It's Started: Paying Off the Trump Family for Access
While the Trump team is often criticized for lack of transparency, on one front, it has been more than forthcoming—namely, how to gain access to the administration, a strategy that begins and ends with cold hard cash. If you have the means to spend tens of thousands of dollars, you can buy face time with key members of the Trump administration, join an in-crowd of big donors with special access, or even have a sit-down to discuss your pet issues with a Trump surrogate. Since Trump is dispensing with no-longer-useful campaign ephemera, a better and far more truthful tagline than “Make America Great Again” might be: “Money Talks.”
Foreign diplomats have already figured out this message. The Washington Post interviewed a number of international dignitaries who are staying at Trump hotels in the hope of ingratiating themselves to the president-elect. “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’” one Asian diplomat told the newspaper. “Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’”
“Some might think it’s the right way to engage, to be able to tell the next president, ‘Oh, I stayed at your hotel,’” Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States, told the Post. “If I were still in government, I would discourage it, among other reasons because it can be questioned and looked at in a very poor light, as though you are trying to buy influence via a hotel bill.”
This would be a non-issue if Trump had any plans to divest from his many business holdings, which seems unlikely. The president-elect has been endlessly cagey about details related to the release of his holdings, most recently canceling a December 15 press conference to delineate his plans. Trump tweeted days ago that his two eldest sons, Eric and Don Jr., will take over the Trump Organization, which includes his many real estate ventures. But these kinds of promises from candidate and PEOTUS Trump—such as his vows to reveal his income tax and medical records—have gone unfulfilled for 18 months now.
The Trump trademark seems to be transaction. Before the election, there were charges that Trump bribed public officials to avoid fraud lawsuits against failed Trump University. Huffington Post’s Christina Wilkie offered a look at how the Trump Foundation seemed to exist solely as a platform for trading favors, taking in money from big corporations and offering perks in return.
In 2006, People magazine gave the foundation $150,000. Trump gave the magazine exclusive photos of his newborn son, Barron, in April of that year. NBC Universal gave the foundation $10,000 in 2007 and another $500,000 in 2012. Trump’s popular reality shows “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice” aired on NBC from 2004 to 2015. And in 2011, Comedy Central gave the foundation $400,000 as an appearance fee for the billionaire’s participation in The Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump.
Since the election, even maintaining an appearance of propriety has seemingly grown no more pressing. Trump has positively stuffed his cabinet with the campaign donors who wrote the biggest checks. Ivanka sat in on a meeting with her father and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as her own company was in the final stages of a deal with a major Japanese clothier. Donald Jr. and Eric—who as the inheritors of the private Trump Organization, should not be involved in executive office planning or decision-making—were among the attendees at PEOTUS’ meeting with tech leaders on Wednesday.
On Friday morning, an auction to buy access to Ivanka Trump, the president-elect’s daughter and a key member of his incoming administration, was called off after a New York Times article raised questions about the ethics of the offer. The auction site Charitybuzz featured a listing labeled “Enjoy Coffee with Ivanka Trump in NYC or DC,” to be attended by the highest bidder. The Times reported the funds would go to a foundation run by Eric Trump, with proceeds ultimately donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. However worthwhile the charitable cause, peddling a meeting with Ivanka—who will reportedly take on an advisory role akin to past first ladies, complete with an office in the East Wing—certainly bears all the markings of “pay for play,” the insulting catchphrase Trump used against opponent Hillary Clinton throughout the presidential campaign.
“You never, ever want to have government officials using their public office for the private gain, even for a worthy charity,” Norm Eisen, Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform in the Obama White House from 2009 to 2011. “That was how we did it.”
The Trump administration and the Trump family—which at this point are inextricably intertwined—clearly plan to take a different approach. The Times points to an upcoming gala and St. Jude fundraiser the Eric Trump Foundation has planned for February. A flyer for the “2nd Annual Mar-a-Lago Gala” posted on the organization’s site invites “benefactor opportunities” to donate at bronze, silver and gold levels up to $25,000. According to the Times, donors at the highest level “will be given special access.”
“This is just wrong,” Fred Wertheimer, president of government watchdog organization Democracy 21 told the Times in reference to the coffee date auction. “The president’s family should not be out raising money for whatever cause, in exchange for a potential influence buyer who wants to get his views to the president.”
Before it was taken down, bids to have coffee with Ivanka had reached nearly $78,000. The Times spoke with two of the highest bidders, including a U.K. investment banker who hoped the meeting would offer insights on the administration’s plans in countries where he invests. Russell Ybarra, a restaurateur whose $68,000 bid briefly topped the money heap, hoped to influence the Trump White House’s immigration policy. “I believe Ivanka is more open-minded a person you can reason with,” he told the Times.