You may like or dislike Donald Trump. You may be disturbed to a greater or lesser extent about his womanizing and his general treatment of women. You may choose to believe or not believe in his purported business acumen and entrepreneurial know-how. You may agree or disagree with his views on Muslims and Mexican groups. You may be concerned or unconcerned with the roles of Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner in the White House. You may give a shit or not give a shit about Trump’s tax returns. You may approve or disapprove of his Twitter and Fox News obsessions. You may or may not ascribe value to his statements on his supposed Russian business ties or his wiretapping claims. You may even have or not have a fascination with the length of the man’s neckties. Simply put, you may possess a range of opinions when it comes to President Trump, his policies, and the job he is doing as putative leader of the free world. If there’s one thing, however, that should aggravate members of the general public regardless of political affiliation, one thing that should frustrate Americans across the board as taxpayers and residents of the United States of America, it’s that the Trump family is costing us a shit-ton of money—with no apparent regard for that notion. I mean, I’m pissed. Aren’t you?
How bad could it be, you ask? A certain amount of expenditure is to be expected in having to safeguard the President, the First Lady, and their family, right? Right, but when elements of the cost are not only inflated by their caprice, but benefit the same people helping to drive up the cost, it’s an issue. Tierney McAfee, staff editor at People Magazine, outlines the depth of the problem in a March article. First, there is the matter of safeguarding Melania Trump in Trump Tower. Citing a February letter from NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill to New York City Congress members, it costs over $100,000 a day. A day. This is in addition to expenses incurred in the interim between Election Day and Inauguration Day, which totaled upwards of $25 million, a figure underscored in O’Neill’s letter amid a request for federal funding. Moreover, the Secret Service is already requesting $60 million in funding for next year, over $25 million of which would be dedicated for the explicit purpose of protecting the Trump family and Trump Tower. That’s a lot of money to devote to watching over the First Lady and 11-year-old Barron Trump while he goes to school—and there’s no guarantee they will relocate after the school year is done.
Then there’s the matter of Donald Trump’s trips to his estate, Mar-a-Lago, in Florida. It’s one thing that Melania and Barron stay in a New York penthouse; after all, while it would be appreciated if Mom and Son would call the District of Columbia home in light of the daily price tag, there’s nothing to say that FLOTUS has to have anything to do with the comings and goings of POTUS. President Trump, meanwhile, it might be argued, should be spending more time in the White House, and less time entertaining world leaders at one of his resorts and playing golf. At the time of the publication of McAfee’s piece, Trump had been to Mar-a-Lago five times, with the first three trips alone costing taxpayers $10 million dollars. The weekend of March 25 – 26, the last weekend before the publication date, marked the eighth weekend in a row of Trump’s tenure that he went to a Trump-owned property; even when he stayed in the D.C.-Virginia area, Pres. Trump visited Trump International Hotel and his golf course in VA. And speaking of golf or at least going to courses for meetings, Trump had made 13 such trips since he took office as of when Tierney McAfee finished her article. I’m not sure which of these types of visits is better or worse. On one hand, a round of golf means he’s not really working. On the other hand, we know what he’s doing when he plays a round of golf. That is, he’s probably not meeting Russian diplomats or actively plotting ways to screw over the 99% when he does it. Or maybe he is. By now, I’m all but conditioned to thinking the worst when it comes to Donald Trump.
And yet, even herein, there are likely to be actual matters of state discussed. When sons Eric and Donald Jr. go on business trips for the primary purpose of negotiating deals for the Trump Organization, that has cost us money as well, and as a result, strikes one as wholly egregious. In January, Eric Trump, his entourage, Secret Service members, and embassy staff stayed two nights in Uruguay for a Trump Organization promotional trip. The result? Nearly $100,000 in taxpayer bills. Amy Brittain and Drew Harwell, reporting for The Washington Post, illuminated the crux of the matter in their article on the trip. And I quote:
The Uruguayan trip shows how the government is unavoidably entangled with the Trump company as a result of the president’s refusal to divest his ownership stake. In this case, government agencies are forced to pay to support business operations that ultimately help to enrich the president himself. Though the Trumps have pledged a division of business and government, they will nevertheless depend on the publicly funded protection granted to the first family as they travel the globe promoting their brand.
