President Trump’s legacy of corruption, four years and 3,700 conflicts of interest later
Here’s what you need to know:
As president, Donald Trump has flouted all kinds of norms, starting with his decision not to divest from his business interests while in office. That set the stage for an administration marked by self-interest, profiteering at the highest levels and more than 3,700 conflicts of interest.
Next week marks the end of Donald Trump’s term as President. In his wake, he will leave behind a legacy of profound corruption and egregious conflicts of interest, the repercussions of which will echo for years after he is gone. In the last four years, Trump has flouted all kinds of norms set by previous presidents, starting with his decision not to divest from his business interests while in office, setting the stage for what became an administration marked by placing self-interest and profiteering at the highest levels above the public interest and culminated in a deadly insurrection that was rooted in the same self-serving ethos.
Trump ran as the “law and order” candidate who would “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C. Instead he did the opposite, using his power as the President to boost his own profits through frequent visits to his hotels and golf courses, relentless promotion of his properties, and countless other interactions between the Trump Organization and the government. By keeping these properties, Trump provided corporate lobbyists, foreign actors, special interests and anyone else seeking political clout a way to gain access to his administration. Trump opened the presidency up for business, and for four years, influence was for sale.
Since Trump’s inauguration, CREW researchers meticulously tracked these conflicts of interest resulting from interactions between the Trump Organization and the government, or those trying to influence it. CREW’s tracking is rigorous but by no means comprehensive. There are likely hundreds, perhaps even thousands more conflicts that we have no way of knowing about. Four years and more than 3,700 conflicts of interest later, there is absolutely no doubt that Trump tried at every turn to use the presidency to benefit his bottom line.
Visits to Trump properties
Weeks after President Trump swore he’d have no involvement with his businesses as president, he decided to pay one a visit, traveling to Mar-a-Lago for the first weekend in February 2017. The ambassadors of Switzerland, Hungary, Afghanistan, Italy, Denmark, Peru, Colombia, and Sweden had the same idea that weekend.
That first visit was a harbinger of what would become near-constant practice over the next four years, where foreign officials, special interest groups, and others would gain access to the president and his administration through payments to businesses he still profited from in office.
After campaigning on the promise that he wouldn’t have time to leave the White House or play golf, President Trump visited his properties 547 times while in office, paying 145 visits to Mar-a-Lago, 328 visits to his golf courses, and 33 visits to the Trump hotel in Washington. He often brought other senior government officials along, sending a message to his administration and those who would like to curry favor with it that his properties are open to their business.
Trump promoted his properties by conducting official business there. He held a press conference at Trump Tower, signed four executive orders at his Bedminster resort, and hosted eight heads of state at Mar-a-Lago. When he couldn’t promote his businesses and run the government at the same time, he opted to promote his businesses over doing his job. In November, for example, he signed out of a G-20 summit to visit his Virginia golf course.
Trump wasn’t alone: 346 executive branch officials made 993 visits to Trump properties during Trump’s term, most often patronizing the president’s DC hotel. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner paid the greatest number of visits to Trump properties, 78 and 55, respectively. Vice President Pence visited Trump’s businesses 33 times while in office, including going to his DC hotel 22 times.
Trump administration officials often mingled with special interests and foreign officials at Trump properties, rewarding them with access for their patronage. Special interest groups likely spent more than $13 million at Trump properties, and 47 Trump officials attended at least one of these events at a Trump property, giving businesses access to power while enriching the president.
President Trump’s visits to his properties also sent a message to Republicans in Congress that paying their own visits to Trump properties was a way to ingratiate themselves with his administration. Many took the hint: 143 members of Congress made 361 visits to Trump businesses. Sen. Lindsey Graham made the greatest number of visits, with 28, followed by Rep. Matt Gaetz, who went to one 22 times, and Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who visited a Trump property 20 and eighteen times respectively.
Trump properties’ inextricable connection to the president made them a part of the Republican Party fundraising apparatus, with 69 members of Congress attending a political event at a Trump property over the last four years. Another 18 White House officials went to one or more, including President Trump, 32 times, and Vice President Pence on 16 occasions.
