl party blurred the line between paying the Trump Organization to have a good time and paying the Trump Organization for the chance to bend the president’s ear.
The focus on hypocrisy is understandable; historically, calling out politicians on lies and inconsistencies has been seen as a potent political tool, whether because the politicians themselves change their behavior or because voters turn against leaders they consider dishonest. But this may no longer be the case: The new administration seems singularly unresponsive to shame over their own lies and hypocrisy, and, with inflexible partisanship an increasingly powerful force in American politics, calling them out on their dissembling may no longer convince either the administration or its base to change their behavior. Besides, when it comes to vacations, doing so is arguably hypocritical in and of itself, a partisan ouroboros in which each changeover of the executive branch reawakens one half of the country to righteous indignation over the president’s personal expenses (which, it should be noted, comprise only a fraction of a percent of the executive branch’s budget).
What is new, though, is the Trump family’s continued commingling of their business with the presidency, and their continued refusal to even entertain the idea of divestment: President Trump did not file promised paperwork to resign from his titular organization until after ProPublica reported that he had not done so; Ivanka apparently has still not resigned from her own companies; the trust set up to prevent the president from overseeing his finances is not only not “blind” but is also revocable, meaning he can alter the arrangement whenever he wants. In light of this malfeasance, a decades-old criticism has taken on additional meaning. Partisan ire over presidential leisure time has been a mainstay of political discourse since at least the 1950s, when President Eisenhower was roundly castigated for spending too much time on the golf course. But only the Trump family has provided a genuine reason for the American public to be concerned that their vacations represent a true willingness to prioritize their own fortunes over that of the country.