If you paid $750 to a business owned by President Trump, you got to party with him on New Year’s Eve. This is, at best, the appearance of corruption, and it is another reminder of why Trump’s continued ownership of his hotels and resorts is improper.
You may recall Bill Clinton renting out the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom to large donors. You may remember Bill getting paid six-figure sums for speeches to foreign entities while his wife was Secretary of State. This was precisely the sort of pay-to-play corruption that led voters to reject Clinton and vote to drain the swamp.
What Trump is doing is more direct in many ways. He has created an arrangement whereby you get access to the president and some of his chief advisors, such as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, if you give the president money. This isn’t even about campaign contributions, like the Lincoln bedroom fiasco. The access-for-cash trade is more direct than if you hired Trump to give a speech.
Access is a huge part of what companies pay for when they hire lobbyists — a seat at the table. It is the coin of the realm in the swamp. So, it’s certainly unseemly for a president to literally sell access to himself, as Trump does with his private clubs.
For some customers of Trump's clubs, it appears that the rewards have been real.
When Trump ordered reviews of America’s trade agreements, with an executive order on his 100th day in office, he did what many presidents do: He chose some gritty American business as the setting. The business he chose? The Ames Companies of Camp Hill, whose president, Robert Mehmel, is a member of Trump National Golf Club-Bedminister. USA Today determined that on at least three occasions, Mehmel played Bedminster the same day Trump was there.
We don’t know what went down at Trump’s private club, but we know the basic facts: Mehmel pays to belong to Trump’s club, which enriches Trump and gives Mehmel personal access to Trump. Trump has used the power of the presidency to raise the profile of Mehmel’s company and to advance policies that would (by Trump’s telling, at least) profit Mehmel’s company.
We also know that a few members at Trump’s clubs actually got government jobs. Trump nominated Mar-a-Lago member Robin Bernstein as ambassador to the Dominican Republic. Adolfo Marzol, member at Trump National Golf Club, is a Department of Housing and Urban Development advisor, Newsweek reported.
We know for a fact that foreign functionaries have assumed that patronizing Trump’s properties. “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House,” one Asian diplomat said right after the election, “so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’”
When Saudi Arabia was lobbying against a bill enabling 9/11 victims’ families to sue the Saudis, the lobbyists and consultants the kingdom hired spent about a quarter million at Trump’s luxury hotel in D.C.
You don’t have to posit a direct financial quid pro quo to see the danger here. Access is always half the game in lobbying. With Trump, personal relationships and proving yourself a like-minded man with similar tastes is invaluable. Trump is impressionable and new to politics, and we’ve seen how susceptible he can be to bad ideas from peers pushing evil agendas.
Consider an underappreciated episode from this summer: Trump, in June, told counterintelligence officials briefing Trump that a particular “Chinese criminal” needed to be deported. The “criminal” was political dissident Guo Wengui, who was hiding from the Chinese government in the U.S. Where did Trump get this idea that Guo had to go? A letter from gambling magnate Steve Wynn, who also happened to be Trump’s top fundraiser in his capacity as finance chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Wynn, for his part, was busy trying to win the favor of the Chinese government for his casinos in Macau.
So the Chinese, through a businessman close to Trump, convinced the president to take a bad action. (Thankfully, administration officials steered Trump away from this.)
How many others have changed Trump's mind or won his favor by sharing a joke with him over a steak salad and a Diet Coke at Bedminister or Mar-a-Lago? We don't know, but as long as he owns those businesses, Trump will keep making money off people who want favors from the president.