“Government agencies are forced to pay to support business operations that ultimately help to enrich the president himself.” In other words, we, the taxpayers, are helping the Trump family’s bottom line. It’s even better than a business loan for “the Donald”—of which he has had several in his career as a real estate magnate and which helped bring Trump’s companies to file for bankruptcy four times, mind you. This way, the rest of are picking up the tab on security, any debt incurred now shared debt—like, ahem, we really need any more.
In addition, the implications of this arrangement, particularly the refusal of Donald Trump to divest or put his assets in a blind trust, should be clear to those of us concerned with what informs the President’s agenda and foreign policy. If he would enrich himself with trips to his D.C. hotel and his Mar-a-Lago estate and his Trump Tower Punta del Este resort in Uruguay, why wouldn’t he direct other elements of his policies to that function? The so-called “Muslim ban,” in its various iterations, is notable not only for being a horribly discriminatory piece of garbage, but singles out nations that have not been responsible for any attacks on American soil for at least the past 30 or 40 years. Originally, the ban prevented nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen from traveling to the United States. Muslim Ban 2.0—which, like its predecessor, is still being litigated in court as to its constitutionality—has since removed Iraq from the equation. Still, why not, say, Saudi Arabia, a country from which a majority of the 9/11 hijackers hailed? Oh, right: Trump has business interests there, as well as in Egypt, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. These countries, as noted by Chris Sommerfeldt, writing for the New York Daily News, have “deep-seated ties” to terrorism. Ah, suddenly, the President’s directives seem decidedly less “arbitrary,” and more specifically designed with his personal business interests in mind. But, right—it’s totally because he wants to keep America safe. Right.
If you voted for Donald Trump, well, you probably aren’t reading this, but I’ll direct this line of discourse at you nonetheless. If you voted for Trump, you have two reasons to be upset with your chosen candidate before we even get to matters of exorbitant Secret Service detail price tags. The first is that he’s—and I mean this with all due respect—a dirty, dirty liar. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump painted the picture of himself as the hard-working would-be President. He would have so much to do, he wouldn’t dream of playing so much golf. America First and what-not. Now that he’s done campaigning—well, done campaigning for the 2016 election, that is; he’s already got his sights set on 2020, I’m sure—he’s free to turn around and do the exact opposite. I get it—politicians lie. But wait—didn’t Trump say he’s not a politician? So, which one is it? Do we disregard President Trump’s statements as the boasts of a showman and prospective political leader? Or do we not give him the benefit of the doubt that professional liars in the political sphere get and hold him to a greater standard of accountability congruent with his identity as a competent businessman? You know, like we do with all business executives. Er, OK—bad example. Still, he shouldn’t be able to have it both ways.
The other reason you may be duly frustrated with Donald Trump as a supporter is that he’s—and again, I mean this with all due respect—a stinking hypocrite. While he was President, Trump and various Republicans lambasted Barack Obama for the frequency of his vacations, for their length, and for his numerous golf outings, as they saw it. Now that the golf shoe is on the other foot? As we’ve already determined, Pres. Trump has spent a lot of time between his resorts and golfing. In fact, he has spent so much time during weekends at Mar-a-Lago and provided so few details about who stays and when that Democratic lawmakers have requested that the Government Accountability Office look into just how our money is spent—and the GAO has evidently acquiesced.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Tom Udall, alongside Rep. Elijah Cummings, made the request, wanting to know, among other things: 1) Does the $200,000 price tag for a membership at the club include access to the President? 2) For security purposes, why aren’t visitor logs being kept at Trump resorts? 3) How are communications and sensitive information being safeguarded at Mar-a-Lago? 4) Um, how much is it costing us? As the linked NPR article notes, that last question, in particular, has been asked of the GAO before about President Obama by Republicans. It’s only fair, right? While we mull over whether or not Republican lawmakers are guilty of their own brand of hypocrisy, if the current pace of expenditure is any indication, #45 is set to blow his predecessor out of the water. Barack Obama’s cost of travel over his eight-year tenure has been estimated at $85 million to $96 million. In just his visits to Mar-a-Lago alone, Trump has racked up $15 million in taxpayer bills—and it’s only been three months. There are those of us who shudder at the prospect of eight years of Donald Trump in the White House, but it’s our wallets which may be feeling the greatest weight of all if that comes to fruition.
