Earlier this year, Donald Trump Jr. posted on Instagram: “Well done Mr. President! Congratulations on an amazing 100 days, and I look forward to many more years of you fighting for America. Keep it up.”
Eric Trump appeared on Fox News in June and said his father “has been in office for 150-something days and I think he has accomplished more than any president, arguably in history, has over that same period of time.”
These are strange sentiments to hear from two people who, we are told, are totally focused on running a business that has nothing to do with the White House.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Before the inauguration, Don Jr. and Eric promised not to be involved with their father’s administration while they run their father’s business, with Eric repeatedly likening the ethical barrier to the “separation of church and state.”
However, an analysis of their political activity and public statements suggests there is really no separation at all between the leaders of the Trump Organization and the Trump administration.
“Separation of church and state”
The specifics of the wall between the Trump White House and the Trump Organization have frequently shifted — with his sons, at various times, promising not to talk to their dad about business, promising to talk to their dad about business only with quarterly reports, promising not to talk with their dad more than occasionally so as not to nag him, and promising to stay out of politics.
In a January news conference, Donald Trump Sr. explained his plan to turn complete control of his business to his sons, and assured that they would not talk about it. “What I’m going to be doing is my two sons, who are right here, Don and Eric, are going to be running the company,” he said. “They are not going to discuss it with me.” He indicated unspecified documents that he said he signed “turning over complete and total control to my sons.”
Trump’s tax attorney Sheri Dillon explained that all of Trump’s investments and business assets would be placed in a trust — not a blind trust — before January 20. Don Jr. and Eric Trump, along with Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg, would run the company and make decisions “without any involvement whatsoever by President-elect Trump.” New foreign deals would be forbidden and new domestic deals would go through a strict vetting process. This is different than the promise Trump made in December (and broke right away) that “no new deals will be done” while he is president.
Presidency. Two of my children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage them. No new deals will be done during my term(s) in office.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2016
“He has also directed that no communications of the Trump Organization, including social media accounts, will reference or be tied to President-elect Trump’s role as president of the United States or the office of the presidency,” Dillon said.
Trump Sr. said after his sons run the business, “I hope at the end of eight years, I’ll come back and say, oh, you did a good job. Otherwise, if they do a bad job, I’ll say, ‘You’re fired.’” In response to the headlines about that last comment, Trump Jr. tweeted, “Well this could be interesting in 4 to 8 years. #nopressure.”
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) January 11, 2017
When ABC News asked both sons how they would never speak to their father about the business, Don Jr. said “we understand how this business works.” Eric said his father’s “focus is going to be running this country, and my focus is going to be running a great company.” ABC asked if they will ever discuss business over dinner, and Eric replied, “Listen, I think it’s important to keep separation of church and state.”
“We’ve taken extraordinary, extraordinary measures to make sure the two are separate and distinct,” Eric said.
He said he was “deadly serious” about the “church and state” commitment in a March interview with Forbes and said his “steadfast pact” they made to not talk business or government is “something that we honor.” Then, he backtracked:
But less than two minutes later, he concedes that he will continue to update his father on the business while he is in the presidency. “Yeah, on the bottom line, profitability reports and stuff like that, but you know, that’s about it.” How often will those reports be, every quarter? “Depending, yeah, depending.” Could be more, could be less? “Yeah, probably quarterly.” One thing is clear: “My father and I are very close,” Eric Trump says. “I talk to him a lot. We’re pretty inseparable.”
The following month, Eric indicated his father would closely watch how he handles the new Trump golf resort in Scotland, after calling nepotism “a beautiful thing.” Still, he said in another interview that “I stay out of politics and I stay out of the administration.”
In March, Don Jr. told the New York Times that “I haven’t spoken to [my father] … Maybe just to say hello. It feels trite. I feel ridiculous bothering him.” He then said limiting contact with his father is a “no-win scenario,” and that they both recognized that the presidency is “far more important than absolutely anything going on in the business.” He said they would “conduct ourselves accordingly.”
