White House, Inc.

How can something be a “conflict of interest” if the people who do it don’t seem conflicted about it? Josh Marshall raises a good point.

[S]top talking about ‘conflicts of interest’. Those are guide rails meant to help ethical people to stay ethical or unethical people put on a show of it. There’s no show here. Trump is openly using the Presidency as the world’s greatest marketing opportunity.

So, for example, his Mar-a-Lago Club (where he has been spending a lot of weekends and recently met with the Japanese Prime Minister) doubled its membership fees after the election, to $200K per year. It’s a direct payment for access to the president (or the appearance of access).

Melania’s defamation lawsuit against The Daily Mail is pretty explicit about the marketing opportunities she sees in being First Lady:

The economic damage to Plaintiff’s brand, and licensing, marketing and endorsement opportunities caused by publication of the Mail Online’s defamatory article is multiple millions of dollars. Plaintiff had the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as an extremely famous and well-known person, as well as a professional model and brand spokesman, and successful businesswoman, to launch a broad-based commercial brand in multiple product categories, each of which could have garnered multi-million dollar business relationships for a multi-year term during which Plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world.

In retrospect, wasn’t it silly of Michelle Obama to waste her eight years of fame on unmarketable causes like childhood obesity? Pity poor Lady Bird Johnson, who spent her term as FLOTUS trying to “Make American Beautiful”, or foolish Nancy Reagan, who frittered away her “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” telling kids to “Just Say No” to drugs. How much cold, hard cash did any of them get for their efforts?

This week, Ivanka Trump’s prospects for plunder were in the spotlight. When Nordstrom’s dropped her brand because of falling sales, the President of the United States called them out. Richard Painter, who was an ethics lawyer in the Bush White House and is now at University of Minnesota, commented:

The president’s tweet — posted on his personal account and then re-sent from his White House account — is an act of intimidation. Nordstrom interacts with many executive branch agencies: the Department of Labor, the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service and others. Each one of these agencies will be headed by Trump appointees. Most will be staffed with other political appointees as well. The president is telling all of these people that he is very angry with Nordstrom. The message is clear, and it won’t take much for a political appointee in some agency to conceive of an ingenious way of ingratiating himself with the White House by making life difficult for the store chain.

… And now every other department store knows that it had better not make a similar “business decision” that displeases the president. In other words, do business with the Trump family and help the Trump family promote its products, or else.

Kellyanne Conway ingratiated herself with the president by doing some Ivanka marketing from the White House briefing room.

“It’s a wonderful line. I own some of it,” Conway told “Fox & Friends.” “I fully — I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”

Conway’s remark appears to violate the executive branch’s ban on staff endorsing products or companies. The regulation, from the Office of Government Ethics, also prohibits using public office for private gain of oneself or friends or relatives.

And I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that Heather Nauert from Fox and Friends is looking for a job at the White House and also tweeting about buying Ivanka stuff “in solidarity”. She couldn’t possibly think that Trump family marketing is part of a government job, could she? Wherever would she get such a notion?

What makes this behavior particularly galling to Democrats is the hypocrisy of it: Not so long ago Trump was regularly attacking Hillary Clinton for the apparent (though not particularly real) conflict between her management of the State Department and her connection to the Clinton Foundation, from which the Clintons have never received any direct benefit. Now government employees are openly working to put money into the pockets of the Trumps, and it’s all good.

The Trump defense for this egregious behavior is his usual somebody-else-started-it: Ivanka’s brand was targeted by an social-media boycott campaign #GrabYourWallet. “They’re using her to get to him,” Conway said.

Here’s the point that observation should bring to mind: Trump and his advisors (which formally includes Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner and in every practical sense includes Ivanka herself) should have divested their business interests and put their assets into blind trust. When public officials are actively involved in business, that opens them not just to bribery, but also to pressure from boycotts. But if the Trumps’ assets were in blind trust where they belong, #GrabYourWallet would be no threat to them.

As far as I can tell, no one in the White House is drawing that conclusion. Nothing I’m hearing from White House, Inc. indicates any sense of conflict over using the presidency to further the Trump family’s business interests. So if you want to talk about “conflicts of interest” talk about governing: It’s Trump’s responsibilities to the American people that he’s conflicted about, not his profiteering.