At the bare minimum, therefore, we should all be—shall we say—disappointed in our President for reneging on campaign promises and failing to practice what he preaches. Now, let’s return to the notion of the legitimacy of what he’s doing from a constitutional standpoint. Don’t worry—I don’t truly understand a lot of it either, so we’re going through this analysis together. A key issue which a number of legal scholars and amateur constitutional analysts have raised is whether or not Trump, by virtue of hosting foreign heads of state at his resorts and by refusing to divest or put his assets in a blind trust, is in violation of the Emoluments Clause. Also known as the Title of Nobility Clause, Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution reads as such:
No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.
In terns of the spirit of the passage, the Emoluments Clause is designed to prevent POTUS from being 1) an all-powerful king or tyrant, and 2) from accepting bribes or being corrupted by foreign influences and interests. On the first count, Donald Trump is no king—even if he may think otherwise. The courts’ resistance to the Muslim ban, for instance, have kept him, in part, in check. On the second count, however, whether we’re talking his believed financial relationship with Russia or other dealings that even indirectly benefit the Trump Organization (Google “Trump China property rights” and witness the ensuing questions about ethics), there definitely would seem to be something to complaints against President Agent Orange.
Whether or not this is an open-and-shut case is another story. In fact, in all likelihood, in terms of actual and potential litigation, the answer is “far from it.” Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Cato Institute Center for Constitutional Ethics, addresses this point in relation to a lawsuit filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). Concerning the lawsuit, according to Olson, its chance of success isn’t all that favorable, purely on the basis that the organization itself is not an aggrieved party, and thus not entitled to any remedy under the law. Concerning specific applicability of the Emoluments Clause, meanwhile, there is simply not a whole lot of legal precedent by which relevant concepts and terms have been defined by the courts. Olson explains:
In its relevant bits, the Emoluments Clause holds that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the US], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present [or] Emolument [from any] foreign State.” Few cases have reached the courts clarifying the scope of these terms, and although some light is shed by advisory opinions written by past White House lawyers, much remains uncertain. Does only a stipend or salary, or a payment in compensation for the official’s direct time or attention, count as an emolument? Or does the term extend even to, say, an arms’-length hotel room rental at fair price? What if the payment is going not to an officeholder personally, but to a business he owns in part, or to a relative? And who exactly counts as a foreign state actor?
As with trying to define the “natural-born citizen” clause for purposes of determining eligibility for the office of President—recall doubts raised by Trump himself about Ted Cruz’s candidacy, being born in Canada—the dearth of established tests in courts with regard to the Emoluments Clause makes any legal “knockout blows” against Donald Trump, as Walter Olson terms them, improbable. What’s more, even if Pres. Trump is somehow found to be in violation of the Clause, as Olson also indicates, the courts “aren’t obliged to provide a broad remedy,” as the people behind the CREW lawsuit would have it, and could very well require another branch of government or other voters to decide such matters.
Additionally, as regards whether or not violation constitutes an impeachable offense, not only do the courts tend to defer to Congress on this front, but the Emoluments Clause explicitly states that payments or other contributions of material value from foreign sources must occur without its (Congress’s) consent. By and large, the Republican-majority U.S. Congress has given Trump’s agenda the green light, even changing Senate rules to usher in Neil Gorsuch as Antonin Scalia’s replacement on the Supreme Court, so if we are holding our collective breath for impeachment proceedings to begin, we had best have someone on hand to revive us. Besides, enthusiasm for such a move is admittedly dulled with someone like Mike Pence, a man who has apparently made stripping women of their reproductive rights his mission, waiting in the wings.
