Twenty-four hours before taking the oath of office, President Trump strutted into the presidential ballroom of the Trump International Hotel to toast congressional leaders, top donors and the people he had picked to fill out his Cabinet.
Trump joked that “a total genius must have built this place,” underscoring the message: He would make little effort to separate his presidency from his identity as a business tycoon.
Less than a month in, his intentions are even clearer. The ethics firewall built by Trump’s attorneys already has failed to prevent complications from his family’s businesses from seeping into the presidency.
A top aide was scolded by the government ethics office and the GOP oversight chairman for pitching daughter Ivanka Trump’s fashion line on television, after Trump and another aide attacked Nordstrom for dropping her brand. Another business, Trump’s Florida country club, drew bipartisan security concerns after Trump appeared to discuss a North Korean missile test with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in full view of club members on a dining patio.
And Trump’s sons have prompted deep concern from ethics watchdogs as they pursue plans to launch a new U.S. hotel chain, possibly with the help of money from foreign investors, that ultimately will create profits for the president.
“They don’t seem to have any safeguards,” said Richard Painter, the chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, who serves on the board of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a watchdog group that has sued the Trump administration, alleging ethics violations.
Trump is probably the wealthiest businessman to serve as president, and the first without government or military experience. His success in branding and building hotels, casinos and a media business brought him to prominence, and many of his supporters see that experience as his most valuable asset.
But the Trump Organization, with real estate deals all over the world, presents unprecedented possibilities for conflicts. Trump declined to sell his holdings, instead announcing before he took office that he would turn his company over to his sons.
It was an attempt to assure the public that he was “completely isolating himself from his business interests,” in the words of his lawyer.
But in his first weeks in office, Trump has made little effort to maintain the appearance of keeping the family business at arm’s length.
After Nordstrom dropped his daughter’s clothing and accessories line, Trump tweeted angrily that Ivanka Trump had been “treated so unfairly” by Nordstrom, leaving the impression that the administration would use the bully pulpit to punish companies that sever ties with the family. Spokesman Sean Spicer accused the company of “a direct attack” on Trump’s policies and his daughter’s name. Finally, senior counselor Kellyanne Conway, in a televised interview from the White House, suggested that viewers of “Fox & Friends” should “go buy Ivanka’s stuff.”
In a letter to the White House, the Office of Government Ethics said Conway’s plug crossed a line. But it’s the administration that will decide whether Conway, who got a mild rebuke from Spicer, will face more discipline. Neither the White House nor the Trump Organization responded to questions.
The Conway episode showed that Trump’s indifference to questions of conflicts already was trickling down to his staff, said Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer for the progressive group Common Cause.
“We’re supposed to trust that this president who has shown a disregard for these norms is going to enforce the rules against one of his closest staff persons,” he said. “Hopes aren’t high.”
Even as controversy swirled over that dust-up, Trump was taking Abe for a golf weekend to his Florida club, Mar-a-Lago, which Trump and his team have aggressively branded as the “winter White House” — and which doubled its membership fee to $200,000 after Trump was elected.
Facebook pictures of Trump’s dining patio meeting with Abe were taken by a club member who joined after Trump’s election and seemed taken with the access to power he was enjoying.
“HOLY MOLY !!!” Richard DeAgazio wrote on his Facebook page, posting photos of Trump and top aides poring over papers and speaking frantically with Abe. “Wow ... the center of the action!!!”
Spicer said later that the officials were not viewing and shining cellphone lights on classified information but were reviewing logistics for a public statement about the nuclear test.
The episodes prompted Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who leads the House Oversight Committee, to write to the White House requesting numerous pieces of information, including the level of security vetting afforded to club members. Chaffetz already had requested an investigation of Conway’s comments.
“Who knows? A waiter could be video-recording it,” said Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat who represents Palm Beach, Fla., and has been to the club many times for fundraisers. “There’s so much potential for mischief.”
Frankel conceded that Trump is new to the job and may be unaware of the risk, but nonetheless faulted his “cavalier attitude.”
Chaffetz and other members of Congress are under intense public pressure to take a harder line in overseeing Trump’s business ties.
“I have a sense that what he was doing with Abe was showing off,” said Larry Noble, general counsel to the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit government reform group. “I can’t imagine he doesn’t have private rooms and can’t have a private dinner. Why would you take the prime minister of Japan to a [club] dining room? Who are you trying to impress?”
Painter said the imagery is only part of the value to Trump. Club members also know they might run into top administration officials over a drink or by the pool.
“It’s pay for access. It’s legal,” Painter said. “But it’s terribly discouraging for ordinary voters to watch this happen.”
Taxpayers, meanwhile, are picking up some of the tab. Ric Bradshaw, the Palm Beach County sheriff, estimated local security costs at $60,000 for every day Trump spends in Palm Beach, independent of what the Secret Service and other federal agencies are spending. Bradshaw said he is seeking federal reimbursement.
Meanwhile, the Trump Organization is still facing conflict questions related to its hotel operations — starting with the one a few blocks from the White House. The Trump company leases the property from the General Services Administration, meaning that since he took office, Trump is, in effect, his own landlord. The GSA is now trying to decide whether the president is in violation of a clause in the lease that prohibits any federal official from benefiting from the deal.
The company has announced aggressive plans to expand throughout the United States, with a new hotel brand, Scion, a nod to the Trump family heritage, according to a news release. At a recent hotel industry conference in Los Angeles, Trump company executive Eric Danziger told the Wall Street Journal that the company had signed letters of intent with developers for 17 of the hotels, which are supposed to be geared toward a younger, trendier clientele than the family’s old-school luxury brand.
In a common business model for the hotel industry, the Trump Organization would not build the hotels, but manage them and receive a fee for the brand name.
One of those potential partners is Mukemmel “Mike” Sarimsakci, a Dallas-based developer who grew up in Turkey and who considers Trump his business idol. He mentioned that to Turkish reporters, and they started calling him “the Turkish Trump.”
He wants to build Scion hotels in downtown Dallas and in St. Louis, though no deals have been signed.
Sarimsakci said most of the money for the Dallas venture would come from what he said are “friends and family” in Turkey and Kazakhstan.
“It’s not a big group,” he said in an interview, declining to name the investors.
He said Turkish investors like the relative safety of U.S. real estate and wouldn’t have an interest in trying to curry favor with Trump. “They’re really just here to put money in for capital preservation, and make a little return on their money, and they’re happy,” he said.
Trump has said that new deals won’t be signed until an outside counsel clears them. The company hired Bobby Burchfield, a veteran Republican lawyer in Washington, to handle those ethics reviews. Both the company and Burchfield declined to comment on how those reviews will work, or whether they will include the source of financing as well as the company’s development partners.
Ethics watchdogs say foreign investments in the hotels could be a huge concern, particularly because Trump also has declined to release his tax returns or much other information about the financing underpinning his business empire. If the investment is coming from a government-controlled entity, Ryan said, that could be a violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause that restricts U.S. officials from accepting gifts from foreign governments.
“The real story is how little we know,” he said. “We don’t even know what we don’t know about Trump’s business holdings.”