All modern U.S. presidents travel. In fact, we want them to. A national leader who lives in a bunker — even as well-appointed a bunker as the White House — is a leader too isolated from the world.
And the current president does a lot of traveling. There are the usual official visits to swing states, foreign allies and gatherings of world leaders, and then there are the uniquely Trumpian forays. Weekend day trips to his private golf course in Virginia. Getaways to another of his golf resorts in Bedminster, N.J. Runs south to Mar-a-Lago, the high-end Florida golf resort that President Trump calls his “winter White House,” where he goes for R&R and tête-à-têtes with visiting heads of state.
For these trips to Trump properties, the president’s companies bill taxpayers thousands of dollars. The eye-opening charges include exorbitant fees for top officials who stay with Trump at Mar-a-Lago (over $500 a night per room despite the availability of far cheaper nearby hotels) and one newly uncovered and truly prodigious bar tab from an evening meeting two years ago, when top White House advisors kicked a bartender out of a Mar-a-Lago bar and, as Secret Service agents guarded the door, helped themselves to top-line booze. The resort later billed the government $1,076, including a $167.60 “service charge” — even though the drinkers served themselves.
This is just the kind of behavior, in fact, that you’d expect would have conservative members of Congress howling.
There’s no way of telling from the few documents the administration has made available how often the president’s aides run up that kind of bar tab, or just how much business the president is steering toward himself. A Government Accountability Office report earlier this year said the government spent $13.6 million on four presidential trips to Mar-a-Lago in February and March 2017, the vast majority of it for transportation, security and other expenses that would have been incurred no matter where the president traveled. But the GAO said it couldn’t get a full reading of the spending because the White House stiff-armed its requests for details on how much it spent on staff travel on those trips.
ProPublica reports, in partnership with WNYC Studios, that government agencies have spent at least $386,000 at Trump properties since the inauguration, income that wouldn’t have accrued to the Trump Organization were it not for the fact that Donald Trump is president. And that tally is an undercount, ProPublica says, because the government is fighting requests for details on government spending at Trump properties.
It’s outrageous that the president is steering so many tax dollars to his own businesses, and even more so that the administration balks at providing what should be public information on how it is spending the people’s money.
As outrageous as that level of secretive self-dealing might be, it is only part of the soft graft that has surrounded this president. Yes, Trump turned over control of the family empire to two of his sons, but the president retains his stake so that he benefits personally from Trump Organization dealings.
Another ProPublica investigation found that since Trump declared his candidacy in 2015, his properties received $13.5 million from his campaign and at least another $2.6 million from Republican Party entities and federal agencies. Even more problematic are the foreign governments and representatives of domestic organizations seeking favor from the White House who patronize Trump properties — particularly the Trump International Hotel a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. A Trump business leases the site from the federal government, which means by default, Trump is his own landlord.
The hotel has become a top spot in Washington for gatherings by lobbyists, Republican heavyweights and other D.C. wheelers and dealers — The Swamp, in Trump’s parlance. The Trump Organization reported that it realized more than $190,000 in net income just from foreign governments last year and donated an equal amount to the U.S. Treasury, which somehow is supposed to make the country feel better about foreign governments and domestic favor-seekers so brazenly patronizing the family business of a president so famously susceptible to flattery. Remember, notwithstanding the Trump International’s prime location, many of these transactions wouldn’t have transpired if Trump was still just a businessman.
We argued early on in Trump’s absurd trajectory from real estate mogul and reality TV star to the White House that he is fundamentally unqualified for the job, and that he is hopelessly entangled in conflicts of interest. That he uses his weekend getaways and “winter White House” meetings and summits to enrich his family business at taxpayers’ expense is egregious. Just the kind of behavior, in fact, that you’d expect would have conservative members of Congress howling.
12:08 p.m.: This article was updated to credit WNYC Studios in its partnership with ProPublica.