I have some sympathy for the Trump kids on this. The cause is a good one (the charity donates nearly all of the funds it raises to St. Jude’s Hospital) and there’s reason to believe the event would have been offered even if Trump hadn’t won the election, as Eric Trump claims that a meal with a family member is auctioned off every year. Ivanka was a celebrity before dad ran for president and, as a top executive in the Trump Organization, all sorts of people would have been interested in buying time with her to talk business. The charity auction may have been arranged with the best of intentions.
Problem is, once Trump won the election on November 8th, the auction effectively operated as a small-scale version of how the Clinton Foundation operated for Hillary Clinton, as a pay-to-play pipeline for access to the Oval Office with charity as the chief beneficiary. It’s not a one-to-one analogy, of course, since Ivanka isn’t president, the event’s not being targeted by deep-pocketed foreign governments, and Eric’s charity seems to be more focused on actual charity than the “Clinton Inc.” operations of the Foundation are. But Ivanka’s a major player in the new White House — she’s probably dad’s closest advisor and she’s already begun to lobby Congress personally on policy issues that are important to her. Instead of time with Ivanka the celebrity or Ivanka the businesswoman, bidders were chipping in for time with Ivanka the policymaker. And the NYT noticed:
Ozan M. Ozkural, a London-based investment manager, found a creative way to gain one-on-one access to the new first family: He bid nearly $60,000 to have a cup of coffee with Ivanka Trump for a charity event she was hosting.
Mr. Ozkural wanted to meet with Ms. Trump — who is considering playing an informal role in her father’s administration — to gain insight into topics like President-elect Donald J. Trump’s possible future dealings with Turkey and other nations where Mr. Ozkural invests, he said…
Mr. Ozkural is one of several high-profile bidders in a feverish competition to win time with one of Mr. Trump’s children. Other bidders include the owner of a Tex-Mex restaurant chain from Houston who wants to press Mr. Trump, through his daughter, about immigration policy, and a real estate executive and fringe presidential candidate from Florida who wants to send a message to Mr. Trump about election fraud.
The bidding reached nearly $73,000 this morning — until the auction, which was supposed to run for another four days, suddenly disappeared:
So glad I did a screen grab. Important tool nowadays. Auction Has Disappeared from the Web. pic.twitter.com/M26tsFeleB
— Eric Lipton (@EricLiptonNYT) December 16, 2016
I’m surprised the Trumps didn’t fight harder to protect the event. What’s the difference, after all, between a presidential fundraiser where all proceeds to go to the president’s party and a charity fundraiser attended by the president’s family where all proceeds go to St. Jude’s Hospital? Both events involve rich people paying for access to the White House but St. Jude’s is certainly a worthier recipient than the RNC. If you’re worried that donations to charity are tax-deductible, making them an especially attractive vehicle for influence-peddling, you could have Congress change the rules to make donations at an event hosted by a pol or a family member non-deductible.
The big fear here, I guess, is that it’s easy for a person of influence to start a charity that’s less concerned with the public good than with his or her personal good. There are large-scale examples of that and smaller-scale examples. But charities are (supposed to be) closely regulated by state governments, just as political fundraising is regulated by the FEC. If you’re worried that a politician is selling access to benefit a “charity” that’s actually mostly benefiting him, both the state AG and the media can and should scrutinize it, just as WaPo did to great effect with Trump’s charity this past summer. And if you don’t like that idea because you oppose letting the rich buy access to the president for any reason, then presidential fundraisers should probably be cashiered too.
The dark irony of canceling the auction is that there are so many other conduits for throwing money at Trump and his kids in hopes of getting their attention that a public charity event seems like the most transparent possible way of doing it. Anyone who was hoping to win the coffee date with Ivanka could head down to Trump’s D.C. hotel and tell the manager that he’s interested in renting the ballroom for, say, $100,000 — but he’d like to discuss the arrangement with Ivanka Trump personally for 20 minutes on a phone call. Why insist on sending money to Eric Trump’s charity when you can put it in the family’s pocket?
Here’s WSJ journalist Monica Langley predicting — or reporting? — that Trump will not divest from his businesses but rather will merely give up control over their operations. Again, if you’re looking to influence Trump, why worry about a charity auction when there’ll be commercial ways of creating a financial benefit for him personally?