The Trump administration has a lot to grapple with at the moment—Turkey’s disastrous incursion into Syria, a strong likelihood of impeachment, a tough reelection campaign—but there’s always time for the president to profiteer from his job.
White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney announced today that the United States will host the 2020 Group of Seven summit at Trump National Doral, the president’s golf course near Miami. In other words, Trump is choosing to host an important international conference at a resort he owns, which has been struggling badly. In a presidency marked by the shameless intermingling of the personal and the political, it may be the most brazen act of self-enrichment yet.
Mulvaney barely tried to justify the ethics of the choice during a briefing.
“He’s not making any money off of this just like he’s not making any money from working here,” he said, without offering any explanation for why such a statement was true. The president broke precedent by refusing to separate himself from his businesses when he took office, and while he initially claimed that his sons Eric and Donald Jr. would run the company in a semi-quarantine, it’s become clear that they’re in frequent conversation with their father.
The timing is either inauspicious or audacious, coming just two days after a federal appeals court revived a case against the president under the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which bars federal officials from profiting from foreign governments. Mulvaney wrote off any concerns about the arrangement as simple misunderstandings of branding.
“I would like you to consider the possibility that Donald Trump’s brand is probably strong enough as it is and he doesn’t need any more help on that,” he said. “It’s the most recognizable name in the English language and probably around the world right now.”
This is nonsensical and insulting. Trump, certainly, has never underestimated the power of brand, but in this case, his brand seems to have dealt a blow to Trump National Doral. As The Washington Post reported earlier this year, the resort has seen its revenues tumble, a slide that the Trump Organization’s own consultant attributed to the toxicity of the president’s name. By locating a huge conference there, with retinues from six other governments (or seven, if Trump gets his wish to bring Russia back into the organization), the president will both pump cash into Doral and gain the chance to rebrand the troubled resort—from struggling golf course to international summit destination.
Trump goes to properties he owns all the time as president, and each of those visits raises ethical questions. The government shells out cash to the Trump Organization for accommodations and space for security, plus there’s that brand exposure. There is at least a theoretical defense of these visits: Trump does own or manage these properties, and as president, he should be able to vacation where he feels most comfortable.
No such defense can be offered of the G7 decision, though, which looks like pure profiteering. Recent summits have been held at semi-isolated locations, the better to provide safety and security to the visiting dignitaries. Doral is in the middle of metro Dade County, in the flight path of the airport. (Trump even lied about the length of the trip from the airport to the resort in a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.)
Mulvaney knew he’d face questions about this, yet he didn’t bother to offer a serious answer.
“I was aware of the sort of political criticism we would come under for doing it at Doral which is why I was so surprised when the advance team came back and said this is the perfect physical location to do this,” he said.
On what grounds did the advance team come to this conclusion?
“If you want to see our paper on how we did this, the answer is absolutely not.”
And where did the idea to use Doral come from? From the professionals on the advance team? Of course not—it was Trump’s own scheme.
“That’s a fair question. We were back in the dining room going over with our advance team. We had the list. He said, ‘What about Doral?’”
Moments later, Mulvaney’s briefing spiraled off into a chaotic series of questions about the impeachment inquiry. The inquiry circles around Trump’s inability to separate the functions of government, like conducting foreign policy with Ukraine, from his personal political fortunes, in demanding investigations into the family of his rival Joe Biden and a bogus conspiracy theory about the 2016 election. In the case of Doral, he cannot separate the functions of government from his personal financial fortunes. At the same time, his line of attack against the Bidens is to claim (without any evidence) that they illegally profited from Joe Biden’s role as vice president.
“How is the president going to stand on the debate stage, if, in fact, Vice President Joe Biden wins the nomination, and try to make an argument he profited off his vice presidency?” a reporter asked today.
“He’s going to do that extraordinarily well,” Mulvaney said.
It was an answer that was as serious and well-thought-out as the rest of the briefing.