As a candidate, President Trump spent contributors’ money for office space that he owned, stays at his resorts and food at his restaurants. He spent contributors’ money on Trump-branded wine and water. He displayed Trump merchandise at campaign events. Now he seems determined to milk the presidency, apparently synonymous with his brand in his eyes, for a fortune.
“The brand is certainly a hotter brand than it was before,” Mr. Trump observed, with satisfaction, shortly after the election.
Last week, an executive of the Trump Organization, Eric Danziger, said it would open Trump-branded hotels in the 26 largest metropolitan areas in the country, up from five. The business, he said, would focus its expansion domestically for “the next four or eight years.” The fee to join the Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., which Mr. Trump calls the “Winter White House,” just doubled to $200,000.
This news came less than a week after Mr. Trump and his inauguration committee hosted parties and other events at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, in the government-owned Old Post Office. Even his press secretary, Sean Spicer, has become a pitchman: “It’s an absolutely stunning hotel,” he said recently. “I encourage you to go there if you haven’t been by.”
Self-dealing is such standard procedure for this White House that a cynic (or satirist) might say it’s time to give in and try to put Mr. Trump’s conflicts of interest to work for the public. Maybe if he had hotels in every nation, he’d have a financial interest in being less bellicose, and more supportive of the free flow of trade and of people, even if they happen to be Mexican or Muslim.
But we really prefer the old-fashioned approach in which presidents put the public interest ahead of their own finances. Federal ethics officials have told Mr. Trump that he should divest his business interests to avoid allegations of bribery and to assure Americans that their needs are his only concern. Mr. Trump argues that he can put a “firewall” between his businesses and himself by having his eldest sons manage them. The president and the Trump Organization last week hired lawyers to keep an eye on the Trumps, a laughable ploy that doesn’t meet ethical or anti-corruption standards and constitutional requirements.
Mr. Trump has argued that the law permits the president to keep his business — even though no modern president has done so, and far poorer ones than he have sold off business interests to serve. He and his lawyers have played down the importance of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which prohibits government officials from accepting gifts or income from foreign governments without the approval of Congress. And he refuses to release his tax returns and divest his assets and put the proceeds in a blind trust, as his cabinet nominees are doing right now.
Consider the Trump Hotel. Mr. Trump has a 60-year lease on the property with the General Services Administration. That contract states that no elected federal official “shall be admitted to any share or part of this lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.” That unambiguous clause exists to prevent corruption and self-dealing by government officials.
Since Mr. Trump officially violated the lease when he assumed office, the agency is clearly obligated to cancel the lease or require that it be sold to another hotel operator. Ranking Democrats on the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over the agency have for weeks been asking it to address the lease violation. So far, the agency, which reports to the president, appears to have done nothing. Mr. Trump’s lawyers preposterously contend that because he was not an elected official when the lease was signed, he hasn’t broken it.
Aside from violating the lease terms, Mr. Trump is very likely violating the emoluments clause by holding on to the hotel. His lawyers have said that he will donate profits from rooms rented to foreign governments to the Treasury, but that’s no cure. Experts say it would be next to impossible to account for foreign “profits” — which, of course, would be based on the hotel’s own calculations. Is the hotel prepared to open its books so the public can judge those numbers for itself?
Congress ought to demand that the G.S.A. uphold the terms of the hotel lease and shame Mr. Trump into selling his other businesses, the fortunes of which are now hitched to the presidency. Democrats have been trying to do this, but the Republicans who run the House and Senate have not joined them. So far, they lack the spine to challenge the president. Just imagine how they would have reacted if Hillary Clinton had been elected and the Clinton Foundation were merely leasing a government building, let alone using it to generate revenue.
If the agency doesn’t act, a competing hotel could sue to demand that it cancel the lease because the president’s control of the hotel represents unfair competition. The Trump Hotel has been drawing business away from other hotels, precisely because its proprietor occupies the White House. Indeed, the hotel has promoted itself on Twitter with an image of a man relaxing in one of its rooms, gazing out upon a building that looks very like the White House (it’s actually the Environmental Protection Agency, which Mr. Trump campaigned to abolish). Since the election, embassies from countries that include Bahrain, Kuwait and Azerbaijan have held receptions at the hotel, and diplomats say it’s important that they be seen patronizing it.
Mr. Trump has boasted that the presidency boosts his brand. He should focus instead on how his commercial ambition is tarnishing the image of public service. If he continues to reduce the most powerful office in the world to a marketing scheme, ethical public servants, in Congress and across the government, can’t stand by and watch.