Donald Trump’s presidential campaign appears to have been very good for his bottom line.
Newly released financial disclosure forms show that income from the president’s resorts and golf clubs increased by nearly two-thirds from 2014 through the end of 2016. Trump more than doubled his income in that time from Mar-a-Lago, the Florida resort that has come to be known as the “Winter White House” due to Trump’s routine conducting of presidential business there.
Mar-a-Lago has reportedly raised its membership fees from $100,000 in 2015 to $150,000 in 2016 and to $200,000 in 2017. Trump’s frequent visits have also offered members and their guests the opportunity to pose for photographs with Trump and meet him.
The financial disclosures, released on Friday evening, shed additional light on the nexus between Trump’s business interests and his political pursuits, an issue that has dogged his administration and led to litigation alleging that he is using the presidency to line his and his family’s pockets.
“There are some significant boosts in income from many of the president's properties, particularly the ones that he's known to visit,” noted Jordan Libowitz, a spokesperson for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning watchdog group. “Clearly, the presidency has been good for his bottom line.”
Of the dozen Trump resorts and clubs listed on the form, just two—a pair of golf clubs in Scotland—steered less income to the president last year than they did in 2014. Income from Trump’s other resorts and clubs increased by as much as 280 percent from 2014 through last year.
Trump also saw a significant growth in income from his Bedminster, New Jersey club. The president earned $19,752,500 from the club in 2016, up 23 percent from 2014, according to the filing. The club has become another common weekend retreat for Trump.
Trump’s Washington, D.C. hotel brought in $19.7 million since its opening in late 2016. The hotel has been a source of controversy due to the language in a lease which granted Trump the opportunity to run the hotel out of the historic Old Post Office Building. Earlier this year, the Government Services Administration released a letter permitting the continued lease due to the fact that Trump’s son, Eric, would be overseeing it during his father’s presidency.
It has now become common practice for foreign dignitaries visiting Washington—some of them seeking favor with the U.S. government—to foot the considerable bill for rooms in Trump’s opulent new DC hotel.
It is common for elected officials to reap financial windfalls while they serve in government, but Trump’s extensive business portfolio has posed unique conflicts of interest that have drawn the scrutiny of federal ethics officials and criticism — and even legal action — from nonprofit watchdog groups.
Most of Trump’s assets have been placed in a trust controlled by his two adult sons, Eric and Donald Jr. Though the family insists that that has resolved any potential financial conflicts, Trump’s sons continue to keep the president apprised of the underlying assets’ performance, if not the specifics of the Trump Organization’s business activities.
The trust “shall distribute net income or principal to Donald J. Trump at his request,” according to a provision buried in the documents governing that supposed financial firewall. That has raised questions about whether the president could still draw profit from assets from which he is supposedly separated.
“These conflicts force the American people to question whether President Trump is acting in their interest,” according to CREW. “These are questions we should not have to ask.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer released a statement on the newest disclosure on Friday night saying “President Trump welcomed the opportunity to voluntarily file his personal financial disclosure form; while this filing is voluntary (as no report was due until May 2018), it has been certified by the Office of Government Ethics pursuant to its normal procedures.”
Trump is currently facing a lawsuit brought by the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia, who claim that income derived by the president from foreign sources through Trump properties violates a constitutional provision designed to prevent bribery.
Libowitz, whose group is also involved in litigation over the so-called Emoluments Clause, stressed that question as well. “What we don’t know—and what we need to know—is how much of that money came from foreign governments and officials.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump pioneered a method of steering money to his own companies in total compliance with federal election laws. Those laws bar candidates from providing services from properties they own to their campaigns free of charge. So when Trump campaign staffers stayed in their candidate’s hotels, ate at his restaurants, or raised money at his clubs—as they routinely did—Trump was legally obliged to charge them market rates.
The result was a $12.8 million windfall for Trump Organization properties courtesy of the president’s campaign coffers.
But the real value likely came from Trump’s media exposure, which was unprecedented even for a presidential candidate. His high profile—even by the standards of a reality TV star—allowed Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, for instance, to double membership rates in the face of skyrocketing demand for access to the “Winter White House.”
Trump’s routine use of Mar-a-Lago for official business—including meetings with foreign heads of state—has resulted in the occasional ethically questionable use of federal resources to promote the private club.
A website run by the State Department was forced to remove portions of its website that promoted Mar-a-Lago’s history and centrality to the Trump presidency. A message on those deleted pages now says “We regret any misperception and have removed the post.”
“The intention of the article was to inform the public about where the president has been hosting world leaders,” the message adds.
If the president weren’t drawing an increasingly large income from the “Winter White House,” it might never have been a problem.