So, forget about the Emoluments Clause—or at least keep it in the back of your mind for the time being. You may even want to drop the whole caring about whether or not Donald Trump is a dirty, dirty liar and a stinking hypocrite—because he sure doesn’t care, and the same goes for other key figures in the White House. But the ethical concerns surrounding Trump’s travel expenses? They matter, if for no other reason than they affect our bottom line and those of the Trump family at the same time. Jeremy Venook, editorial fellow at The Atlantic, explains why apparent conflicts of interest make it so that we can’t begin to parse what is done for possibly legitimate reasons—and realistically, these seem few to none when considering why Mr. Trump would, for instance, opt for Mar-a-Lago over Camp David, other than sheer comfort—and what is done for mere self-aggrandizing. The key thoughts, as I find them, from Venook’s piece:
The focus on hypocrisy is understandable; historically, calling out politicians on lies and inconsistencies has been seen as a potent political tool, whether because the politicians themselves change their behavior or because voters turn against leaders they consider dishonest. But this may no longer be the case: The new administration seems singularly unresponsive to shame over their own lies and hypocrisy, and, with inflexible partisanship an increasingly powerful force in American politics, calling them out on their dissembling may no longer convince either the administration or its base to change their behavior. Besides, when it comes to vacations, doing so is arguably hypocritical in and of itself, a partisan ouroboros in which each changeover of the executive branch reawakens one half of the country to righteous indignation over the president’s personal expenses (which, it should be noted, comprise only a fraction of a percent of the executive branch’s budget).
What is new, though, is the Trump family’s continued commingling of their business with the presidency, and their continued refusal to even entertain the idea of divestment: President Trump did not file promised paperwork to resign from his titular organization until after ProPublica reported that he had not done so; Ivanka apparently has still not resigned from her own companies; the trust set up to prevent the president from overseeing his finances is not only not “blind” but is also revocable, meaning he can alter the arrangement whenever he wants. In light of this malfeasance, a decades-old criticism has taken on additional meaning. Partisan ire over presidential leisure time has been a mainstay of political discourse since at least the 1950s, when President Eisenhower was roundly castigated for spending too much time on the golf course. But only the Trump family has provided a genuine reason for the American public to be concerned that their vacations represent a true willingness to prioritize their own fortunes over that of the country.
As Venook and others see it, it’s not even the dollar amount or that it’s a Republican as opposed to a Democrat who is prone to excess in this instance that’s the bugaboo. It’s that the Trumps are not only cavalier with regard to their ethics as political figures, but that they are so unwilling to be transparent and straightforward in their dealings, such that those of us outside the vanguard have almost no choice but to suspect they are acting in a way that serves their interests over ours. After all, if they have nothing to hide, why wouldn’t they be more forthcoming about the who, what, and why of the various trips outside the purview of Washington, D.C.? You can call this liberal spin if you so choose, but I think this is more logical than anything. The obscurity, the declining of requests for information, the confrontational relationship with the press—if this were Barack Obama, you’d be wagging at a finger at him and his 3-wood up and down the blogosphere. And yes, there’s a deeper subtext there, but we would need at least another 3,000 words to explore that theme.
In short, yes, it matters that Donald Trump has spent half his weekends at Mar-a-Lago. On some level, it matters that he lied about the devotion he would show to the presidency and that he has been even worse than Obama in terms of those same qualities for which he roasted his predecessor. Even if the power of the courts is sparing to censure Trump on his possible violations of the Emoluments Clause, and Congress won’t entertain a reprimand, this, too, matters, if for no other reason than the White House has to waste time, money, and energy defending the President from the inevitable legal challenges. But above all else, it matters that untold sums are being spent to safeguard Donald, Melania, and the other Trumps, that we are on the hook for these sums, and that the First Family is benefitting financially from this arrangement. The Trump family is costing us a shit-ton of money, and if you’re still not pissed about this idea, then I feel we can’t even begin to have a real conversation about what this presidency means for everyday Americans.