In Brigadoon, the Lerner-Loewe musical, an American travels to Scotland and finds a chance to win the affection of a girl in a village that appears for only one day every 100 years. This is not to be confused with Doonbeg, the political drama of the week, in which an American travels to Ireland and finds a chance to win the affection of his president.
Vice President Mike Pence and his retinue—including members of his family, his aides, and his Secret Service detail—are on a trip to Europe this week, and they will be staying at Doonbeg, Donald Trump’s golf resort on the west coast of Ireland. While he’s on the Emerald Isle, Pence will participate in a set of meetings in Dublin, on the east coast. To attend those meetings, Pence will fly more than an hour each way.
That sounds inconvenient for Pence, but it’s convenient for Trump, whose business will pocket payments for the accommodations—a Pence aide didn’t have an estimate, but a conservative guess is tens of thousands of dollars. Trump has so frequently used the power of the presidency to plump for his businesses that the public has almost become inured to it, but it remains brazenly corrupt and shameless.
Complaining about the cost of official travel is an old and tired tradition in which both parties indulge while in the opposition and dismiss as petty while governing. The problem here is less the overall tab than where it’s going and how it got there. Not only does the president often visit his own properties and charge the government—that is, you and me—but here he has directed the vice president to do the same. (Pence will reportedly pay for his mother’s and sister’s share of the bill out of pocket, which means that not only will he be directing government funds into one of the president’s properties, but he’ll be handing over some of his own cash too.)
“I don’t think it was a request, like a command,” Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, told reporters. “I think that it was a suggestion. It’s like, ‘Well, you should stay at my place.’”
Yet what could the vice president do? He was in no position to refuse Trump’s suggestion, which Short valiantly tried to spin as a generous offer. But, of course, Trump was not inviting Pence to stay at his home as a guest. The president could have comped the stay as a gesture of magnanimity, or he could have discouraged it to avoid the conflict of interest, but instead, he invited Pence to spend thousands of dollars to benefit Trump. It’s a double victory for the president, because he reaps not only the cash from the stay, but also the free publicity for the resort. As the president has demonstrated in the past, he is extremely attuned to the nebulous art of enhancing brand value.
Pence has strong family ties to Doonbeg, where his great-grandmother lived. He said few facilities in the area could accommodate the logistical needs of his entourage—but other presidents and vice presidents have visited Ireland and found places to stay. Willing or not, Pence is already an accomplice in lining Trump’s pockets. As the Daily Beast reports, Pence’s PAC has spent more than $200,000 at Trump properties since 2017.
Conversations about the ways Trump has used the presidency to benefit himself often bog down in obscure discussions about the Emoluments Clause, standing, and other legal arcana. The Doonbeg example is comparatively simple, though: Trump is using government travel to line his own pockets. Trump’s actions in driving business to his properties may or may not be legal, but they are undeniably scandalous. Matt Yglesias points out that for other politicians, this sort of move is a career death sentence: “When it turned out that Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh was making companies that contracted with the city buy copies of her book, she was drummed out of office almost immediately.” For Trump, it’s business—literally—as usual.
Trump says it is “probably costing me from 3 to 5 billion” dollars to be president. That number is hyperinflated, just as Trump’s previous estimates of brand value were, but it may be true that Trump is actually losing money as a result of being president. (Because Trump’s company is privately held, and because he has not released tax returns, unlike previous presidents, it’s hard to get a full accounting.) Mar-a-Lago, Bedminster, and the Trump International Hotel have become popular destinations, both because they are closely associated with the president and because customers clearly view spending money there as a way to curry favor with him. Attorney General Bill Barr will spend about $30,000 on a holiday party at Trump’s D.C. hotel, The Washington Post reported last week.
But other destinations are having a harder time. Doral, Trump’s Miami resort, is struggling, the Post reported in May. So are properties in Chicago and elsewhere. Turnberry, Trump’s resort in Scotland, has lost money for four consecutive years, including $4.5 million in 2017. Doonbeg has never turned a profit, and cost Trump more than $40 million.
So it’s only natural that Trump would “suggest” that Pence stay at Doonbeg and attempt to steer the 2020 G7 conference to Doral—perhaps giving these struggling properties the same sort of presidential halo that sites such as Bedminster have enjoyed.
From an ethical standpoint, it doesn’t really matter whether Trump is losing or making money, nor whether these losses are the result of a negative reaction to Trump’s presidency, management failures, or something else. The scandal is that he is finding ways to use the presidency to drive new attention and revenue to them.
Trump’s complaints about losing money are, in any case, his own fault. He appears to have run for president largely on a lark, and as a publicity stunt; he did not expect to win. Having been elected, he declined to either divest his assets or create a blind trust for them, as his predecessors had done—although it’s unlikely a blind trust would have been possible, since Trump could still direct business to anything with his name on it in huge gold letters. Faced with a choice between his private business and the presidency, Trump chose both.
Incredibly, Democrats have mostly allowed him to get away with it. The opposition has pursued a tortured attempt to sue Trump for violating the Emoluments Clause, but there’s been little sustained public critique of Trump’s exploitation of his office by prominent Democrats. This fall, House Democrats will reportedly begin probing Trump’s use of hush money to cover up alleged affairs, a story now three years old. Meanwhile, the Trump Organization will be counting cash in the tills at Doonbeg.