Foreign officials also patronized Trump properties: CREW tracked 150 officials from 77 foreign governments that visited a Trump property during Trump’s term — many of whom visited to attend an event hosted or sponsored by a foreign government or connected entity. Once again, Trump administration officials rewarded foreign interests for patronizing their boss. Twenty Trump officials attended a foreign government group’s event at a Trump property over the last four years.
Often, visits to Trump properties coincided with White House access. Most recently, seven Michigan state legislators visited the Trump hotel, where some toasted Dom Perignon after meeting with the president at the White House. During the Trump administration, 80 state officials visited Trump properties, including nineteen governors.
Special interests and foreign officials have also gotten White House access while patronizing Trump properties. Five special interest groups, including the American Petroleum Institute, have had White House meetings concurrent with a Trump hotel event. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis had breakfast at Trump’s hotel the day before meeting with the president for a news conference at the White House.
Political and special interest spending
In the past four years special interest groups, foreign governments, and political groups together held more than 250 events at 14 Trump properties, likely resulting in tens of millions of dollars of revenue for the Trump Organization. President Trump’s properties offer these groups unbridled access to the nation’s most powerful policy makers. Many of these events have been attended by high ranking government officials, and sometimes even the President himself. In all, special interest groups have hosted 142 events, political groups have hosted 100, and foreign governments or foreign government-sponsored groups have hosted another 13.
Trump properties have become hot spots for special interest groups to hold lavish events which have likely generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the Trump Organization. While these prices may seem astronomical, it is a small price for an industry to pay to get facetime with high-powered government officials, and the possibility to save billions thanks to favorable policies. At least 47 executive branch officials and 41 members of Congress have been to a special interest’s event at a Trump property, where they likely mingled with corporate executives and lobbyists.
Special interest spending
It’s clear that some special interests have received something they wanted from the Trump administration after spending massive amounts of money at Trump properties. According to research by CREW, as many as 30 special interests have received favorable policy outcomes from the Trump Administration around the time that they held an event at a Trump property.
Political committees also spent huge amounts of money for candidates, elected officials, and donors seeking to get into the good graces of Trump and his allies. The president’s own political operation, consisting of his campaign, a joint fundraising committee with the RNC, and the super PAC America First Action, together spent more than $7 million and held 32 events at Trump properties. Most recently, the joint fundraising group held a lavish election night party at Trump’s Washington, D.C. hotel where donors likely spent huge amounts of money for hotel rooms and event tables.
Altogether, political groups spent $11.8 million at Trump properties during Trump’s term, including more than $3 million at Trump’s DC hotel, $1.8 million at his Doral resort, and nearly half a million dollars at Mar-a-Lago. For congressional or state-level candidates, having an event at a Trump property could mean an endorsement from the President. Behind Trump’s PACs and campaign, 49 political groups have held 100 fundraisers at Trump properties. Similar to special interest groups, these events are also attended by top officials—26 executive officials other than Trump and 69 members of Congress, to be exact—giving wealthy donors face time with some of the country’s most powerful people.
Foreign governments have similarly taken advantage of the opportunity to make payments to the U.S. President. Former government officials have told the Washington Post that foreign government officials make a point to patronize Trump’s properties since it shows “a close bond with the United States.”
Official promotion of Trump properties
In the presidency, Trump found a once-in-a-lifetime marketing opportunity for his eponymous business empire. Over the course of his four-year term, he used it to sell his properties to the world. In official remarks, interviews, and private meetings with U.S. and foreign leaders, President Trump persistently found—or manufactured—opportunities to shower his hotels, resorts, and condo buildings with praise.
Eight foreign governments including Turkey and Kuwait have held events at Trump properties. The Kuwaiti Embassy and Romanian Consulate both held events that had previously been hosted at other locations before Trump’s presidency, and Kuwait continued to hold their National Day celebration at the hotel for three years in a row.
Trump Organization executives have challenged the notion that the properties attract people who want to influence the Trump administration. If this is true, it will be interesting to see if Trump’s properties retain their popularity after he leaves office in January, or if they lose business from special interest groups, political campaigns, and foreign governments once he’s gone.
During his time in office, President Trump mentioned or referred to Trump Organization businesses 378 times. These promotions not only drew the public’s attention to them but also let special interests and foreign governments know how near and dear Trump’s businesses—and their customers—are to the president.
The president mentioned or referred to his Mar-a-Lago resort—which doubled its initiation fee in the weeks before Trump took office—more than 50 times while in office. He promoted his Bedminster resort 25 times and his Washington hotel on 20 occasions. He brought up The Apprentice, which he continued to receive income from, 50 times in office. In recent weeks, he’s reportedly suggested he may reboot the series once he’s out of office, reaping the benefits from four years of taxpayer-funded ads.
Other White House officials followed the president’s lead, lauding Trump Organization properties with praise in interviews, official remarks, and on social media. White House officials mentioned or referred to Trump businesses 111 times during the last four years, promoting the president’s Mar-a-Lago club more than 50 times.
Frequent visits to Trump properties also served as opportunities to promote them. Then-Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley posted to Instagram a video of the “iconic golden escalator at the ever iconic Trump Tower” while at the property, and shouted out the “incredible Par3, 14th Hole at Trump International Golf Links & Hotel Doonbeg, Ireland” while there.
And the promotion went both ways, with the Trump Organization drawing attention to its connection to the president. A 2017 brochure for the president’s Bedminster resort advertised the possibility of President Trump stopping by weddings at the club, a suggestion the president made good on several times. When the president visited his golf resort in Doonbeg, Ireland in 2019, the resort tweeted, “What an honour it was to have the President of the United States @POTUS and the First Lady @FLOTUS stay with us in Doonbeg,” along with a video of Marine One landing in front of the club.
Though it wasn’t a top destination for Trump officials to visit, the Trump Doral resort near Miami was paid a great deal of lip service by the White House. It was also known to be struggling financially. The Washington Post reported that business had been lagging in recent years. Over the last four years, Trump promoted it 29 times and other White House officials gave it thirteen promotional mentions.
The Trump Doral resort was also the subject of the president’s most egregious promotional effort. In August 2019, he used speaking time at the G-7 summit in France to preview an announcement from his administration that the next year’s event would be held at his own resort. He claimed the Secret Service wanted to do it there, but records obtained by CREW showed quite the opposite. In the course of the announcement, the president praised his resort’s “magnificent buildings” and “incredible conference rooms” to foreign leaders and press.
The kind of effusive language Trump used to promote his golf resort to world leaders was, well, par for the course. President Trump and White House officials referred to Trump Organization businesses as “beautiful” 17 times in public remarks, “great” 15 times, and “wonderful” on 3 occasions.
The future of the Trump Organization
Trump’s post-presidency plans are uncertain, but one thing about them is clear. Trump spent his entire presidency using his office to promote his businesses, and once he leaves office he will continue to reap the benefits of four years of presidential boosterism.
Ex-White House Director of Communications Anthony Scaramucci, a critic who was once a member of Trump’s inner circle, has shared suspicions that Trump’s campaign was meant to create publicity for his struggling properties, and that he had no real expectation of winning the election. Trump’s surprise upset win in 2016 was the best business opportunity of his life.
After winning the 2016 presidential election, President Trump said he would separate himself from the Trump Organization while in office. Instead, he used his power as President to promote his brand, and far from distancing himself from his businesses, Trump has continued to manage the Trump Organization while in office. According to the New York Times, Trump has asked staff at his properties about how business is doing. On another occasion, he instructed his son to have a staff member fired. He was kept abreast of his club members from the Oval Office and was provided updates on which groups had booked conferences at his hotels. It’s no surprise, then, that he’s expected to return to his company after leaving office, asTrump friend and business partner Phil Ruffin has predicted he will.
Trump swore he would not make foreign deals as president. But that didn’t stop his brand from acquiring foreign trademarks over the last few years, setting the stage for foreign deals once he leaves office. In the course of his presidency, one of Trump’s companies has received almost 70 trademarks from 11 foreign governments including China, Argentina, and the European Union. Granting foreign trademarks to Trump is a tool that foreign governments may use to curry favor with the Trump administration.
The saga of Trump's Argentina trademarks
Nov 09, 2016
Trump won the Presidency.
Nov 10, 2016
The developer of the Trump Punta Del Este Tower in Uruguay facilitated a phone call between Trump Organization EVP Eric Trump and Argentina’s then-foreign minister. The developer then announced that construction on a Trump Tower in Argentina would commence in September 2017, though these plans never came to fruition.
Nov 14, 2016
Then-Argentine President Mauricio Macri called Trump to congratulate him on winning the election. An Argentinian journalist claimed that Trump used the call to “lobby” Macri for a Trump development in the country.
Nov 17, 2016
YY Development Group announced that construction on a Trump Tower in Argentina could commence in the summer of 2017, though these plans never came to fruition.
Dec 27, 2017
One of Trump’s companies applied for two trademarks in Argentina, covering real estate affairs and building construction.
Apr 10, 2018
The opposition period on the trademarks closed.
Apr 30, 2018
Less than one month after the close of the opposition period the US reached a deal with Argentina to eliminate tariffs on steel and aluminum.
Sep 05, 2019
Ivanka Trump visited Argentina. During her visit the US government approved $400 million in aid for infrastructure.
Nov 06, 2019
Argentina approved both trademarks. These were the first trademarks from the country that Trump received during the Presidency.
Dec 02, 2019
The United States reimposed the steel and aluminum tariffs on Argentina. Trump defended this action with claims that Argentina was manipulating its currency, though economic experts denied these claims
Aug 12, 2020
Trump’s company receives a new trademark in Argentina for the name “Trump” that includes club services, conferences, golf facilities, and recreation facilities
His brand has also expanded existing properties overseas while Trump was in office, raising the same types of conflicts concerns that new developments would. In the past four years Trump’s company continued to develop its overseas projects and sent its top executives to meet with foreign business partners and sell Trump properties, with American taxpayers footing the bill for nearly $100,000 in Secret Service costs incurred during the trip. In coming years, the Trump Organization is expected to revisit or pursue new projects in foreign countries such as India, China, Colombia, Brazil, and Turkey.
While Trump Organization executives traveled around the world, Trump had foreign leaders in countries where he does business come to him. Late last year, an Indonesian official came to Washington, D.C. for an unannounced, closed-door meeting at the White House with Trump, Ivanka, and Jared Kushner. While Indonesian press reported that the meeting was in regards to the U.S. investing in Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund, neither the Indonesian government nor the White House published detailed notes from the meeting. Over the past few years the Indonesian conglomerate MNC Group has been developing two Trump-branded properties in Indonesia.
Ivanka Trump has similarly seemed to use her father’s power to expand her brand abroad. Last year, her clothing brand received trademarks in Canada and China after it was shut down amid ethics concerns.
The ways that Trump has used the Presidency to benefit his personal financial interests are seemingly endless. Major conflicts of interests have arisen even during the administration’s response to the coronavirus crisis. While small businesses across the country pleaded for rent relief from landlords, Trump Organization EVP Eric Trump requested that the GSA lower rent payments for the Trump Hotel in D.C. In a statement to the agency, he asked that they “treat us the same” as other businesses. Research by CREW found at least 27 total Trump administration policies with the potential to help the Trump Organization.
The rest of the Trump family’s post presidency plans may also involve making money from Trump’s presidency. Trump administration officials have predicted that Jared and Ivanka might pursue business opportunities in parts of the world where Trump is popular, which tend to be places where corruption is high.
In the coming weeks and months, the country will start to unravel the damage that has been done by the Trump presidency to our nation’s ethics regime, and the Trump family will embark on a post-presidency career likely aimed at profiting off their brief stint in government, trying to turn a buck before their debt comes due.
But no matter what happens, we will be watching.