March 14, 2017; BBC News
Press Secretary Sean Spicer announced Tuesday that President Trump, at the end of this year, will ask for help from the media to channel his $400,000 annual presidential salary towards a selected charity or charities. This is less than groundbreaking; both Presidents Herbert Hoover (self-made man in mining industry) and John F. Kennedy (inherited fortune) donated their salaries to charity, and the substantial salary is presumably what President Trump makes in less than a day from his cornucopia of branded enterprises. It could be seen as a remarkable turnaround from his loud and breathless jeremiad against “fake news” and “the dishonest media,” but there’s also the chance it’s an off-the-cuff use of philanthropy that reflects much of the disrespect he has displayed before in his philanthropic dealings.
Trump’s new pledge somewhat deviates from his original promise to not accept the presidential salary in the first place. Last November 13th, on CBS’s 60 Minutes, the president-elect stated that he would accept only the minimum he could take under the law: “Well, I’ve never commented on this, but the answer is no. I think I have to by law take $1, so I’ll take $1 a year.” That itself was, charitably, an act of forgetting. September 17, 2016, on the campaign trail, he promised the same thing, stating, “The first thing I’m going to do is tell you that if I’m elected president, I’m accepting no salary, OK? That’s no big deal for me.”
What Trump may not have realized is that the president—any president—is required to take a salary. He or she may do with it as they choose, but accepting the money is mandatory. As Politico Magazine said in a November 2016 essay: “It confirms that the president serves the public, and not the other way around. If the Founders’ reasons were good enough to persuade George Washington, our first independently wealthy president, they should be good enough for Donald Trump.”
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Spicer, at the day’s briefing, joked that assigning donating authority to the press would be “a way to avoid scrutiny.” For President Trump, perhaps, but it would create an ethical quandary for the reporters and their news organizations. Few if any will take the bait, which is probably what President Trump and his advisors anticipate. This is more theater at the expense of the country. Remember, it’s a long way until the end of the year, and there are countless ways of clarifying his pledge for Trump to walk back his generous dispensation of trusteeship over his pay.
In the meantime, it’s likely that the media will generate hundreds of ideas with various degrees of sincerity. Twitterers will break the Internet with this one. Who would whittle down the candidates of this unexpected largesse? Stephen Bannon, ex-CEO of Breitbart News and now NSC “principal” and presidential advisor? Perhaps Trump will announce the winners on a prime time television special, or on five golden tickets he hides in chocolate bars.
How is this likely to play out? First, President Trump could exempt from the donation his federal income tax owed from the prior decade. Second, he will likely insinuate himself into the decision-making process, regardless of his stated intentions. Third, he will engage in some quid-pro-quo gamesmanship with his typically subtle flourish. Lawrence O’Donnell, on his MSNBC show, concluded that Trump might actually cost taxpayers money with this scheme, counting the tax write-off he’ll get. The president has nothing to lose. This is pocket change to him—coffee money, like the dimes John D. Rockefeller, the original billionaire, was famous for tossing to the indigent.—Louis Altman