Private citizens when convenient
Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump are private citizens with free speech rights. Past presidents have had children who spoke about the issues of the day and participated in their fathers’ political battles and campaigns.
But Trump Sr. still owns his family business, which his sons manage. This is an unprecedented arrangement presenting a serious ethical problem for the Trump administration and the Trump Organization. Jimmy Carter put his peanut farm into a blind trust before he took office in order to avoid conflicts of interest. Trump’s arrangement threatens to blur the line between the two to such an extent that business associates, foreign actors, and anyone with business before the U.S. government will have trouble distinguishing between the president’s business and the president’s administration.
Turning control of his business over to his sons while maintaining ownership is not enough to avoid ethical problems, according to Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor who previously served as chief ethics counsel to President George W. Bush. “The problem is the ownership of the business, for conflict of interest purposes, not his running it,” he told ThinkProgress.
President-elect Donald Trump arrives for a news conference with family members Eric Trump, far left, Ivanka Trump, and Donald Trump Jr., Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Wenig
Eric Trump promised separation of church and state, but there is little substance behind that pledge. “He doesn’t understand that there is no separation, whether it’s business and state, church and state, or anything else,” said Painter. “That’s just all rhetoric.”
Painter said Don Jr. and Eric Trump need to tell prospective business partners that they aren’t speaking for the government when they pursue deals. “They may not say that, because they become more valuable — people want to kiss their backside a little more — if they think they can get some influence in the White House side by side with doing the deal.”
The more the eldest Trump sons are associated with the Trump administration, the more the Trump Organization benefits.
“They have a right to voice their views politically, and campaign and everything, but if this spills over into private conversations, in the context of their business deals, they’re going to get themselves into some pretty hot water,” Painter told ThinkProgress.
In reality, they look a lot like White House surrogates.
The elder Trump sons post frequently on social media about their father’s administration, his campaign, his perceived enemies, and his political priorities. This blurs the line between the Trump Organization and the Trump administration.
“The more they talk about government policy while they’re running the business, the more exposure they get in private conversations with other people the business is contracting with about United States government policy,” Painter told ThinkProgress. “That is a very dangerous situation for purposes of bribery and gratuity statute.” He explained that someone in their position should not be soliciting business or making deals while talking about what U.S. government policy will be.
Talking about government policy and political goals so often in public can be seen as an advertisement for possible influence peddling in exchange for friendly business deals, Painter noted.
“It’s a recipe for scandal, if they’re getting too close to the political thing and then start talking government policy, side by side with trying to cut deals,” Painter said.
Eric and Don Jr.’s social media feeds
ThinkProgress conducted a comprehensive analysis of the social media feeds of both Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump and found that both sons, while claiming to be focused on the Trump businesses, post far more frequently about their father’s administration and his political priorities.
Both sons’ Twitter bios identify themselves as executive vice presidents of the Trump Organization, yet each has Twitter banner images from the presidential campaign, and profile pictures of themselves speaking at the 2016 Republican National Convention. It would be hard to distinguish the content of their accounts from other White House or campaign surrogates. And they tweet and post on Instagram a lot — to wide audiences.
Donald Trump Jr.’s feeds are very politically active, with more than 1,000 of his Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram posts about his father’s administration and political priorities between November 9, 2016 and October 31, 2017. This averages out to almost three political posts per day.
On Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, more than 150 of Eric’s posts were about campaigns, political issues, and his father’s administration between November 9, 2016 and October 31, 2017. Retweets without comments and likes, not counted in the tally, were predominantly political. This averages out to almost one political post every other day.
Don Jr. reaches over 2.25 million followers on Twitter and 1 million on Instagram. Eric has more than 1.6 million Twitter followers and over 700,000 Instagram followers. This analysis does not count their direct retweets, which were overwhelmingly political or aimed at touting the Trump administration’s priorities according to a Twitter feed that tracks all follows, unfollows, likes, and direct retweets from the Trump family.
