Public service meets private business

Benjamin C Waterhouse

THE WASHINGTON POST – Elect a businessman president, and the country will be run like a business.

Some version of this slogan has popped up regularly in American politics for decades, from Wendell Willkie to Ross Perot, from Mitt Romney to Carly Fiorina. When voters grow tired of mealy-mouthed politicians and wasteful bureaucracy, the allure of a pragmatic, efficient, no-nonsense executive in the Oval Office is strong.

File this one under “be careful what you wish for”. For four years, America has run a real-time experiment in what can happen when a businessman assumes the highest office in the land. While previous presidents have boasted a business background, Donald Trump is the first whose experience comes entirely from the private sector. For his fans, this is a virtue – a mark of his talent and outsider status. Critics meanwhile argue that Trump’s lack of electoral, policy or military leadership has crippled his ability to govern, to respect and defend democratic norms, and to humble himself to public service.

Debates will continue about how Trump’s long business career has shaped his character and his approach to governance. On a far more concrete and day-to-day level, however, a different question looms: How have the ongoing operations of Trump’s business empire influenced presidential decision-making and United States (US) policy? This is the question Dan Alexander tackles in his new book, White House, Inc.

Alexander, a staff writer for Forbes (whose editor in chief, Steve Forbes, also once campaigned on the businessman-for-president platform), has produced the definitive accounting of the business dealings of America’s first billionaire president. Unlike other authors who have dissected Trump’s pre-presidential career in gambling, real estate development and show business, Alexander keeps the spotlight on deals done since 2016. Drawing on the public record, his own shoe-leather reporting and the work of a range of investigative journalists, all immaculately and transparently sourced, he paints a thorough and damning picture. His work leads to the unescapable conclusion that Trump has not so much run the government like a business as he has turned the presidency into an arm of his business, grotesquely abusing public power for private gain.

White House, Inc is a briskly written and highly readable journey into the opaque and frequently seedy world of the Trump Organization, the umbrella group of some 500 companies that do business in, under or through the Trump name. Alexander shows convincingly that the president has in no way honoured his tweeted pledge to leave the company solely in the hands of his sons Eric and Don Jr and to remain “completely out of business operations.” The book also follows complex money trails that belie the Trump Organization’s pledge to disclose all its overseas business activities and hand over any profits made from foreign governments to the Treasury Department. From renting office space to foreign governments and banks in Midtown Manhattan to arranging sweetheart real estate deals with unknown foreign nationals, Trump has created numerous conduits for untraceable influence over American policymaking.

Exposing those conflicts of interest is Alexander’s primary goal and the major achievement of the book. From Mar-a-Lago in Florida to Turnberry in Scotland, from New York to Pennsylvania Avenue, White House, Inc authoritatively details what Trump owns, what Trump owes and who pays him rent. Indeed, Alexander’s lists of assets, tenants and debts alone are worth the price of admission. It is clear, as he notes, that when a political favour-seeker or foreign government hires out a suite at a hotel or books a golf course, that money will flow directly into the personal account of the president himself.

Alexander’s ability to go beyond the numbers makes the book especially compelling. While the bulk of the book focuses on current business practices, Alexander also provides a useful synthesis of the origin of the Trump family’s wealth in the complex and legally nebulous dealings of Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father. He likewise situates the larger story clearly within the long history of political corruption and influence-peddling in the US, from Benjamin Franklin receiving diamonds from the French king to Citizens United and the role of wealthy donors like the DeVos and McMahon families in the Trump orbit. Concluding vignettes about Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross provide especially clear and well-documented studies of how conflicts of interest inevitably generate when business and politics mix with no oversight.

While Alexander leaves little doubt that Trump has transformed the White House into a business, he likewise makes a strong case that the president is not especially good at it. Published just days before the New York Times report on Trump’s massive business losses and subsequent slim-to-none income tax liability, White House, Inc makes the case that many of Trump’s properties, golf courses and other investments are bleeding cash. The Trump International Hotel in Washington, Alexander argues, is “less of a cash cow and more of a money pit”.

Alexander is unflinching in his reporting and explicit when he calls out the various ways Trump’s business decisions variously violate the emoluments clause, campaign finance and anti-corruption law, or basic standards of democratic accountability. But he also strives for objectivity, committed to the truth over partisan point scoring. He does not hesitate, for example, to contradict common theories among Trump’s critics – that he is flat broke or at least would have been better off simply investing the USD400 million (inflation adjusted) his father gave him in index funds. To the contrary, Alexander concludes that, over his career, Trump amassed at least an additional USD1 billion in net worth through his own business. Ironically, though, Alexander writes, if Trump had actually liquidated his business after winning the presidency in 2016 and “re-invested it in a broad-based, conflict-free mutual fund modelling the S& P 500,” he would have ended up about USD415 million richer than he is today.

Ultimately, what makes White House, Inc a notable contribution to the panoply of Trump books on the market are its insights into the secretive and corrupt nature of the business world that Trump continues to occupy, a world in which he is one player among many. While simultaneously fascinating and enraging in their own right, the president’s business dealings also expose the utter failures and injustices of the modern economy. Trump and his family are the embodiment of what the cool kids call “rentier capitalism.” As a real estate developer, investor, brand manager and political influence peddler, his business has never been to add value but rather to extract fees and rents, to profit from privilege, and to hoard accumulated wealth – all funded, as we know now, by astronomical debt.