Donald Trump’s Interests vs. America’s, Secret Service Edition
A New York real-estate agency has begun advertising condominiums in Trump Tower as “The Best Value in the Most Secure Building in Manhattan.”
During the election, the Trump campaign put no small portion of its funds toward paying for use of the candidate’s own properties; perhaps the most notable of these expenditures was the nearly $170,000 the campaign spent in July on rent for its headquarters in Trump Tower. These expenses raised the possibility that, as he predicted in 2000, President-elect Donald Trump “could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.” Now that he will be president, he may be able to profit off of the Secret Service by virtue of the fact that he and his family will live in Trump Tower and fly in his private jets—which requires the agents tasked with guarding them to pay him rent and airfare.
The first way Trump could monetize his own protective detail is by having family members travel in his two planes and three helicopters. This is not so much speculative as foregone: 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. Once Trump takes office, he will fly exclusively on Air Force One, while Mike Pence will be riding Air Force Two. However, their families may 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.)
A bigger question regards Trump Tower in New York, where the president-elect appears likely to spend a significant amount of time. For the past few decades, it has been common practice for the Secret Service to provide protection for the president and vice president’s non-White House residences, which sometimes entails paying rent to the officeholder. (Joe Biden, for example, received $2,200 per month when the agency rented a cottage he owned near his home in Delaware.)
But Trump Tower is a unique case, as it’s not in Delaware but the middle of Manhattan. Already, pedestrians and tourists are chafing at the increased security around the building, Trump’s frequent use of which has required closing a block of 56th Street and multiple lanes of Fifth Avenue; with multiple outlets reporting that Trump’s wife Melania and 10-year-old son Barron are expected to stay at Trump Tower for at least part of his term, it appears that the consternation will continue, with an enormous price tag for taxpayers: According to the New York Post, it could cost as much as $3 million a year to rent out two of the building’s vacant floors, meaning that Trump will be making money off of his own security detail. Meanwhile, Reuters has reported that the city of New York is calling for federal funds to reimburse the costs of keeping up a security detail around Trump Tower.
This system creates an unusual set of conflicting interests for Trump regarding his own travel and residences. Though presidents as disparate as Dwight Eisenhower and Barack Obama have evoked partisan ire over time spent away from the White House, whether on the golf course or on vacation in Hawaii, only Donald Trump will actually have gained 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.
In fact, there are already signs that the Trump Organization has no qualms about making money off of the New York tower’s new security arrangements in more ways than one. According to Politico, just five days after the election, a prominent New York real-estate firm invoked Trump Tower’s new Secret Service detail as a selling point for a $2.1 million condominium, which it described as “The Best Value in the Most Secure Building in Manhattan.” Though the flier was issued by an outside agency, the president-elect’s corporation still stands to benefit from increased traffic through processing and other service fees, making the advertisement a clear example of how Trump stands to benefit off of his new position.
Since his election, an ever-increasing level of attention has been paid to the unprecedented conflicts of interest that President-elect Donald J. Trump seems likely to bring with him when he assumes office. His responses to the concerns have been varied and, at times, contradictory. His first statement on the subject, which came via Twitter, suggested that he would make little effort to avoid entangling his business and his office, and would instead attack those who point that out:
Prior to the election it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world.Only the crooked media makes this a big deal!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 22, 2016
A few days later, in a conference with the editorial staff of The New York Times, he appeared similarly defiant, asserting, “The law’s totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
Now, the president-elect appears to be shifting his stance, although just how much remains to be seen. In an early-morning tweetstorm, Trump announced that he will be “holding a major news conference” on December 15 about a plan “being crafted which take[s] me completely out of business operations,” although he stressed again that he is “not mandated to do this under the law.”
In response, the Office of Government Ethics issued a tweetstorm of its own lauding Trump for deciding to pursue “total divestiture,” which is not, in fact, what Trump promised. A later statement from the OGE’s spokesman Seth Jaffe has led to speculation that the posts were facetious and meant to imitate Trump’s signature tweeting style, an attempt to influence the president-elect’s decision on the subject, or both.
Central to the discussion is that, as Trump has repeatedly pointed out, the president and vice president are exempt from the Office of Government Ethics’ rules preventing conflicts of interest within the executive branch. More recently, attention has shifted to the Emoluments Clause, a relatively obscure section of the Constitution barring the chief executive from receiving gifts from foreign governments, which some experts say Trump might violate if his properties receive preferential treatment from other world leaders. However, case law on the clause’s possible application is sparse.
At any rate, legality does not imply propriety. Unless Trump acts to put appropriate distance between himself and his business ventures, these questions are likely to continue throughout his time in the Oval Office.