President Donald Trump’s decision to retain ownership of his business while in office means that he can profit from government entities that are obligated to patronize his properties. For the Secret Service, which sets up a protective perimeter around the president and vice president’s non-White House residences, this means paying the president’s company, and by extension the president, to rent space in Trump Tower in New York. It also, apparently, makes it possible for the Secret Service to get into a dispute with the Trump Organization over the lease.
For the past few decades, setting up such details, and occasionally paying rent to the officeholder, has been common practice. Vice President Joe Biden, for example, reportedly received $2,200 per month when the agency rented a cottage he owned near his home in Delaware.
But Trump Tower, a hybrid residential and commercial building in the middle of Manhattan, is a unique case. Within days of the election, pedestrians and tourists were chafing at the increased security around the building, which Trump used as the headquarters for his transition team and where his wife Melania and youngest son Barron stayed for the first few months of his presidency. Though Trump himself has not yet stayed in the building since taking office, the Secret Service has, at a potentially unprecedented cost: The New York Post estimated in November 2016 that renting out two of the building’s floors, as the Secret Service intended to do, could cost as much as $3 million per year, meaning Trump could be profiting substantially off of the security detail. Meanwhile, according to Politico, just five days after the election, a prominent New York real-estate firm presented the heightened security as a selling point for a $2.1 million condominium in the building, illustrating yet another way the president could stand to profit from the security presence.
According to The Washington Post, the arrangement has also created tension between the Secret Service and the president’s company. In July, amid a dispute over the conditions of the lease, the Secret Service moved out of the building and into an adjacent trailer. Whether the Trump Organization and the Secret Service remain in negotiations over the lease is currently unclear.
The situation demonstrates how the president’s decision to retain his business interests conflicts with his duties as president. National-security experts have noted that even if Trump is not physically present, Trump-branded properties around the world are in increased danger precisely because of their association with the president. The Trump Organization and the Secret Service’s inability to work out a deal for Trump’s detail to stay in Trump Tower potentially puts not only the president but also the residents, employees, and customers of the business in increased danger. And if, as two anonymous sources said, price was one of the sticking points in the negotiation, that would mean the president’s business interest—that is, making as much money from renting out his properties as possible—has come into direct conflict with national security.
Another way Trump could profit from his protective detail is by having family members travel in his two planes and three helicopters. Over the course of the campaign, the Secret Service, which traditionally pays for its own travel during elections, spent $2.74 million to fly on a plane owned by one of Trump’s own companies. While in office, Trump flies on Air Force One, while Mike Pence rides Air Force Two. However, their families might still be flying on Trump’s private planes, along with their protective details, which would effectively direct even more money to Trump. (Previous first families have flown with a detail, whose legal purview covers “the immediate family members,” but none have done so on planes they themselves own.)
This system creates a set of conflicting interests for Trump regarding his own travel and residences. Though presidents as different as Dwight Eisenhower and Barack Obama have evoked partisan ire over time spent away from the White House, whether on golf courses or on vacation in Hawaii, only Donald Trump will actually have made money from his and his family’s travels. And if, while in office, Trump visits properties he owns other than Trump Tower—his buildings in other U.S. cities like Chicago and Miami, for example, or his golf course and resort in Scotland, or one of the many international hotels bearing his name—he stands to gain from the stays for which his security detail (and, by extension, taxpayers) may be paying. Moreover, the more his family members fly on his planes, whether they are running his business on his behalf or running interference with foreign leaders, the more the Secret Service will end up paying for seats alongside them.
President Donald Trump still has not taken the necessary steps to distance himself from his businesses while in office. In accordance with a plan that he and one of his lawyers, Sheri Dillon, laid out at a press conference on January 11, Trump has filed paperwork to remove himself from the day-to-day operation of his eponymous organization. However, numerous ethics experts have voiced strenuous objections to the plan, which they say does very little to resolve the issue: As long as Trump continues to profit from his business empire—which he does whether or not he is nominally in charge—they say, the possibility that outside actors will attempt to affect his policies by plumping up his pocketbook will remain very much in play.
Several of Trump’s critics have moved forward with legal action. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, filed a lawsuit alleging that Trump’s business holdings violate the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which makes it illegal for government officials to “accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” CREW’s bipartisan legal team includes, among others, Norm Eisen and Richard Painter, who served as ethics lawyers under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, respectively; Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University; and Zephyr Teachout, a professor at Fordham University (and former congressional candidate) who is considered an authority on the emoluments clause. All have been vocally critical of Trump’s continued refusal to sell off his business, and are now taking their case to court to argue that several of Trump’s businesses present avenues by which foreign governments could seek to influence the president by, for example, booking stays at one of his hotels or renting space at one of his properties. Additionally, the lawsuit seeks to force Trump to reveal his tax returns, something every president has done since Gerald Ford but which Trump has refused to do, significantly limiting the public’s ability to understand the president’s finances. When asked about the lawsuit, Trump described it as “totally without merit.” Eisen was quick to respond on Twitter, offering to “debate Trump (or his chosen champion) on the merits of our case anytime,” making it clear that CREW intends to continue to pursue its case. (CREW has also filed a separate complaint to the General Services Administration arguing that Trump has violated the lease on his Washington, D.C. hotel, which states that “no ... elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”)
Though CREW is the first group to bring a lawsuit against President Trump, it may soon have company. According to The New York Times, Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, has said that his organization is looking for a plaintiff to sue Trump for violating the emoluments clause, although with a different claim to legal standing: While CREW intends to demonstrate that the group itself has suffered financial harm because the need to focus on the emoluments clause has diverted its resources away from other worthy causes, the ACLU is hoping to find a hotel or bed-and-breakfast owner that can prove he or she has lost business to one of Trump’s hotels during his presidency.
CREW’s lawsuit is just the latest development in what promises to be a continuing saga regarding Trump’s many conflicts of interest that began almost as soon as he won the presidency. Along with his unprecedented wealth, Trump brings to the office unique and gravely concerning entanglements that, whether he recognizes their effects or not, threaten to undermine his decision-making as president. The plan Trump and Dillon announced on January 11 would do very little to resolve the conflicts: It places control of his assets in the hands of his two adult sons and a longtime associate of their father’s with what so far amounts to a pinky-swear assurance that, despite their proximity to the president, they will not discuss any aspect of the business with him. On top of that, the plan supposedly would terminate several of the Trump Organization’s pending deals and place a ban on new foreign deals, two conditions undermined by the announcement that the organization would be moving forward with expanding its golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Even before his most recent plan was laid out, Trump has attempted to deflect criticism by repeatedly asserting that the law barring executive-branch officials from maintaining financial holdings or business ties that overlap with their duties does not apply to the president or vice president. In this, he is correct; the law, passed in 1989, exempts the two chief executives from conflict-of-interest rules on the understanding that their purview is so broad that it would be impossible for them to completely disentangle themselves.
Regardless, legality does not imply propriety. Unless Trump acts to put actual distance between himself and his business ventures, these questions are likely to continue throughout his time in the Oval Office. On top of the aforementioned legal actions, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, has declared Trump’s efforts insufficient, remarking, “I don’t think divestiture is too high of a price to pay to be the president of the United States,” and a number of Senate Democrats have introduced legislation that would force Trump to divest or face impeachment.