Opinion | White House

Dollar signs of the times

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In the same press conference in which he admitted there was a quid-pro-quo in President Trump's request for the government of Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political rival in exchange for U.S. aid, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney announced that Trump has decided to hold next year's G-7 Summit meeting at the Trump National Doral in Florida.  

The announcement was hardly a surprise. Trump and his family have shown themselves perfectly willing to use his position to promote their financial interests, either by directly receiving money from entities seeking favor or benefitting from the incalculable value of publicity that comes every time they visit one of their properties, or both.  

Some have said that since Donald Trump came from show business - where appearances are the coin of the realm - he would do everything he could to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. But it's apparent he doesn't care how it looks. If he did, he wouldn't do it.

Nor, apparently, do his children. To start with, there is the unprecedented nepotism of his daughter and son-in-law serving as members of the White House staff. And let's not forget the questions surrounding how Ivanka managed to get approval for more than a dozen Chinese trademarks, or how the "charity" his son Eric runs spends its money

Ah, ethics. 

Harry S Truman, whose ethics were never questioned, famously kept a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that read "The Buck Stops Here." I have not been in the Oval Office recently, but I would not be the least bit surprised if Trump has a sign on his desk that reads "The Buck Is Made Here." 

The most recent example came just a few days ago when Donald Trump, Jr. was paid big bucks by the University of Florida to speak to students. Lining his custom-made suit pockets with $50,000 from the students' activities fees shows a startling arrogance, appalling sense of entitlement and deeply disturbing contempt for anything approaching decency. How dare he - the son of a billionaire - take money from a non-profit educational organization to advocate for his father's divisive political agenda?     

When I served on Ronald Reagan's White House staff, I was often part of the team that helped select sites for major presidential events. It went without saying that any situation that could in any way suggest even the slightest conflict of interest in terms of real or perceived benefit to the Reagans, their family or any personal friends, was off limits.

The Reagans cared deeply about the sacred trust they had been given as occupants of the White House and would not tolerate anything that seemed as though they or people close to them were benefitting from the presidency. That rule was kept in place after they left the White House, too.

I was director of public affairs in Ronald Reagan's post-presidency office in Los Angeles. A few days after we settled in, the senior staff met with him to discuss upcoming public appearances. Before we began to review the list of invitations that had come in, Reagan told us that he was looking forward to being back on what he called "the mashed potato circuit."  

He wanted us to know that he and Nancy had decided they would not accept any money from colleges or charities - only from for-profit businesses. We faithfully implemented his marching orders. 

Maybe too faithfully. In 1989 Nancy and Ronald Reagan were hired by the Japanese media conglomerate Fujisankei Communications Group to make multiple appearances and speeches in Japan over more than a week's time, for which they were paid $2 million. 

Compared to what more recent former presidents and their families have earned and continue to earn for speeches and books, that sum seems quaint today. But back then, it was enough to cause a lot of negative publicity for the Reagans, who were criticized for what some saw as "cashing in" on the presidency. That bothered them a lot, so we on his staff mounted a vigorous defense, saying that while the Reagans were "comfortable" they were nowhere near rich.  

We pointed out that when they were making movies as studio contract players in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, they did not earn anything near the eye-popping Hollywood salaries that were commonplace in the late 1980s, and that as senior citizens who had just purchased a modest ranch-style home in Los Angeles, it was unwise to assume a 30-year mortgage.  

The facts may have been on our side, but we had limited success in swaying public opinion. To this day, I wish I had tried harder to talk him out of going to Japan.  

I failed, but at least the funds he collected came from a for-profit entity, rather than from students, many of whose families sacrifice and struggle to afford tuition, room and board. That stands in sharp contrast to Donald Trump, Jr., who seemingly has no problem taking money from people who need it much more than he does.

The idea that money that could be used to buy books, housing or food for deserving college students would be used to swell the already grossly large bank account of someone who has never wanted for anything is, to borrow a phrase from Donald Trump, Sr., a disgrace. 

Mark Weinberg is a communications consultant and executive speechwriter who served as special assistant to the president and assistant press secretary in the Reagan White House and director of public affairs in the office of former President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of the best-selling memoir, "Movie Nights with the Reagans."

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