The Greatest Grift of All

Sipa via AP Images

Donald Trump gestures a thumbs up at the clubhouse of Trump International Golf Club, in Bedminster Township, New Jersey, November 20, 2016. 

As he stands in his gold-plated apartment in Trump Tower gazing out over Manhattan, Donald Trump has no doubt marveled at how in becoming president he has finally achieved the power and influence he so richly deserves. He always knew he was smarter than everyone else and more of a winner than all those nobodies who would carp and criticize, when they don't even have their own planes or are so weak they're still married to their first wives. He showed them all.

And now, it's time to really cash in. He's got the greatest business opportunity he's ever had, and he's not going to let it pass him by.

Surely you weren't naïve enough to believe him when Trump said his network of businesses and partnerships didn't pose any conflict-of-interest problems, because his grown children will run the business while he's president and he'll be completely focused on making America great. That was just something to tell the rubes, no more true than the promises a Trump University instructor would make to a mark as he browbeat them into maxing out their credit cards to move up to the Gold Elite seminar where the real investment secrets would be revealed.

Here's what has happened just in the last week or so:

  • Trump's Washington, D.C., hotel encouraged foreign diplomats to stay there when in the American capital, an invitation many thought it would be foolish to turn down. "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!' Isn't it rude to come to his city and say, 'I am staying at your competitor?'" one Asian diplomat told The Washington Post. That would indeed be a rudeness Trump would take notice of.
  • Trump held a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in which Ivanka Trump sat in. Like her brothers Don and Eric, Ivanka, who will be running the Trump Corporation, also sits on the transition's executive committee.
  • In a clever bit of branding synergy, Ivanka's company hawked the bracelet she wore during a 60 Minutes interview with her father.
  • Trump took time out from his transition duties to meet with three Indian developers who are building a Trump-branded apartment complex near Mumbai.

That's not to mention that it's looking like Trump's closest adviser will be his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a young man with so little understanding of government that when he met with administration officials to talk about the transition he was surprised to learn that the Obama staff will not in fact be staying on to serve President Trump. Every night Kushner will return home to Ivanka, and if you think he won't share information with her that could be advantageous to the Trump business, I've got a real estate seminar to sell you.

And there's the Trump University fraud case, which Trump settled by agreeing to pay the victims of his con $25 million. As David Frum said on Twitter, "Why did Trump settle the Trump U case? Because the time for puny million dollar scams has ended. The time for billion dollar scams has come." For some reason the fact that the president-elect just settled a fraud case for $25 million was less interesting to the news media than the fact that cast members of Hamilton implored Mike Pence not to oppress non-white Americans.

In doing all this now, before he even takes office, Trump is sending a very clear message to the world: If you want my attention and my favor, you'd better pony up. As former Federal Election Commission chair Trevor Potter wrote, having Trump's children run his company "will produce conflicts of interest of an unprecedented magnitude and create the appearance that he and his family are using his office to enrich themselves, even if they don't take advantage of the many opportunities to do so."

But let's be honest: The idea that the Trump kids wouldn't take advantage of the opportunities to enrich the family through a Trump presidency is downright laughable. Of course they will, and every dollar they scoop up will add to the president's personal fortune.

Consider what happens when Ivanka, Donny, and Eric take an exploratory business trip to some foreign country. They'll be greeted by the top political leadership, who will know that the president of the United States will quickly learn of the results of their visit. So the prime minister of this country might consider that instructing his diplomats to stay in Trump's hotel isn't quite enough of a gesture. It would be better for him to find a project being planned in his capital city and strongly encourage the developer to strike a licensing deal with the Trumps—one with extremely favorable terms.

This may sound like a modern version of the way medieval kings would expect all the landowners to come to the castle bearing trunks of gold to pay proper respect, lest they incur his wrath. And you may be wondering: Does Trump really think he can get away with this?

Yes he does.

Consider it from his perspective. Throughout the campaign he did things no candidate was supposed to do, in his campaign strategy and organization (not really having much of either) and in his behavior, whether it was insulting his opponents like a schoolyard bully, encouraging violence among his feral crowds, getting into fights with sympathetic citizens, or telling a Himalayan-sized mountain of lies. Despite all that, despite all the times supposedly wise observers said he was finished, he won. He proved them all wrong.

Sure, no American president has seen the White House as a vehicle for personal enrichment before. But that's just because they didn't have Donald Trump's creative vision. When Democrats and people in the media criticize him for it, he'll just mock them and act as if nothing's wrong. And if you think Republicans are going to do anything about it, you weren't paying much attention during the campaign.

So if people are saying it's unprecedented and inappropriate and vulgar for him to be using the White House to enrich himself, is Donald Trump going to care? Why should he? He got away with everything else, didn't he?

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