The Slatest

The First Week in Donald Trump’s Kleptocracy Was Very, Very Kleptocratic

Donald Trump and Melania Trump arrive at Joint Base Andrews on Jan. 19.

Chris Kleponis–Pool/Getty Images

Ethics experts and good-government watchdogs spent months warning that Donald Trump would face a swirling mess of conflicts of interest once he took office. One week into his presidency, the full scope of that ethical catastrophe is already coming into focus.

In no particular order, the world learned this week that:

  • Trump replaced the head of the General Services Administration, the federal agency that effectively serves as the landlord for the new Trump hotel in Washington and has been asked to investigate whether Trump is now in violation of that lease.
  • Trump signed orders clearing the way for the disputed Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines to proceed. As recently as last summer, the president owned between $15,000 and $50,000 in stock in the company building the Dakota project, and its chief executive donated $100,000 to the Trump Victory Fund, a joint effort between Trump and the Republican Party. (Trump claims to have sold off his stock portfolio before the election, though he has not provided documentation proving he did.)
  • Trump signaled his intent to sign an order suspending the granting of visas to seven predominantly Muslim countries. Not on the list: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Azerbaijan, aka predominantly Muslim countries where the Trump Organization has existing business interests.
  • Trump is pushing forward with his plans for a massive, privatization-heavy infrastructure bill that appears tailor-made for cronyism and self-dealing.
  • The Trump Organization hired a longtime Republican lawyer as its ethics adviser and a longtime Trump executive as its chief compliance counsel. Neither one of those familiar faces is likely to raise a stink in Trump Tower. Furthermore, both have a clear incentive to play nice since they’d put their jobs at risk if their oversight proves too costly to the company signing their paychecks.
  • The CEO of Trump Hotels is planning a massive domestic expansion, a decision that will significantly compound the conflicts of interests created by its existing portfolio.
  • The Trump-owned Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, doubled its initiation fee to $200,000 for new members after Trump was elected.
  • At least two of Trump’s wealthy foreign business partners got the VIP treatment during the inauguration weekend, including plenty of time with the new first family.
  • The American Chamber of Commerce in Canada, a business lobby focused on North American trade, made a sudden, last-second decision to move a scheduled event from the Vancouver home of a U.S. diplomat to the newest addition to the Trump Hotel family in the same city. (The Trump Organization does not own the Trump International Hotel & Tower Vancouver, but it makes money managing the property and cutting naming-rights deals.)


Trump and his allies continue to shrug off any and all criticism of the obvious overlapping interests of the president and his family’s sprawling business empire, in which he retains a major financial stake. Their defense, as much as they even bother to offer one, is that the appearance of such problems just comes with the territory of electing someone of Trump’s wealth, which voters were well aware of when they pulled the lever for him on Election Day. Americans, Team Trump contends, should simply trust the president to put the nation’s interest before his own because that’s what he says he’ll do.

Calling that argument unconvincing would be kind, but a week into Trump’s presidency it’s turned downright farcical. Take another look at that list. These developments aren’t the unfortunate but unavoidable byproduct of having a businessman in the Oval Office; they’re the result of that businessman and the company he built acting in their own self-interest. It’s not an accident that those interests align, either. President Trump is running the nation just as he ran his business: to maximize his own profits.

Previously in Slate:

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