When Trump turns donors' money into his own money

In 2000, Trump joked, "It's very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it." Maybe he wasn't kidding.
Image:  Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York City
Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York City on June 22, 2020.Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images

Donald Trump likes to boast that he won the presidency in his first bid for public office, but that's never been altogether true. In 2000, he briefly sought the presidential nomination of the Reform Party. (The endeavor was overseen by, of all people, Roger Stone.)

Trump told Fortune at the time, “It’s very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.”

Twenty years later, it seems he may not have been kidding.

As Rachel noted on the show last night, when Trump kicked off his Republican candidacy in 2016, he repeatedly told voters that he was taking advantage of his vast wealth to self-finance his campaign, removing the need for donors and special-interest contributions. He was, of course, brazenly lying: Trump did kick in some of his own money, but he also relied heavily on donations from supporters.

In 2020, however, the dynamic has clearly changed. For one thing, the president isn't bothering to lie about self-financing anymore. For another, Trump also isn't bothering to contribute any of his own money toward his candidacy, unlike four years ago, when he at least made some investments in his own endeavor.

But just as importantly, especially with that quote from 20 years ago in mind, another key change is that Trump is poised to personally profit quite a bit from his re-election endeavor. Forbes reported this week:

Donald Trump has not given a dime to his reelection campaign, opting instead to fund the entire effort with his donors’ money. His business, meanwhile, has continued to charge the campaign for things like food, lodging and rent. The result is that $2.2 million of contributions from other people has turned into $2.2 million of revenue for Trump.

And while that's obviously a significant amount of money, it's not the only source of campaign revenue for the president's private enterprises. The same article added:

His reelection apparatus also includes two joint fundraising committees, which work with the Republican party to raise money for Trump. Since he took office, those entities -- named Trump Victory and the Trump Make America Great Again Committee -- have funneled another $2.3 million into the president’s private business, according to a review of Federal Election Commission records. Then there’s the Republican National Committee, which has spent an additional $2.4 million at Trump properties. Add it all up, and the president, working in concert with the party he leads, has helped push $6.9 million into his businesses since taking office.

The Washington Post's David Farenthold, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who's done extensive work researching the president's finances, added on the show last week, Trump uses campaign events to direct funds into his business. Farenthold added, "The same thing has happened with government money: when Trump goes to his properties, federal officials come along.... These are both things that he controls that he turns somebody else's money into his money."

I realize we're at the point in Trump's presidency when "this is not normal" has become a tired cliché, but it's worth remembering from time to time that there's nothing like this in the American tradition. Even other corrupt presidents -- and we've had a few -- took steps to disassociate themselves from their own business interests.

With Trump, everything is ... different.