The Trump Presidency Is Good News for Trump's Bottom Line

With the president giving Trump golf courses free publicity, and Kellyanne Conway telling citizens to buy Ivanka Trump products, business is good and ethics are dubious.

Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters

Business is good, in general—the stock market is booming, the economy is adding jobs, and consumer confidence is high.

But business is really good if you happen to be a member of the Trump family.

Exhibit A is Ivanka Trump’s retail business. The brands of the president’s daughter had been struggling, according to Nordstrom, which informed her in January of its intention to stop stocking her products. The company blamed sliding sales, although Nordstrom had been subject to a boycott designed to protest Donald Trump; it’s unclear how much that boycott had to do with the sales dip.

In any case, how are things going now? CNBC catches us up:

Sales of Ivanka Trump merchandise dropped 26 percent online in January compared to January 2016, but the trend reversed in February. According to Slice Intelligence, online sales of Ivanka Trump merchandise swelled 207 percent in February from the prior month.

According to an analysis of email receipts by Slice Intelligence from a panel of 4.4 million online shoppers, online sales of Ivanka Trump merchandise in February surged on Amazon, pushing the website from being the fourth largest seller of the brand to the first, replacing Nordstrom, which previously held that spot.

What made the difference? Perhaps Ivanka started offering a range of new products that suddenly appealed to more consumers. But the more likely reason is this: A top White House spokeswoman went on national TV and instructed people to buy Ivanka Trump products as an act of political activism and revenge. And they did.

“The stars have all aligned,” Eric Trump, who is Donald Trump’s son and executive vice president of the Trump Organization in charge of golf properties, told The New York Times. “I think our brand is the hottest it has ever been.”

As reporters Eric Lipton and Susanne Craig note, there are reasons for that, too. The Trump Organization has an extremely visible surrogate in the president, who continues to patronize Trump golf courses, from New Jersey to Florida. He also appeared, for example, on the cover of Golf Digest as “Golfer in Chief,” a nifty bit of marketing for Trump links.

Eric Trump told the Times that this was no different than the positive economic benefits that accrued to Crawford, Texas, when President George W. Bush visited his ranch there. But of course that analogy would only make sense if Bush had been the owner of the town of Crawford and stood to personally benefit from it, which he was not and did not.

Eric Trump then offered the paper a second defense, that the president is inextricable from his business interests, just the situation that conflict-of-interest rules are designed to answer. But the Trump family has in effect refused to reckon with those rules. Ostensibly, Donald Trump has stepped back from his businesses and turned them over to his children Eric and Donald Jr., as part of a plan to answer concerns about conflicts of interest. He claims that he will not speak to his sons about his business empire while in office. (Eric Trump posted a picture of himself at the White House Thursday, but you’ll have to take the Trump family’s word that business wasn’t discussed.)

Ethics experts have dismissed that arrangement as entirely insufficient, and the story of Trump’s golf properties prospering shows why, even if you take the Trumps at face value, the deal doesn’t work. Obviously, the president knows that if he gives Trump Organization properties lots of exposure, it will be good for them—and by extension good for him, since he didn’t divest from the company.

But are the claims of booming business believable? The golf profits are impossible to verify, since the Trump Organization is privately held and doesn’t have to make detailed disclosures—though the publicity is real. The president of Ivanka Trump’s line claims soaring sales, which is impossible to verify for similar disclosure reasons. (The Slice Intelligence figures quoted by CNBC provide a glimpse into the sales, but they cannot provide a full picture.) And the Trumps have a long record of misrepresenting the facts about their business. In The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump claimed to employ “truthful hyperbole,” which is an amusing phrase insofar as what he meant was that he was not being truthful. In a 2007 deposition about his business practices, he admitted to falsehoods 30 times.

Still, it’s entirely plausible that the Trump presidency has been very good for the Trump family business. Some analysts were warning from the start of the campaign that Trump was running for president as a publicity stunt; once he won the presidency, ethics experts warned that he could use the presidency as a tool of self-enrichment, turning the White House into the headquarters of the Trump business empire.

That provides a useful way to approach another recent news development. The White House aide who encouraged people to buy Ivanka Trump goods was Kellyanne Conway, during a February appearance on Fox and Friends. That comment appeared to clearly violate federal rules against government employees using their jobs to endorse products. The chair and ranking member of the House Oversight Committee wrote to the Office of Government Ethics, asking for an investigation and a recommendation of a punishment. OGE replied and recommended that Conway be disciplined.

The White House took a pass. “We concluded that Ms. Conway acted inadvertently and is highly unlikely to do so again,” Stefan Passantino, Trump’s top ethics lawyer replied. On Thursday, OGE wrote to the House Oversight members, expressing “concern” about the White House’s inaction.

The Trump administration’s blithe dismissal of the recommendation to discipline Conway is in keeping with its attitude toward ethics rules all along. But besides, if one goal of a Trump presidency is to bolster the Trump family’s bottom line—or if, at the very least, the president is perfectly comfortable mixing public service and private profit—why would Conway be chastised for furthering that cause?