Trump's pernicious grift
Donald Trump has long been familiar with the perks of being a celebrity. When you're a star, people give you things for free. Sure, sometimes you have to smile through a boring awards show to get your high-dollar goodie bag, and sometimes you need to take 300 selfies a pop to earn your swag. But it's one of America's annoying little quirks that when you've reached a certain level of fame and fortune, people give you free goods and services.
In politics, it's supposed to be different, for the most part. You're a salaried public servant, and taking things for free is usually seen as tiptoeing up to bribery.
Still, when you're the president, the American people pay for just about everything — your housing, food, transportation, and security, plus a $400,000 salary, $50,000 expense account, $19,000 for entertainment, and a $100,000 tax-free travel fund. Presidents don't tend to carry cash. They are also not allowed to refuse their salary — so President Trump takes $1 a year and says he'll donate the rest, so far to various parts of the federal government. But those ostentatious good intentions aside, he is needlessly costing the U.S. taxpayers a lot of money, just because he can, and because he wants to.
Let's take security. Presidents absolutely need to be protected, and keeping their immediate families safe from abduction and harm is a matter of national security. The Secret Service provides the first and second families with around-the-clock protection, wherever they travel, with no set limits. But there is an annual salary and overtime cap on agents, $160,000, and more than 1,100 agents will have burned through that 2017 cap by the end of September, Secret Service Director Randolph "Tex" Alles told USA Today on Monday. "The president has a large family, and our responsibility is required in law," he said. "I can't change that. I have no flexibility."
Alles quickly tried to clean that up, pointing out that the Secret Service has been overworked and understaffed for years, and "this issue is not one that can be attributed to the current administration's protection requirements," adding that the Secret Service has sufficient funds for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends in September. But Congress already allocated an additional $120 million for presidential security in May, with roughly half going to the Secret Service and half going to local law enforcement in places like New York City and Palm Beach County, Florida.
Trump can't help that he has a large family — the Secret Service covers 18 members of the Trump family and 24 other people in the Trump administration, versus 31 people total in Barack Obama's administration. So what could Trump do? For starters, he could can ask his adult children, who frequently travel the world for pleasure or to run Trump's business, to decline Secret Service coverage and pay for private security. Presumably, they can afford it.
Trump himself could also stay in his government-issued mansion a bit more. His seven presidential stays at his Mar-a-Lago resort have cost taxpayers an estimated $3 million a trip, and his five visits to his New Jersey golf resort and weekend at Trump Tower have cost the Secret Service a bundle, too, with much of the money eventually going into Trump's own pocket since he cannot, by law, comp the Secret Service their rooms or golf carts to follow him around, former Secret Service Director W. Ralph Basham tells USA Today. But he can stay home or go to nearby Camp David, the presidential retreat used for occasional weekend getaways by his predecessors dating back to FDR.
Presidents have a stressful job, and they need to see the sun and blow off steam. No one should begrudge the president vacations, weekend retreats, or golf rounds. But there's a golf course at the already-fortified Joint Base Andrews right outside of D.C. — Obama used it fairly often. And it isn't clear that taxpayers get a good return on investment when Trump takes some R&R at one of his properties — on his last vacation, Trump came close to provoking a war with North Korea, blamed neo-Nazis and anti-racism protesters equally for deadly violence at a white supremacist rally, and spent hours watching cable news and tweeting about it.
"Absent an emergency, the president doesn't just have a right to say, 'We're going to spend more on the Secret Service than we need,'" Richard Painter, chief ethics officer in George W. Bush's White House and a critic of Trump, told USA Today, adding that taxpayers have a right to demand that Trump dial down his lifestyle. Trump's first Office of Government Ethics chief, Walter Shaub, agreed. "You've got this mentality that they're somehow nobility and entitled to have the American people pay for their vacations and their boondoggles and fun, when in reality it's their responsibility to serve us," he said. "Welcome to government service."
To his credit, the president and first lady Melania Trump went back to Camp David (for just the second time) this weekend. But old habits die hard. And when you're born into wealth, and have long basked in celebrity, it's probably easy to expect that things will just be given to you.
Trump said in October 2015 that "it it has not been easy for me," because "my father gave me a small loan of a million dollars" and he had to turn that into a fortune on his own. But that downplays the serious financial backing his father, Fred Trump — at one time one of the wealthiest men in America — provided his son. Donald Trump was able to draw at least $9 million from a trust set up by his father when he got into trouble with his failing casinos in the late 1980s and early '90s.
When the banks came to restructure the $4 billion he owed them in 1990 or send him into bankruptcy, they decided that he was worth more to them solvent, so they ate some big losses, forgave his personal liabilities, and gave him a $450,000 monthly allowance for "personal and household spending" on the condition that he help them sell off his properties. That $450,000 allowance — "just $14,516.13 a day, or $10.08 every minute of the day and night" — did not include the costs of operating his personal 727 jetliner or his 282-foot yacht, Kurt Eichenwald reported in The New York Times in 1990. When Trump reported a $916 million loss on his tax return in 1995, it's plausible that taxpayers picked up the slack over 18 years.
So, Trump is gonna Trump. But as the short-suffering Shaub noted at the beginning of Trump's presidency, we have ethics standards for the president because the fish rots from the head, so to speak, and if the president doesn't follow ethics guidelines, it's harder to get his appointees to do so. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, for example, perhaps didn't need to fly a $10,000-an-hour military jet with his wife to Kentucky last Monday to view the gold at Fort Knox — making him the first treasury secretary to do so since 1948, he tweeted — just as the solar eclipse was overhead.
This is the president we have. He has been a celebrity for decades and wealthy since he was born. Maybe it is too much to expect him to change. But it would be easier to take if he owned up to his entitlement. Instead, he has fashioned himself, in his latest iteration, as a "blue-collar billionaire" who will fight for the "forgotten" people and the working class. Blue-collar workers, however, pay their own way.