The subject matter of these posts range from shareable Trump quote graphics from Fox News to reposting official White House graphics from his father, criticizing the media for not reporting on their father’s accomplishments to boosting Uranium One conspiracy theories. Don Jr. regularly tweets out articles from right-wing sites like Breitbart and The Gateway Pundit, usually defending his father or attacking Democrats or liberals. Eric Trump’s feed is similar in tone.
These posts send a message that the Trump sons are a part of their father’s political operation.
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) June 1, 2017
Both sons hawk their father’s campaign merchandise on their feeds — such as MAGA golf accessories — and regularly tout the fundraising performance of the campaign and the RNC.
— Eric Trump (@EricTrump) June 18, 2017
The analysis counted any post that explicitly advocated for the reputation of the Trump administration or the Trump campaign, as well as political and policy concerns of the administration, as a political post. Posts about their father in his capacity as president, as well as posts about his inauguration, counted as political posts. The analysis did not count posts about either son’s professional, family, or personal interests, unless the Trump administration or political priorities were also referenced.
Fundraising, party activism, and campaigning for candidates
The transition from campaign surrogate to their current status was actually fairly easy for Trump’s sons. During the campaign, both Eric and Don Jr. gave speeches, conducted interviews, and raised money for their father’s campaign while they retained their positions at the Trump Organization. This continued into 2017.
Transition and White House events
After the election, both sons served on Trump’s transition team, became involved in cabinet selection, and sat in on meetings with foreign leaders. When Don Jr.’s role was criticized, a spokesman defended him, saying, “he’s the one helping us form this government and put things together.” Eric Trump was the one to ask Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn about whether he had been out of uniform long enough to potentially head the Pentagon.
The sons were, of course, at the inauguration as members of the president’s family. But Eric and Don Jr. soon returned for the announcement of Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination at the White House a week later. Don Jr. said he talked about fly fishing with Gorsuch at the White House, and later on Twitter cheered on the Senate in rounding up the votes to confirm Gorsuch in April.
Eric visited the White House in early March, in April for the Easter Egg Roll, and in June for Trump Sr.’s birthday. Eric’s wife Lara visited without him in June, which he posted on his own feed. Don Jr. joined in some of those visits as well, in addition to an October trip to the White House on Marine One following a campaign trip through Texas.
In September, Eric and Lara joined White House staffers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in New York for Donald Sr.’s address to the United Nations General Assembly.
Jared, Ivanka, Eric and Lara Trump were at the hall for Trump’s speech to the United Nations. pic.twitter.com/SUFy8oelDk
— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) September 19, 2017
It’s not clear why the executive vice president of the Trump Organization would attend the United Nations General Assembly. It sends a clear international sign that Trump’s sons have access to the inner circles of power.
Don Jr. admits that he is not focused entirely on the Trump business. He told ABC in January “there is an element” of jealousy of Ivanka’s move to the White House to play a policy role. “I think anyone would want to probably be able to do that, but [I am] very content with the decision we’ve made to be able to stay here to do this.”
When Ivanka made headlines around the world for stepping in for her father at a G20 meeting, Don Jr. tweeted a joke about taking her place: “If the left is so ‘outraged’ about Ivanka sitting in for a few minutes, maybe they’d be happier if I sub in for a while??? LMK #MAGA.”
Trump Jr. has reportedly admitted that he found business deals “boring” after 18 months working on his father’s campaign. “Do I want to be behind the scenes and be a mouthpiece and fight back against crazy liberal media?,” he asked. “Maybe.”
Republican fundraisers and campaigners
As Donald Trump Sr. settled into the White House, the sons kept up their public profiles and their jobs leading the Trump Organization. Less prominent, but pertinent for the newly evolving roles on the other side of the firewall, is the Trump sons’ fundraising efforts and their appearances around the country campaigning for Republican candidates.
