The most glaring threat to the nature of American democracy is not the man that sits behind the desk in the Oval Office – it’s the sport that holds a special place in that man’s heart: golf.
Trump’s affinity for golf, and the grandiose clubs that are synonymous with the game, is jeopardizing the office of the presidency as we know it.
As young voters likely monitoring a president’s daily actions for the first time, it’s easy for college students to be overwhelmed by the constant barrage of Trump headlines. The headlines keep coming, washing over America wave after wave, each one corroding the bedrock of political normalcy. After nine months, many Americans are simply numb to, and even complacent with, the pounding of the waves, and that is a real threat to the integrity of presidents to come.
For the sake of this piece, forget everything you know about Trump.
Forget his policies, his rhetoric and his incessant tweeting. Forget everything except that the Trump Organization owns and operates golf clubs sprawled across the globe.
Presidential Greens Fees
Almost immediately after Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the U.S., Mar-a-Lago became the most talked about resort in the country. The Palm Beach, Florida golf resort became known across the world as the “Winter White House” after Trump spent 23 of his first 84 days in office at the golf club.
Why does this matter? It matters because Mar-a-Lago is owned by the businesses under the umbrella of the Trump Organization.
Presidential travel is not cheap. A 2013 Obama visit to Palm Beach and Illinois had a price tag of $3.6 million. While it’s not fair to assume that every presidential visit to Mar-a-Lago costs the same amount, there is little doubt that Trump’s 63 (at least) visits to his own golf courses have cost American taxpayers many millions.
It is true that every president must travel, and costs are inevitable. But Trump seems to do an egregious amount of travelling, and almost every single time he does, the check is being paid to a hotel or resort owned by the Trump Organization.
When he took office, Donald Trump broke with decades of established ethical standards by not fully divesting himself from his real estate empire. While he did step down from his position at the head of the Trump Organization and placed his business in a trust, that trust is managed by two of his sons, Eric and Donald junior. According to The Economist, the trust is “’revocable,’ meaning its provisions can be changed at any time.” Eric has also said that he would update his father on profit reports.
With this in mind, there is little room to believe that Trump is not directly benefiting from his frequent visits to his own golf clubs. He may not be cashing in the money right now, but it’s not extreme to assume that Trump’s trust is increasing value with every trip to the Winter White House.
If you’re still skeptical about whether Trump benefits directly from the visits, then consider how he would benefit indirectly.
Trump, for all of his shortcomings, has proven himself to be an excellent marketer. Even before Trump left his real estate empire to challenge the political establishment, he had made his name synonymous with a massively successful financial brand.
Now that he is the most discussed leader in the world, Trump’s brand has had more publicity on a daily basis than most brands can hope for in 10 years. Even though he may not be personally involved with the businesses at the moment, his name is still intricately woven into their identities. The Trump brand is now universally known.
NPR reported in early February that as a brand name, Trump’s “reputation pulse score” rose by nearly eight points over six months, and that was still very early into his first term as president. The “reputation pulse score” is determined by the Reputation Institute and “attempts to measure the public’s emotional connection to various brands, by determining how much esteem, trust, admiration and respect respondents feel toward them.”
Eric Trump, the man running the businesses, knows very well that the brand can cash in on the president’s publicity. In June, during a speech at the opening of a new golf course at Trump Turnberry resort in Scotland, Eric exclaimed, “We made Turnberry great again!”
At that moment, when he directly borrowed his father’s presidential campaign slogan, Eric proved that the Trump Organization has no interest in disentangling politics from the Trump golf empire--just another drop into the ocean of the Trump family’s conflicts of interest.
Who’s Playing with the President?
As astoundingly unethical as it is for Trump to benefit from his own use of golf courses, it is not him building his brand that is the ultimate threat to the integrity of the presidency. No, the most serious threat involves who is handling the brand money.
In a fascinating and creative use of social media and golf handicap websites, USA Today was able to find the names of 4,500 members of Trump golf clubs (the member lists are secret). The investigation showed the members of clubs in Florida and New Jersey “include at least 50 executives whose companies hold federal contracts and 21 lobbyists and trade group officials.”
What is more alarming than a list of members who have reason to influence the president?
Try to fully wrap your head around this: two-thirds of the members have played golf on one of the days that Donald Trump was at the same resort, according to the same USA Today report.
These people aren’t just paying $200,000 membership fees for access to a quality golf course. Quality golf courses can be found for much cheaper. These members are paying for exclusive access to the leader of the free world.
Whether these paying members are actually influencing the president is impossible to know, but that uncertainty shouldn’t eliminate anyone’s cause for concern.
One of the members is a lawyer who is helping Saudi Arabia fight claims that the country was responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. While the lawyer alone hopefully isn’t enough of a reason to exclude Saudi Arabia from Trump’s travel ban, despite how 15 out of 19 of the Sept. 11 hijackers hailed from that country, it probably isn’t a coincidence that the man is a member at a Trump golf club. It is also worth noting that Trump has explored business deals in Saudi Arabia in the past.
Last month, the Trump Organization hired a Chinese construction company, which has had ties to the Chinese government in the past, to build infrastructure for the new golf course at Trump World Golf Club in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, even though Trump Organization lawyers had previously released an agreement that would prohibit any new foreign transactions or contracts. This single deal represents a potential leverage point for two foreign governments with which America is not on the best of terms. By the way, the UAE wasn’t included in the travel ban either, even though two of the remaining four Sept. 11 hijackers were from the country.
Sure, it may be coincidence. I have no way of absolutely proving to you that the world of Trump golf is influencing his policies. All I can do is point out that there are a lot of possible connections that shouldn’t be there in in the first place, and Trump seems to be easily influenced by people appeasing his interests.
No More Mulligans
Trump knows he has an unfathomable amount of conflicts of interests; he just doesn’t care. Trump assumes, correctly, that most of the country and most of the media will be too focused on his captivating personality to create the backlash that these conflicts deserve.
It’s hard to look at a man tossing up rolls of toilet paper to hurricane refugees as if he’s Steph Curry pulling up at the three-point line and think, "This guy can do serious damage to our country.” Don’t be seduced by these moments of viral ridiculousness. Don’t be numbed by the wave of headlines the next day that are granted to the front page over a bombing in the middle east.
If nothing else, think about golf, and remember that Trump’s conflicts of interest are not par for the course.
Contact opinion contributor and copy editor Jake Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.