WASHINGTON — There are at least 230 wineries in the state of Virginia, but when a campaign arm of House Republicans recently chose one to host the winners of a fund-raising contest, it was the vineyard in Charlottesville owned by President Trump and operated by his family.
“We’ll take care of the hotel, flight, and send you to an exclusive Mother’s Day brunch for you and your family!” a description of the Mother’s Day prize package reads, noting that the retail value runs close to $2,850.
Last month, the Republican National Committee announced a chance for “two Great Americans” to get an all-expenses-paid trip to Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago club in Florida and attend one of the exclusive dinners the president has with members of the club.
Republicans, once ethically squeamish about blending Trump’s business and political operations in Washington, are now seizing on the cachet of the president’s upscale brands to help raise money and thwart Democrats in the 2018 midterms.
“It’s the selling of the presidency to an extent which we’ve never seen before. We’ve made the presidency a marketing tool and a political party is joining in this effort,’’ said Larry Noble, a former general counsel of the Federal Elections Commission who currently is senior director at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, a Washington ethics watchdog. “I don’t remember another situation like this.’’
Neither of the Republican committees nor the White House responded to several requests for comment.
Former president Bill Clinton famously allowed fat-cat political contributors to stay overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House during the 1990s, generating intense controversy. But raffling off access to the luxury properties of a sitting president appears to be something new.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the arm charged with preserving the party’s majority in the House during the upcoming 2018 midterm elections, announced the Mother’s Day fund-raiser in February, inviting people to “donate $10 for a chance to receive an all expenses paid trip to Charlottesville, Virginia and a stay at the Trump Winery.”
The Republican National Committee’s contest for donors to win a dinner at Mar-a-Lago was a raffle that didn’t require a political contribution but linked participants to a fund-raising page after they submitted their names. It offered a round-trip ticket to Palm Beach and admittance to a dinner commemorating Trump’s inauguration to be held at the private club. The contest rules stated the retail value of the trip was $3,000. Trump ultimately did not attend the Jan. 20 event, because he remained in Washington to deal with the government shutdown that weekend.
“The party is helping promote his businesses, just like he’s using the presidency to promote his business,” said Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer for George W. Bush. “Trump is sending the message that his businesses and the United States government are very much intertwined, and by the way, the Republican Party is sending that same message with these fund-raisers.”
In the past, White House officials have consistently shrugged off any suggestion that Trump’s expansive business interests present any conflict for the president or his family.
But determining where Trump’s political influence ends and his business interests begin has become increasingly difficult over the last year. The general reaction among establishment politicians in Washington — after a flurry of attention soon after Trump’s inauguration — has been a collective shrug.
In Washington, the gold-plated rooms of the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, less than 10 blocks from the White House, have become a hub for those who crave access to the politically powerful, with some conservative figures refusing to meet with reporters anywhere else.
“President Trump has made no secret of his desire to profit from the presidency, and these party-related events at his properties are more examples of that,” said Norman Eisen, board chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former White House lawyer.
“This is a transgression of longstanding presidential practice,” Eisen said. “Presidents of both parties have long separated from their businesses in order to, among other things, avoid exactly this kind of exploitation.”
When Trump visited the Trump International Hotel in Hawaii with Chief of Staff John Kelly in November, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders praised the hotel — a private business Trump has promised to separate himself from while in office.
“The president stopped by the Trump hotel on his way to the airport,” Sanders said. “It has been a tremendously successful project and he wanted to say hello and thank you to the employees for all their hard work.”
Trump shocked legal observers in 2016 when he announced during the presidential transition that he would not divest from his companies during his White House tenure, but rather hand operating responsibility over to his two sons — who promised to separate family financial interests from government matters. He held a press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower, which served as the de facto transition headquarters, where he displayed stacks of paperwork as proof the family was doing the hard work of separating their personal businesses from their soon-to-be government roles.
Still, Trump’s refusal to divest was one of the first true controversies of his presidency, and critics say his decision signaled to everyone from Republican lawmakers to lobbyists from foreign governments a surefire way to legally line the president’s pockets. Since Trump entered office, GOP lawmakers and their campaigns have spent thousands holding fund-raisers at Trump-branded properties and membership prices have skyrocketed at Trump golf courses and at his private club in Florida.
The Trump Organization, which had promised to pay all profits made from foreign governments during Trump’s tenure to the US Treasury, sent a check to the Treasury Department for an undisclosed sum of money this week. The Trump Organization refused to provide additional details on how much money foreign governments had spent since Trump’s inauguration, or name those doing the spending.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, was denied a permanent security clearance this week partly over concerns that his real estate holdings could create conflicts of interests in his foreign policy work, according to a report from The Washington Post.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son who holds no public office and is the interim head of The Trump Organization while his father is in Washington, recently blurred ethical lines when he used a private trip to India give a speech on foreign relations.
Such examples are part of what forced Walter Shaub to resign last July as director of the US Office of Government Ethics. He has since emerged as one of the White House’s harshest critics on Twitter, particularly when it comes to ethical dilemmas.
“In what universe is this gigantic Trump conflict of interest and potential national security risk even a little bit ok? Spoiler alert: None,” he tweeted last week, in response to a Forbes report that said The Trump Organization made more than $125 million from commercial tenants last year.
“This metastasized conflicts of interest cancer started spreading the moment Trump refused to divest his conflicts of interest. I warned before his inauguration that the rot at the top would spread,” Shaub tweeted another time.
But the challenge facing Shaub, Painter, and other ethics lawyers is one of enforcement.
Though each are quick to point out how Trump and his family are flouting presidential conventions, it is unclear whether any of that amounts to a broken law. And even if it did, it is even more unclear that any government arm would go about forcing changes within the Trump administration.
“What we have to look at is what rules do we need in the future to limit this type of abuse?” Noble said. “We’re being whipsawed ethically, and Republicans seemed have made a decision is in challenging this or in slowing this down.”
One nonprofit, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, sued Trump along with an association of restaurants over the hotel ownership. The lawsuit alleged that Trump was in violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which states the president or any other federal official cannot take gifts or payments from foreign governments.
The lawsuit was dismissed in December 2017, because the judge said the plaintiffs lacked proper standing to sue. CREW filed an appeal in January.
On its website, CREW has a timeline of more than 500 alleged conflicts of interests involving Trump, from business entanglements to golf course appearances.
Trump has been in office for 404 days.
Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWesley