Investing in political influence is enormously lucrative. The amount of money spent on lobbying and campaign donations by large business interests may seem obscene, but it is a pittance compared to what these companies receive in return. According to the FEC, President Trump contributed over 66 million dollars of his own money to his campaign, with about 18.5 million in the form of a donation and 47.5 million in the form of a loan. As the commander in chief, many of his decisions will have a direct impact on the bottom line of the business entities he owns. I'm wondering: when can the president expect to see a return on his investment? Unfortunately, some of the information that we need to estimate this investment recovery time is missing, but we will work with what we have for now.
First, let's take a look and the disbursements made by the Trump campaign to President Trump's businesses as reported to the Federal Election Commission. A full list of companies that President Trump held positions in as reported to the government ethics office can be found here. Disbursements were made in between May 2015 through November 2016, here is the breakdown by company:
|TAG AIR, INC.||$8,741,464|
|TRUMP TOWER COMMERCIAL LLC||$1,880,855|
|TRUMP INTERNATIONAL HOTEL LAS VEGAS||$263,387|
|TRUMP RESTAURANTS LLC||$203,034|
|TRUMP PAYROLL CORP||$202,013|
|TRUMP PLAZA LLC||$153,000|
|THE TRUMP CORPORATION||$83,033|
|TRUMP NATIONAL GOLF CLUB||$81,322|
|TRUMP CPS LLC||$72,000|
|TRUMP NATIONAL GOLF CLUB - WESTCHESTER||$48,239|
|TRUMP INTERNATIONAL HOTEL||$48,207|
|TRUMP NATIONAL DORAL||$45,998|
|ERIC TRUMP WINE MANUFACTURING, LLC||$32,196|
|TRUMP INTERNATIONAL GOLF CLUB, L.C.||$29,715|
|TRUMP NATIONAL GOLF CLUB WASHINGTON DC||$20,144|
|TRUMP INTERNATIONAL HOTEL AND TOWER CHICAGO||$19,379|
|TRUMP NATIONAL GOLF CLUB CHARLOTTE||$9,480|
|TRUMP OLD POST OFFICE LLC||$5,000|
|TRUMP NATIONAL GOLD CLUB - BEDMINSTER||$4,275|
|TRUMP INTERNATIONAL GOLF CLUB - BEDMINSTER||$4,275|
|TRUMP INTERNATIONAL HOTEL AND TOWER||$3,317|
|TRUMP VIRGINIA ACQUISITIONS, LLC||$2,326|
|TRUMP ICE LLC||$2,085|
|TRUMP INTERNATIONAL HOTEL CHICAGO||$1,536|
|TRUMP NATIONAL DORAL MIAMI||$1,473|
|TRUMP PARK AVENUE, LLC||$868|
|THE TRUMP SECURITY||$829|
|TRUMP HOTEL SOHO||$671|
|TRUMP NATIONAL GOLF CLUB DC||$479|
|TRUMP INTL HOTEL||$335|
|TRUMP SOHO NEW YORK||$100|
Trump Air Group (TAG) is the company which operates President Trump's personal aircraft and was paid the most money by far. Trump Tower also received substantial a sum. In total, this adds up to $11,993,044.99 paid from the Trump campaign to Trump businesses (including his son Eric's wine company). Thats about 3.6% of the total $332,430,870 in campaign operating expenditures reported to the FEC. To try to put this in perspective, let's look where some of this money came from. Donations from individuals who contribute less than $200 in total are reported to the FEC as unitemized individual donations, and we therefore do not have detailed information about these contributions. The Trump campaign received $87.6 million in contributions of this type. Itemized donations from individuals totaled to $131,364,438, with Florida, California, and Texas being the top donor states.
To get more of a sense of what sorts of individuals are donating to the Trump campaign, I've filtered the donations by occupation. Below, we have the cumulative disbursements to Trump companies over time, along with the cumulative donations from retirees and self employed individuals. Note, that these numbers do not account for unitemized donations from retirees or small business owners, since we do not have information about the occupation for these contributions.
The explosion in donations from individuals came after President Trump clinched his party's nomination this past summer. Disbursements to his own companies were equal to about two thirds of donations from self employed individuals and about a third of the donations from individuals whose occupation was listed as retired in FEC filings. Disbursements to his companies were fairly steady through the primary and general election. The donation totals for these groups, plus donations from unemployed or disabled individuals are tabulated below.
|Unemployed or Disabled||$32,687|
Despite constantly bragging about his wealth and business success, President Trump accepted millions in donations from retirees who may have limited or no income, as well as small dollar unitemized donations to the tune of $87.6 million which come from citizens without the substantial means of our President. It is a particularly aggravating coincidence that the total donations from the disabled and unemployed is almost the exact amount paid to Eric Trump's wine company. The Trump campaign was aware that when donations came pouring in after his nomination, much of the money was coming from everyday Americans, yet they continued to make payments to Trump companies. Hundreds of thousands of people contributed what they could to see President Trump elected, and without a doubt many of these people were deeply concerned about the influence of money in politics. Nonetheless, on the campaign trail our president railed against corrupt establishment politicians while simultaneously funneling money directly from his campaign to his businesses.
While it looks like President Trump is off to a good start in terms of recovering his investment, this calculation does not account for payments made directly by the secret service to Trump companies, nor does it account for the advertising value coming from the fact that the president's political and business brands are one in the same. It also does not account for how the President's actions as head of the executive branch of government will affect his business holdings, though he is in a position to make decisions that will affect his businesses for years after his term ends. If anyone has any ideas on how to estimate these figures, then it would be great to hear from you.
I should note that if any of these companies had offered their services for free, this would be considered an in-kind contribution to the Trump campaign, which is illegal even under our lax election finance laws. In fairness, all of the money paid to Trump's companies did not go directly into the President's pocket. Many ordinary people employed by Trump's companies benefit from the payments by the campaign, which is great for the employees, their families, and any businesses they support in return. Additionally, The FEC reports that the Trump campaign has $7.6 million in cash on hand, but the campaign has not paid back any of the president's loan even though it would be legal to do so. I don't find too much comfort in this fact however given the enormous potential for conflict of interest that is completely hidden from the public eye. In politics, even the appearance of a conflict of interest is unacceptable. Donald Trump is now a public servant, and the public has the right to know whether or not their new employee is using his position to further his own interests at the expense of the people he is supposed to represent. With the information we have at hand, we can only speculate as to the extent that President Trump is benefitting personally from his office.
There is only one way to resolve this issue: the President must (1) release his tax returns and then (2) exit ownership of any problematic assets or place them in a blind trust. Only then will we know that the $66 million that he contributed to his campaign was in fact a good faith attempt to put himself in a position to help all Americans and that he is not using our nation's highest office to improperly enrich himself. There are petitions for both of these steps on the Whitehouse petition website here and here. At the time of posting, both petitions had exceeded the 100,000 signature threshold required for a response. The tax return petition had over 460,000 signatures, which is a record for the site. In response, Presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway, who previously said the tax returns would not be released, reverted to the bogus IRS audit excuse.
Signing these petitions is so easy that there is no reason not to do it, but petitions are easily ignored by those in power. Laws must be changed to prevent conflicts of interest and preserve the integrity of our highest office. The Presidential Tax Transparency Act is a bill that would require all major party nominees to release their tax returns. A second bill, the Presidential Conflicts of Interest Act, would force the President and Vice President to divest of their assets and place them in a blind trust. I've written a form letter that can be sent to your senators and congressional representative urging them to support the Presidential Tax Transparency Act and the Presidential Conflicts of Interest Act. Writetocongress.org will take care of preparing the letter head for you. You can use, share, or edit this letters as you see fit. Just enter your address, select your congressional representative or senator, choose "Write your own" from the menu of topics, and copy paste the letter body into the form. Then print and snail mail your letter. Repeat for multiple representatives.
These bills could easily be stalled in congress, but there is another way forward: states have the power to pass legislation determining qualifications for candidates on their election ballots. Some states are already preparing to introduce legislation that would require candidates to submit their tax returns (which then become public information) to qualify for the ballot in their state. This is an excellent option because no serious Presidential candidate would want to be left off the ballot in any state. Therefore, not every state would have to pass such a bill for it to be effective. In fact, a single large swing state requiring tax returns for ballot qualification would essentially force any candidate in the 2020 election and beyond to release their returns. I've written a form letter for your state representatives that urges them to support or introduce legislation making public disclosure of tax returns and financial conflicts of interest a requirement for appearing on the state ballot. You can use Writetocongress.org to prepare the letterhead, but this letter is for your state representatives.
Lastly, if you look at these numbers and they don't bother you at all, then please let me know what amount of money paid from a campaign to the candidate's own businesses would actually bother you. It can be a dollar amount or a percentage of total funds spent, but I am interested in knowing roughly what level of corruption you find acceptable.
All source code for these calculations and plots are available on GitHub. The data source is the Federal Elections commission. Records of donations from individuals and disbursements for the Trump campaign may be downloaded as a csv file from the FEC ftp site here. If you want to explore election finance data but do not know any programming, the FEC has some interactive maps you can play around with. There is also a beta site with more data visualization tools under construction.
Some retirees listed their previous employer or occupation, therefore retirees were identified by donations where either the employer or the occupation was listed as retired. The same applies to self employed and unemployed individuals.
This post has been corrected from it's original form which reported that the Trump campaign received $8,956,102 in donation from individuals in amounts under $50. This figure only accounted for itemized donations in this amount and is therefore not accurate because it does not include unitemized individual donations which actually make up the bulk of small dollar donations.