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  • eschultz72  On February 13, 2017 at 11:00 am

    I’m not sure I agree with Marshall’s premise, linguistically. In my understanding, “conflict of interest” just means that what’s best for someone personally is not the same as what’s best for an organization for which he is responsible… creating the danger (just as we’re seeing) of pursuing the former at the expense of the latter. The appearance, or how the person FEELS about it, doesn’t enter into the definition.

    • rossnerlmhc  On February 13, 2017 at 11:04 am

      I think WeeklySift was being sarcastic about that (and probably Marshall too). Of course it’s a conflict of interest, legally (and linguistically) speaking. But #45 appears to think that doesn’t matter, and the Republicans are giving him a pass on it.

    • weeklysift  On February 13, 2017 at 11:44 am

      What Marshall and I are both pointing to is the whole framing that goes along with “conflict of interest”. All of our usual ways of talking about that subject contain a prior assumption that honest people are trying to avoid temptation, or to prevent the public from getting the mistaken idea that personal financial considerations are driving policy. For the Trumps, all that framing is inappropriate: They’re openly trying to use their offices for profit.

      It would be like having an etiquette expert explain to your colleague why he shouldn’t have called you a “motherfucker”. All of etiquette is based on the idea that people want to live next to each other in peace. But that’s clearly not what the interaction was about to begin with.

  • Roger Green  On February 13, 2017 at 11:50 am

    Here’s another thing: https://thinkprogress.org/trump-north-korea-missile-test-mar-a-lago-f7ad5d501c5c The president is using his continued ownership of Mar-a-Lago to line his pockets.”‘Swanning through the club’s living room and main dining area alongside Abe, he was — as is now typical — swarmed with paying members, who now view dinner at the club as an opportunity for a few seconds of face time with the new President…’ To capitalize on the the premium people are willing to pay for access to the president, the Trump Organization recently doubled the Mar-a-Lago initiation fee to $200,000.” Orange has spent two of his three full weekends as president there.

  • Mary Scriver  On February 13, 2017 at 1:34 pm

    These marketing-based offences are so egregious that I can’t figure out why even the Repubs wouldn’t want Trump impeached. EXCEPT that they are probably holding the impeachment hostage until they get their Supreme Court nominee installed. At what point this is too dear a price on either side is open to fantasy.

    It’s like the recent photos of the nuclear trigger, the “football”, being left around on the floor during public events. The only answer has got to be that it’s disconnected. So then who has the power to operate the REAL trigger? Flynn, the hot-tempered, who loves Russia?

    • pauljbradford  On February 13, 2017 at 7:30 pm

      The nuclear “football” was never left unattended – it is always held by a military aide-de-camp. I assume you’re referring to the story about a key to classified information being left out when reporters were present (still very irresponsible): http://www.dailykos.com/story/2017/2/12/1632849/-Trump-left-a-key-to-classified-information-in-plain-view-in-Oval-Office

    • weeklysift  On February 16, 2017 at 3:21 pm

      If some congressional Republican leader made that offer in good faith — you let Gorsuch past and we’ll start moving on impeachment — I’d take it in a heartbeat. Of course, “in good faith” is the problem; there’s nobody on that side whose word means much to me these days.

      • Mary Scriver  On February 16, 2017 at 4:02 pm

        Anyone interested in making a swap for the resignation of Trump may simply be observing that the situation lends itself to a Dutch auction and be waiting to see how far down the value of Trump can go. I’d bet “pretty far.” I was interested in Netanyahu’s air of amusement during his visit, Trump calling him familiarly “Bebe” and “Bebe” hailing Trump’s son-in-law as near his own family. So cozy.


  • By Protest that Endures | The Weekly Sift on February 13, 2017 at 11:22 am

    […] This week’s featured posts are “Your Sift-Archive Review for the Trump Era” and “White House, Inc.“. […]

  • By The Peril of Potemkin Democracy | The Weekly Sift on February 20, 2017 at 10:14 am

    […] we ought to be paying attention to all the ways Trump and his cronies are setting themselves up to profit from his presidency. Or maybe the profiteering is small potatoes next to the alt-right influence of Steve Bannon, whose […]

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