Donald Trump’s adult sons have found yet another way to benefit from their father’s name. The Center for Public Integrity reports that a new nonprofit led by Don Jr. and Eric Trump is promising inauguration weekend-access to the next president of the United States in exchange for six- and seven-figure donations, which the group says it will then pass along to unnamed charities after it recoups the costs of staging the event at a Washington convention center.
According to a flier for the Jan. 21, 2017 event—attire: “Camouflage & Cufflinks”—ponying up $1 million will get you a “private reception and photo opportunity for 16 guests with President Donald J. Trump,” a “multi-day hunting and/or fishing excursion for 4 guests with Donald Trump, Jr. and/or Eric Trump,” and a host of other perks. The packages on offer get smaller from there, but those who spend $250,000 still get direct access to the president, albeit the reception and photo-op is limited to four people. Net proceeds, according to the flier, will be donated to unnamed “conservation” charities, which given the Trump sons’ big-game pastimes, and the family’s general disdain for climate science, presumably skew toward the hunting-and-fishing variety as opposed to groups like the Sierra Club.
Walter Kinzie, who runs the Texas event management company that was hired to stage the reception, told CPI that the brochure isn’t entirely accurate, though declined to specify what information on it was incorrect. He added that the participation of the Trump family is not confirmed, which will probably come as news to anyone who has already cut a six-figure-or-more check to organizers.
[Update 4:25 p.m.: A Trump spokeswoman now claims that the details in the report “are merely initial concepts that have not been approved or pursued by the Trump family,” and that Don Jr. and Eric “are not involved in any capacity.” The statement, however, did not address the fact that on the paperwork the non-profit submitted to the Texas secretary of state, Don Jr. and Eric are listed as two of the group’s four directors, which suggests they are involved in what could safely be called “some capacity.”]
The CPI report has gotten plenty of coverage, and it’s rarely unwise to assume the worst of the Trumps. But, setting aside for a moment the uncertainty of whether or not the Trumps are actually confirmed, just how big of an ethical problem does this event pose for Trump?
On a fundamental level, this isn’t all that different from what happens any other day at political fundraisers around the country. The rich pay top-dollar to attend lavish events and, in exchange, are glad-handed by those who asked them to be there, and who take note that they were. Fundraisers featuring high-profile politicians are selling access, plain and simple. If they weren’t—if donors were being driven only by their altruism—they would simply mail in their checks, which would prevent a slice of the donation from being siphoned off to pay for the staging of the swanky affairs. And yet they don’t.
Even if the donor never specifically asks for a favor or raises a particular concern, he or she knows simply being in the same room with the guest of honor can create the appearance of access—often literally in the form of a framed photo of the two—which comes with its own perks in business and government. It’s this chicken-and-egg conundrum that underlies all political donations: Does a donor write a check to a politician (or a politician’s pet cause) because their interests overlap? Or do their interests align because the donor cuts that check? In our system, sadly, those questions are often unanswerable. (And, in this case, given the way the new non-profit is structured, we may never even know who cut the checks in the first place.)
Still, there is one reason this particular Trump scheme is particularly infuriating. The president-elect repeatedly claimed to be above this type of thing during the campaign, but brazenly engaged in it anyway, all while threatening to lock Hillary Clinton up for doing similar things at the Clinton Foundation.
Furthermore, this event only confirms that Trump and his family have no plans to change now that he’s been elected. What Eric and Don Jr. are doing, after all, is effectively the same as what their father has done via his own personal non-profit: solicit money from others so he can act like a benevolent billionaire without actually being one. We saw something similar earlier this month when the family tried to auction off 45 minutes of Ivanka’s time in exchange for a donation to Eric’s personal foundation, which would ostensibly then have been passed on to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Bidding reached $72,888 before it was called off, in part because the businessmen competing for it made it explicitly clear they hoped to gain inside information from Ivanka, who is likely to take a role in her father’s administration. Even still, Team Trump took a defiant tone. “Today, the only people that lost are the children of St. Jude,” Eric said in a statement, seeming never to consider that he could make up for that loss by donating his own money.
And finally, there’s the simple fact that this event—staged by Eric and Don. Jr, and featuring their father—makes even more of a mockery of the familial firewall the president-elect has vowed to install between his business empire and his administration. Trump still hasn’t detailed that plan—he was supposed to reveal all at a Dec. 15 press conference, which he canceled—but the one specific he returns to time and again is that he’ll turn over operations of the family business to his sons. Events like this one, however, make clear why that won’t work. For the Trumps, there is no difference between charity and politics, nor between politics and business.