Last year, I proposed that Congress eliminate the risk of pay-to-play corruption posed by President Donald Trump’s sprawling business empire by nationalizing the Trump Organization. Only by placing the Trump family business in public hands, I argued, could lawmakers restore some confidence in the integrity of American governance. I’m now happy to report that the Trump administration has largely adopted my plan—except for one key detail.
In practical terms, Trump’s business properties now operate as de facto outposts of the U.S. government. When Vice President Mike Pence visited Ireland last week, he first met with the country’s foreign minister at an airport on the country’s western coast, then spent the night at Trump’s nearby Doonbeg golf resort. From there, he traveled to Dublin—which is on the other side of the island—to meet with Leo Varadkar, the head of the Republic of Ireland’s government.
Pence defended the strange zigzagged itinerary by saying that it was the result of last-minute schedule changes after Hurricane Dorian forced Trump to cancel his own European trip. He also maintained that only the Trump resort in Doonbeg could “accommodate the unique footprint” of the vice president’s entourage when it stayed there. Why stay in Doonbeg at all instead of Dublin? The resort happens to be near Pence’s ancestral family grounds, and a distant cousin owns a local pub.
Trump’s overseas properties aren’t just reserved for high-ranking government officials. Politico reported last week that an Air National Guard C-17 crew stopped for refueling at a small civilian airport outside Glasgow, Scotland, and spent the night at Trump’s golf resort at Turnberry. The House Oversight Committee is investigating why the crew stayed at Turnberry instead of other nearby hotels, and why they landed at the nearby private airport instead of U.S. airbases in Britain, where fuel would be cheaper.
Even the president’s domestic resorts are now seen as suitable for hosting high-level diplomatic events. Trump spent part of last month’s G-7 summit defending his administration’s decision to consider his Doral resort outside Miami when the U.S. hosts the annual gathering next year. “I think it’s a great place to be,” he told reporters during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “I think having it in Miami is fantastic, really fantastic.” A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking he was trying to infuse some federal funds into Doral’s depleted coffers.
Trump’s other U.S. properties have also become ersatz civic centers. Republican lawmakers and candidates spent more than $4 million nationwide to host rallies and fundraisers at the sites ahead of last year’s midterm elections. And then there’s the Trump International Hotel in D.C., which has become a gathering point for a certain slice of American politics who want to signal—both in person and in cash—their affinity for the president. Attorney General William Barr is even hosting his annual private holiday party at the hotel in December.
There’s only one problem with this entire state of affairs. Ideally, Trump would enforce a strict separation between the Trump Organization and his administration to prevent the appearance, or reality, of corruption. Failing that, the federal government would have taken these properties to manage on the taxpayers’ behalf so he and his family can’t profit from the presidency. Instead, the president has charted a third course in which the Trump Organization and the federal government blend together in some sort of unholy corporate merger. It may be the most successful hostile takeover in history.
This is not surprising, given Trump’s general disinterest in government ethics and his authoritarian impulses. He demands personal loyalty from FBI directors investigating his political allies and ousts attorneys general who don’t misuse the Justice Department’s immense powers on his behalf. Thanks to gaps in the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, he has replaced numerous Senate-confirmed officials in the executive branch with a pliable coterie of “acting” agency heads. In essence, he’s governing more like a CEO whose orders are rarely questioned than the president of a liberal democracy.
Indeed, even the more apolitical federal agencies are now behaving more like Trump Organization subsidiaries than civil servants working in the public interest. Last weekend, Trump mistakenly warned on Twitter that Alabama would be hit “harder than anticipated by Hurricane Dorian.” The state actually faced a fairly remote risk of storm damage and the National Weather Service’s Birmingham office quickly clarified on Twitter that Alabama was in no immediate danger. Trump spent the ensuing week lashing out at journalists about their coverage of the mistake. He even used a Sharpie to include the state inside the hurricane’s path on a hastily annotated map.
The saga culminated in a brief, unsigned press release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Friday afternoon. It disavowed the Birmingham office’s tweet and suggested that Trump was right all along. He was not, and the intervention amounted to a startling effort to undermine public trust in a key provider of emergency information. The New York Times reported on Monday that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross reportedly threatened to fire top NOAA officials over the Birmingham office’s Twitter post. In a perfect snapshot of the era, Trump’s erroneous tweet now underscores the extent to which American governance now revolves around serving Trump rather than serving the American people.
This corrupt arrangement wouldn’t necessarily end when Trump leaves office in 2021 or 2025, either. The Atlantic’s McCay Coppins reported at length on Monday on the succession battle brewing between Ivanka Trump, an influential White House adviser, and Donald Trump Jr., who co-manages the family business with their brother Eric Trump. The president has long seen Ivanka as the natural heir to his business empire and seems to favor her over his other children. But Don Jr. has carved out a large political following of his own, making him a more natural fit to assume his father’s status in conservative politics—and perhaps his place in the Republican Party.
As Coppins noted, there’s nothing particularly unusual about American political families: the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, the Bushes, and the Adamses all reached the White House. What sets the Trumps apart is how little interest they show in the public interest compared to their own. “The Trumps will be a dynasty that lasts for decades,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale recently claimed. And unless the Trump Organization is nationalized at some point or the American electorate rejects them for all time, they’ll continue to rake in ill-gotten gains from public service every step of the way.