In March, Don Jr. spoke to a crowd of 950 at the Dallas County GOP Reagan Day Dinner to raise money for the county party committee. In his speech, he said he was “pretty much our only surrogate” at the beginning of his father’s primary campaign. He spoke comfortably about the campaign’s fundraising prowess in Texas, the grassroots efforts at play in the state in the 2016 election, and the biggest GOP donors in the state. The event reportedly raised $500,000 for the party.
He also said “I basically have zero contact with [Trump Sr.] at this point,” even though several weeks later, Trump Jr. admitted that he had spoken to his father “more frequently in recent weeks.”
He conceded that he found it hard to focus on his day job:
What’s really interesting for me is: I thought I’d be going back to my regular job, I thought I’d be really excited about that. Once you get a little bit of a taste of that action, it’s hard to leave! Deals are still exciting … but when you’re the sort of guy out there every day, 24-7 fighting in this thing — it’s like a great fight, the intensity. I don’t miss the politics, I promise. I want nothing to do with the politics, but I miss the intensity of that.
The following month, Don Jr. spoke to about 1,000 people at the Indiana Republican Party’s spring dinner to raise money ahead of the state’s marquee Senate race in the 2018 midterms.
While noting what he had been told about fundraising goals, Trump Jr. joked that many attendees may have mistaken him for his father on the invitation: “I hear it’s a sold-out crowd, I hear they’ve broken their records in terms of fundraising, and I’m sorry that I’m your speaker and you didn’t read the fine print that says ‘junior’ at the end of it…”
He repeated the line from the Texas event about it being hard to leave politics after a campaign like the 2016 race. “So I said ‘Listen, what can I do as an American, as a concerned American, to stay involved, to stay active?’ — and ultimately it’s to lend my voice to rooms like this for other candidates around the country.”
That same month, Don Jr. campaigned across Montana for Greg Gianforte, the Republican House candidate to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Campaigning in NW Montana & saw the movement is STRONGER THAN EVER! @GregForMontana
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) April 22, 2017
Don Jr. returned to Montana in May to campaign for the special election that month for several more days.
Later in May, Eric, Don Jr., and Lara Trump all came to Washington, D.C. for multiple meetings at the Republican National Committee to assign roles, plan for the midterm elections, and work with the pro-Trump 501(c)(4) America First Policies to ensure their father’s re-election in 2020. They met with senior staff including the party’s chair, Ronna Romney McDaniel and former White House deputy chief of staff, Katie Walsh, who now advises America First Policies.
Eric’s wife Lara does not work for the Trump Organization but does work for the Trump re-election campaign. She joined the Trump campaign’s digital vendor, Giles-Parscale, in March. Her appearances at Trump rallies, in Trump campaign “real news” videos, and hawking orange “Make America Great Again” pumpkin hats all serve to further blur the lines between company, government, and political machine. She has become the “face” of the re-election campaign, according to the AP.
These family and campaign roles become even more problematic when she hosts senior meetings about public policy proposals within the White House. Newsweek reported that Lara Trump has quietly been pushing White House staff — and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — to support several proposals currently before the Trump administration.
Eric Trump spoke to the RNC summer meeting in Nashville in August. The party was discussing changes to the primary calendar, which can help or hurt a sitting president from viable primary threats. The tweet he used to announce that he had done this was retweeted by none other than Donald Trump Sr.
In October, Donald Trump Jr. gave a speech for $100,000 at the University of North Texas to donors raising money for college scholarships. He used his time to push his father’s nationalist message and criticize the media, according to the Denton Record-Chronicle.
Trump Sr. flew into Dallas later that month for a Republican party fundraiser, and during his speech, called Don Jr. up to the podium.
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) October 26, 2017
While his father flew back to Washington, Trump Jr. then traveled to conservative donor and fossil fuel billionaire T. Boone Pickens’ ranch to speak to a group of Republican donors planning how to fund and organize the pro-Trump America First Action super PAC. Politico reported that Trump Jr. has already donated to the super PAC.
