Trump abuses power in using public funds for private benefit
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When an American president speaks, the world listens. President John F. Kennedy declared that we would walk on the moon by the end of the 1960s. President Ronald Reagan called on the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall. And recently, President Donald Trump tweeted about the "very cool" event at his private golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. 

Since taking office, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE has repeatedly used the bully pulpit as a marketing tool, promoting his own hotels, resorts and golf courses through numerous tweets and press conferences. In one especially notable and shocking example, he took advantage of a summit with the president of China to put in a plug for the chocolate cake at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

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But the president isn't just the most visible public figure in the world; he's also the head of the vast federal bureaucracy, and his actions have made it clear to every federal employee — from cabinet secretaries on down — exactly how to get on the boss's good side: spend money at Trump properties.

 

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Small Business Administrator Linda McMahon and White House adviser Gary Cohn have all lived at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. at various points. Lower-level government employees have also taken the hint — most notably at the State Department, where embassy websites featured an article promoting Mar-a-Lago. The Washington Post reported that State spent over $15,000 on hotel rooms at the Trump Hotel in Vancouver, Canada. 

No other full-time government employee would be permitted to profit from their position like the president is. If a mid-level manager at a federal agency owned a bed and breakfast and instructed his employees to hold a retreat there, that would be a clear violation of the rules. The same principle should apply to the president. 

We have strong rules in place to prevent federal workers from feeling pressured to pay their superiors in any way: Government employees may not accept gifts from their subordinates valued at more than $10, and at most agencies, employees cannot even sell Girl Scout cookies during business hours. We also prohibit giving government business to companies in which government employees have a financial stake — except, as we are learning, the president.

The unfortunate fact is that current loopholes for the president make it difficult to stop Trump from accepting taxpayer money at his private establishments — a clear example of how legal is not always synonymous with ethical. But if Trump won’t stop asking for our money, then we should take steps to make the government stop giving it to him in the first place. 

The first thing we need is clear guidance from the watchdogs inside the government — the General Services Administration and the Office of Government Ethics — that Trump properties are off limits for government business: no meetings, no conferences, no rounds of golf, no dinners — even on personal time.

That guidance should also make it clear that no employee will receive favorable or unfavorable treatment based on his or her use of Trump properties or services. Until such guidance exists, employees will feel pressured to use Trump properties just in case the boss takes notice. (An exception should be available for Secret Service costs associated with the president’s frequent visits to his properties.)

Next, Congress should get the facts on how much money is flowing to the Trump Organization from the U.S. coffers. Some members of Congress have demanded such information from the Trump Organization and from federal agencies, but until the chairman of oversight committees sign on, the requests will lack teeth.

Finally, Congress should step up to the plate. The first thing they can do is prohibit taxpayer dollars from flowing to the Trump Organization. They can also update the conflict of interest laws to make this sort of self-dealing illegal. Legislation has been proposed to prohibit government agencies or employees from making payments to entities owned by the president or cabinet officials.

Walter Shaub, the outgoing head of the Office of Government Ethics, has an excellent set of proposals, as well. These kinds of policy would make sure that no future president can engage in such clearly unethical conduct.

In the meantime, citizens and journalists must demand information and accountability. The Freedom of Information Act is a powerful tool to enforce our right to monitor our public institutions. As individuals and groups obtain snippets of information, they should share it widely to build a complete picture of how American tax dollars are going to the private bank accounts of the president and his family.

The president abuses his power when he takes public funds for his private benefit. He also makes every one of us complicit in his conflicts of interest. But we are not powerless. It’s our money; we get to decide how it’s spent.

Austin Evers is the executive director of American Oversight, a group that monitors the Trump administration, aiming to hold it accountable and ensure a transparent and ethical government. Evers served most recently as senior counsel in the Department of State for oversight and transparency matters 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.