January 31, 2019
President Trump recently tweeted “Howard Schultz doesn’t have the “guts” to run for President! Watched him on @60Minutes last night and I agree with him that he is not the “smartest person.” Besides, America already has that! I only hope that Starbucks is still paying me their rent in Trump Tower!”
The president tweeting that a political rival should continue paying him rent presents an obvious conflict of interest. Issues like this would never come up if Trump followed the precedent set by his predecessors and the advice of ethics experts by divesting from his businesses. Instead, ethics problems stemming from Trump’s businesses have remained a consistent theme of his presidency.
CREW recently released a report that found that the president has accumulated more than 1,400 conflicts of interest since he took the oath of office. Perks for members of his clubs are well documented, from access to government leaders to appointments to government positions. But Trump’s conflicts also raise other significant questions. Do tenants of Trump properties also receive special treatment? Would Trump use the bully pulpit of the presidency to bash a private business because it’s tied to a political rival?
Until last year, Starbucks was one of only three retail businesses that occupied space in Trump Tower that was not Trump-branded. Nike and Gucci were the others. Nike could have run into trouble with Trump when they created an advertising campaign around Colin Kaepernick, the focal point of NFL players’ protests against racial injustice. Despite Trump frequently targeting Kaepernick, when Nike was involved, Trump’s response was muted, saying “I think it’s a terrible message. Nike is a tenant of mine. They pay a lot of rent.” As the Washington Post noted, concern for his bottom line prevailed; Nike paid Trump likely around $13 million per year in rent–at least until they moved last year. Forbes estimated that Starbucks pays around $200k per year in rent to the Trump Organization. We can’t know the exact amount Trump profits from these businesses, because much information related to Trump and his business’ finances, including their tax returns, remains hidden from public view.
The president’s disputes with business partners extend beyond tenants. Chef José Andrés pulled out of a restaurant deal after Trump made offensive comments about Mexican immigrants, which resulted in years worth of litigation. When Nordstrom stopped selling Ivanka Trump branded merchandise, the President tweeted “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”
Though Trump has a history of being vocal about business partners who cut ties altogether, it is more complicated if his adversaries are still paying rent. When it comes to his tenants, Trump seems conflicted when making the choice between profits or politics. He really shouldn’t be.