Don Jr. had been scheduled to headline a fundraiser for Cuyahoga County Republicans in Ohio on October 27, which was postponed because of an “unavoidable business conflict.” Trump headlined a two-day pheasant hunting fundraiser for Rep. Steve King (R-IA) on October 28 and 29. According to King, Trump told stories about the 2016 election. “Don Jr. just held court. It was just a lot of fun,” King said, before praising Trump’s hunting abilities.
Campaign email and social media
In October, Eric Trump congratulated “Team Trump” on its most recent fundraising report on Twitter, noting how much was raised the previous quarter, and linking to a campaign press release detailing the numbers.
— Eric Trump (@EricTrump) October 16, 2017
Eric Trump still appears on Trump campaign fundraising email appeals. After regular appearances from both sons in supporters’ inboxes during the 2016 election, Eric Trump sent another fundraising email in July of this year with the bold statement, “we’re NOT letting the witch hunters win.”
First Trump 2020 re-election campaign fundraising email from Eric—who swore off politics to run Trump’s businesses w/o conflicts of interest pic.twitter.com/Ni4q8QFR5s
— Anna Massoglia (@annalecta) July 26, 2017
On October 30, the same day former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort was indicted, the Trump campaign sent an appeal from Eric asking for “just $1 to help us.”
Eric and Don Jr. regularly do cable TV interviews, mostly on Fox News. The vast majority of the time they talked about their father’s administration and political priorities. Starting in March, Eric and Don Jr. appeared in television interviews at least 17 times — 15 on Fox News — a rate of almost twice per month.
Don Jr.’s appearances are indistinguishable from that of a White House aide. In April, during a discussion about former Trump campaign staff starting the nonprofit America First Policies to promote the president’s agenda, he told Sean Hannity that he would be “involved on the side… where I see it makes sense, where I see his promises and where they can be delivered and they need to be pushed over the finish line, I’ll lend myself to it, because it’s important — I mean, these are the promises we made to the American people.”
Eric Trump’s June appearance on Fox News, where he talked exclusively about his father’s administration, and never about his business, is a representative example. He spoke as if he was an administration official on topics like economic policy, health care reform, and campaign strategy. He was asked how his father deals with criticism, which could have been answered as a family member, but he responded with a political broadside against Democrats. “We’re 5-0” in House special elections, he said, adding that the Democratic National Committee is “half defunct,” run by someone he said was “quite frankly a nutjob.”
For this political appearance, the official Trump Organization Twitter account said, “make sure to tune [in],” breaking the promise from Trump’s lawyer in January that no business social media communications would promote political activities.
Conflicts of interest
These ethical conflicts do not exist in a vacuum.
Trump Sr. faced a great deal of criticism for his decision to withhold his federal tax returns from public scrutiny. The only disclosure forms Trump has released as president are the ones the Office of Government Ethics requires of all senior federal employees, and Trump’s forms detail how he has profited off the presidency even within his first six months in office. He can draw upon the profits his businesses make any time he wants, without notifying anyone.
The blending of the Trump Organization and the Trump administration extends to the membership of the exclusive clubs run by the business side. For ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Trump nominated a person who claimed membership at both Mar-a-Lago and his West Palm Beach Golf Club. He’ll feel right at home, as Eric Trump recently visited the country, reportedly to revive the Trump Organization’s stake in a planned golf resort in Cap Cana. USA Today reported that at least five people who paid for memberships at Trump’s properties were appointed to senior administration roles. Another USA Today investigation found that “dozens of lobbyists, contractors and others who make their living influencing the government pay President Trump’s companies for membership in his private golf clubs,” gaining access to the president, who also personally profits from the massive membership fees they pay. Initiation fees doubled this year at Mar-a-Lago.
