"The White House is like a subway," Taiwan-born businessman and Bill Clinton fundraiser Johnny Chung said of Clinton's presidency: "You have to put in coins to open the gates."
The same pay-to-play set up is going on today, but it's more direct in some ways, and the fare is higher. If you pay the $200,000 initiation fee plus annual dues to the private club President Trump owns, you get face time with the president, his staff and his cabinet members.
Trump's company, the Trump Organization, owns Mar-a-Lago, the private club where Trump has spent most weekends of his presidency. Following his election, the Trump Organization has been owned by the "Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust." Donald Trump Jr. is a trustee, and the trustees are charged with operating the trust to the "exclusive benefit" of President Trump.
When Trump in four or eight years exits the White House the trust's money will be his money, and he will regain total control of the company.
So all money that goes to Mar-a-Lago, in effect, goes to Trump personally. If you pay money to Mar-a-Lago, you are enriching Donald Trump.
And if you pay money to Mar-a-Lago you get face time with Trump. Trump crashed a wedding there a few weeks back. Last weekend, he schmoozed with attendees at a gala whose organizers likely paid Trump about $150,000 to host their event there.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions was greeting guests at Mar-a-Lago on Saturday. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly* was mingling with guests, too, according to reporter Christina Wilkie. A Cabinet secretary granting special access to parties who fork over cash was something of a scandalous storyline over the past two years.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was mingling there, too. Ross has argued that the U.S. government should have a more robust industrial policy in which Washington picks "which industries are we going to really promote." Any businessman seeking support for his industry from the Trump administration need only pay $200,000 to Donald Trump via Mar-a-Lago, and you can make your pitch to Secretary Ross.
This is like the turnstile Johnny Chung described in the Clinton administration. This is the "pay-to-play" arrangement Trump attacked regarding the Clinton Foundation and the Clintons' paid speeches.
Access to the president and his top advisors is precisely what companies are paying for when they shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for well-connected lobbyists.
The gala guests last weekend had not paid for access to the president. They likely booked their events long before Trump won, and back when most folks thought Trump had little or no chance. Most Mar-a-Lago members, similarly, have been members a long time.
But how has business been at Mar-a-Lago since Trump won? Which new millionaires or businessmen have shelled out the $200,000 initiation fee? What about foreign businessmen?
Which corporations or trade associations have recently booked a gala for next winter at the "Winter White House"? Are these payers hoping that their contribution to Trump's personal wealth will get them personal access? And will it work?
One need not posit corrupt and greedy motives to Trump to worry about this. Even if Trump doesn't ever consider a quid-pro-quo (this businessman has given me money so I'll do what he wants or sit down with him) the basic arrangement of the club is that people who pay him get access to him.
From what we know about Trump, he will generally be fond of his paying Mar-a-Lago guests. Think of how he has answered when asked about businessmen in the past: I like him, we did business together. And simply the perception here is a problem, because it is damaging simply if some CEO or foreign potentate believes his membership at Mar-a-Lago means Trump owes him something.
Surrendering management of the Trump Organization does nothing to mitigate the problem here. Placing the company in a trust changes nothing because Mar-a-Lago's profits are still, ultimately, Trump's personal profits.
Also, pointing out that Bill Clinton's White House, and Hillary Clinton's State Department did similar things doesn't make it any less bad that Trump is doing it. Hillary's pay-to-play was one reason she lost. It was exactly the sort of thing — insiders enriching themselves through their access to power — that gave such force to Trump's "Drain the Swamp" line of attack.
As long as Trump owns Mar-a-Lago, and as long as membership at Mar-a-Lago is a means of access to power, the specter of corruption will hang over Trump as it did Hillary.
*CORRECTION: This column mistakenly named Rex Tillerson instead of John Kelly in an earlier draft.
Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.