What’s wrong with this photo?
In the above image from April 7, we see two things: one, Reince Priebus’s aggressive bald spot, and two, members of the president’s Cabinet and Joint Chiefs of Staff, gathered around a table in a briefing room. But take a gander at the gold spray-painted bamboo chairs, and you’ll find this isn’t any ordinary briefing room: It’s the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (or SCIF) in Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago country club in beautiful Palm Beach, Florida. (Mar-a-Lago is likely the only country club that can boast both a SCIF and a kitchen with at least 13 health code violations.)
Putting aside the three white nationalists nestled in the upper-righthand corner, another ethical quandary presents himself in this photo, and his name is Jarden Kashmir—sorry, I mean Jared Kushner. Like his father-in-law, Kushner has no prior military or political experience. In fact, he has few talents at all, aside from having been born into wealth. Yet there he sits, among members of the National Security Committee for a classified briefing on Syria.
Trump bought Mar-a-Lago in 1985 from breakfast cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. He has spent seven of the 14 weekends since being sworn into office at Mar-a-Lago, and is on track to surpass his predecessor’s two-term travel spending total in just one year. When Trump needed to host an impromptu strategy session with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on a North Korean ballistic missile test, he thought it prudent to talk national security it in the Mar-a-Lago dining room, in full view of the club’s membership.
Before the election, Mar-a-Lago’s introductory membership fee was $100,000 (a steal!) Then, in January—shortly before Trump was sworn into the most powerful political office in the world—Mar-a-Lago doubled its membership fee to $200,000. What a weird coincidence!
On April 4, a few days before the White House released its photo from the Mar-a-Situation-Room, someone named Leigh Hartman wrote a blog post for ShareAmerica, one of the State Department’s pro-U.S. propaganda outlets. ShareAmerica describes itself as “the U.S. Department of State’s platform for sharing compelling stories and images that spark discussion and debate on important topics like democracy, freedom of expression, innovation, entrepreneurship, education, and the role of civil society.” Hartman’s post—which has now been taken down—seemed to describe Mar-a-Lago as an official U.S. government property:
The original article went so far as to imply that, by using a privately owned club for official government business, Trump is fulfilling Post’s deathbed wishes to bequeath her estate to the U.S. government:
The State Department took down the post after Twitter users noticed it and started criticizing it. “The intention of the article was to inform the public about where the President has been hosting world leaders. We regret any misperception and have removed the post,” a State Department official said in an email.
While a measly blog post on the State Department’s website might not seem like a big deal, it is indicative of how political corruption asserts itself inch by inch, causing us to abide a little bit more each day. Trump’s defenders have compared Mar-a-Lago to Camp David, or to President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch, sometimes called the Western White House. But those both differ from Mar-a-Lago in that the president was not personally profiting from the increased publicity.
Trump may be a man of few talents, but he has so far shown himself to be an expert at manipulating state power to line his own pockets—like when he got into a protracted legal battle with the city of Palm Beach over Mar-a-Lago’s 80-foot flagpole. Now, instead of simply leeching from city budgets, Trump is able to wield the entire power of the presidency to launder taxpayer money into his own companies.
And, according to all the available evidence, that’s exactly what he’s been doing. A recent USA Today investigation found that anonymous shell companies have been buying up Trump real estate—“an extraordinary and unprecedented potential for people, corporations, or foreign interests to try to influence the president.” Trump didn’t follow through on his promise to resign from his own companies until after ProPublica published a report on the matter:
Since the inauguration, Trump Hotels have drawn gobs of lobbyist cash, both foreign and domestic, and the Trump Organization is considering opening a second hotel in Washington. During the same time period, the Chinese government has approved at least five trademarks for Ivanka Trump, though both parties claim everything is on the up-and-up. Three of those approvals were granted after Ivanka Trump and Kushner dined with Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Where were they dining? At Mar-a-Lago, of course!)
This is the Whac-A-Mole problem of the Trump presidency. There are so many bad things going on at once—so many minor corruptions and shady deals and strings that if tugged will surely lead to more evidence of self-dealing—that it’s impossible to concentrate on one at a time. The flagrant, prima facie corruption of the Trump administration is so transparent and so all-encompassing that, perversely, it’s impossible to get people to care about it.
The most pressing threat to our democratic norms isn’t Russia’s meddling in the election, it’s the endless stream of details of political corruption becoming white noise, proving each day that our system isn’t equipped to deal with officials who cannot be shamed or embarrassed into voluntarily avoiding the appearance of impropriety. Look, here’s a piece in the New York Times on Jared Kushner’s financial ties to an Israeli mogul whose billionaire uncle is under investigation for bribery and money laundering. If reporters whose jobs are to follow this stuff can’t keep up, how are citizens supposed to?