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Trump continues to downplay coronavirus threat

The virus, however, also affects his hotel, resort and real estate holdings as cancellations of events increase worldwide.
President Donald Trump listens in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, Monday, March, 9, 2020, as Vice President Mike Pence speaks about the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

One of President Donald Trump’s first impulses in response to the outbreak of the coronavirus in China was to suggest it was a buying opportunity in the U.S. stock market.

Even as the global peril of the virus has escalated, Trump has leaned hard on his decades of experience as a businessman, keeping his focus on the economy and financial markets and urging people to continue traveling and patronizing U.S. businesses.

“You know, a lot of people are staying here and they’re going to be doing their business here,” he said Friday, as stocks fell again and the tally of infected in the U.S. climbed. “They’re going to be traveling here. And they’ll be going to resorts here.”

And possibly to the president’s own resorts. The virus provides the latest example of how the president’s public and personal interests are interwoven, but this time driven by a crisis with major global health implications in addition to financial ones.

“If there is any public health shutdown of restaurants, conventions and meetings, that will impact his property and his finances,” said Kathleen Clark, an ethics lawyer at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis and frequent critic of the president. “I think a reasonable person can conclude that he is motivated by personal interests.”

All of Trump’s properties, at home and abroad, would stand to suffer if travel and tourism business continues to evaporate. A business travel group is estimating revenue losses globally of nearly $50 billion per month.

Trump’s comments Friday are the latest rosy depiction of the crisis as he has tried to brush past the economic impact. No president has more closely tied his political fortunes to the stock market, and a slowdown in the nation’s economy could imperil his reelection hopes.

Trump has peppered his economic advisers with questions about the virus’ impact and has boasted about the strength of the economy. “We have a great economy. We have a very strong economy,” Trump insisting during an appearance Monday in the White House briefing room.

Though a self-proclaimed firewall exists between Trump and the company that bears his name, the president has been known to ask his business associates, and namely his adult sons now its titular heads, how his properties are faring, according to two Republicans close to the White House not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations. And in recent days, Trump was slow to embrace federal recommendations against the elderly boarding airplanes or passengers traveling on cruise ships.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment as to whether the president’s handling of the epidemic was informed by the impact it could have on his properties.

Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that he isn’t sure the president is thinking of his properties right now. But in deciding to not sell his business before taking office, Bookbinder said, the president has raised doubts about his motives and that in itself is damaging.

“We have to ask with almost every major policy decision whether he’s acting in the country’s interest or his own interest,” Bookbinder said. “In a time of crisis like this, being able to trust our institutions, that our government is making the right decision for our health, economy and security is incredibly important.”

For now, the privately held Trump Organization doesn’t appear to have taken a blow.

As the coronavirus panic began to settle in during the first week of March, the high-vaulted lobby of his hotel in Washington and its bar remained crowded with visitors, including many sporting Trump’s trademark red campaign hats.

Next up, dozens of bankers from Texas who are planning a reception at the hotel on March 22 as part of a four-day visit to the capital. A spokeswoman for the group sponsoring the trip, the Texas Bankers Association, said that none of 81 registered to attend had pulled out yet.

“I haven’t seen much of a drop off — if at all,” said Zach Everson, a frequent visitor who writes an online newsletter about the hotel called 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. He added, referring to a recent visit, “It was packed.”

So too was the president’s Mar-a-Largo in Palm Beach, Florida, last weekend. On Sunday, the venue threw a birthday party for Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, and social media posts showed the place was jammed. The day before Trump hosted a dinner for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Still, the Trump properties can ill afford a downturn in business.

The Trump Organization has been struggling from lost business due to a backlash against the president’s rhetoric and his policies. Several buildings licensing his name have stripped it from their facades, major groups have canceled events at his resorts, and his Scottish golf clubs continue to lose millions.

Even his Washington hotel, for all its buzz, is showing signs of struggling, as rooms stand empty. The Trump Organization recently put the hotel up for sale.

The company did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump has long governed with an eye toward increasing profits at his properties.

Since taking office, he has spent hundreds of days at his properties, particularly in Florida and New Jersey, the visits providing valuable promotional material. Moreover, the Trump Organization profits off the federal employees — including White House staff and Secret Service — who then need to stay alongside Trump in Palm Beach or Bedminster, New Jersey, one of 17 Trump golf resorts around the world. Trump has also floated hosting the international G7 at his property outside of Miami, only to relent after being met by howls of protests from Democrats and civic watchdogs.

When it comes to Trump’s response to the current crisis and potential conflicts with his vast financial interests, not all ethics expert are bothered.

Edwin Williamson, a former State Department legal adviser, said that even if Trump had sold his properties before he took office and put the money into a stock or bond fund, as ethics rules suggest of many federal officials, critics might be raising questions.

“Anyone who had a highly diversified funds under the rules would still have the same issue,” said Williamson. “Did you see what the market did today?”

The Dow Jones index plunged 7.8 percent Monday, its steepest drop since the 2008 financial crisis.

Brian Friedman, owner of the Kimpton Glover Park among other Washington hotels and a bidder on the Trump hotel, said a falling stock market can wallop the front desk because people don’t want to travel as much when they feel less wealthy.

Throw in a virus, he said, and Trump, along with everyone else in the business, is going to take a big hit.

“I don’t know of any big cancellations. I have not seen the impact yet,” Friedman said. “But I do think it’s going to come.”


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