Trump’s sons have promised to hold off on expanding their business abroad (a promise already violated with a $32 million deal with a Chinese firm). Domestically, they are launching a new line of hotels aimed at the parts of the country that voted for Trump, or as they put it, “designed to work in every city, U.S.A.” Don Jr. put it more succinctly: “I think it makes it naturally easier if you’re going into a place that’s not adversarial to you.” This opens up entirely new cans of ethical worms, as the venture will require new investors, partnerships, and local government approvals.
At a 2016 primary campaign event, Trump touted some Trump-branded merchandise in an effort to prove his strong business acumen. The stunt also functioned as an advertisement for his business in the middle of the campaign. The Trump administration does not shy away from promoting the family business.
This year, the Trump campaign has tried to sell hats using Hurricane Harvey as a set piece. An official State Department Facebook page touted the wonders of Mar-a-Lago. Ivanka Trump’s new book was promoted on the government-run Voice of America’s social media account.
Trump himself stopped at the Trump Hotel in Waikiki, Hawaii, to thank employees for making it a “tremendously successful project” on his way to his five-country diplomatic tour in Asia. From Inauguration Day to Thanksgiving weekend, he spent 34 of his 45 weekends in office visiting Trump-branded properties according to USA Today. Of those, 18 were out-of-town trips to his New Jersey golf club or Florida’s Mar-a-Lago. NBC News puts the count at 106 days at Trump properties of his 326 total days as president.
The Trump business recently launched a new company store showcasing clothing and accessories with Trump branding. One of these, a $35 baseball cap which has a red background and the word “Trump” in front, printed in white lettering, evokes the famous Trump campaign “Make America Great Again” hats. The reds are essentially identical, and the white lettering, if not the exact same font, is similar enough to evoke a MAGA hat without too much thought.
“Those in charge of Trump businesses must avoid any involvement in federal governmental affairs, such as by having access to information that isn’t available to the public,” Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, told ThinkProgress in an email. “It’s one thing to support your father, it’s another thing to cash in on his public service and gain a competitive advantage or preferential treatment because your father is the President.”
It sets up a dangerous, if familiar game where Don Jr. and Eric run their father’s business, with the profits still going directly to the president of the United States. Richard Painter likens it to an old-fashioned criminal strategy, the “bag man”:
Let’s go back to classic bribery: a corrupt judge, a corrupt politician may often have a bag man, and the bag man’s job is to go collect the bribe, rather than have the money pass directly into the hands of the corrupt judge or the politician. The “bag man” is almost always a private citizen. The point is that what we’ve got is the Trump children — and remember they aren’t running their business. They’re running his business. So when they cut a deal, he gets richer. He’s the government official, and they’re running around the country, running around the world, talking about U.S. government policy while they’re doing deals.
He said that “advertising their involvement with this political stuff, publicly, is asking for trouble.” Painter recommends that Eric and Don Jr. adopt this policy: “I’m not going to talk about the campaign, I’m not going to talk about politics, I’m not going to talk about government policy — I’m going to talk about the Trump Organization.”
“If they had that attitude, they would be a lot better off,” Painter said.
CREDIT: DIANA OFOSU
It’s jarring to see explicit and often extreme political advocacy in a feed right next to advertisements for luxury hotels and golf resorts. It’s become part of the brand — celebrating both privilege and resentment.
“I think all of the Trumps have to be mindful that those in government service have a duty to the public, and those running the family business should stay in that lane,” added POGO’s Scott Amey. “The more those lines are blurred, the more questions will arise about the integrity of this administration and whether it is serving the public or its own personal or business interests.”
There is a version of this story where Donald Trump Sr.’s eldest sons took over the family business, kept their public statements to their company, their family, and very basic responses when asked about the Trump administration. A parallel world where the “separation of church and state” claim is credible, leaving a clear marker between the Trump business and the Trump administration.
However, we do not live in this world. Eric Trump told the Washington Post in February that “the company and policy and government are completely separated,” and further that “we have built an unbelievable wall in between the two.”
Eric, like his father, promised a wall. There is no wall.