WASHINGTON — There’s an under-the-radar perk being offered to staffers in President Donald Trump’s administration — discounts on Trump-branded merchandise sold at his Bedminster golf club.
White House staffers who have a Secret Service hard pin identifying them as administration officials can flash it at the pro shop — where Trump-branded driver headcovers retail for $40 and a Trump golf polo tee sells for $90, according to the online Trump store — and receive the same discount available to club members, who pay a reported $350,000 to join the club.
Those discounts range from 15 percent off of any merchandise sold in the store, to 70 percent off of clearance items, according to two staffers and a receipt reviewed by POLITICO.
The practice is the latest indication that being a public servant in this administration comes with special perks to sweeten the deal. The discounts available at the Bedminster club were originally pitched by the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and the president himself as a nice gesture to aides, according to the recollection of someone familiar with the setup. A White House spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on who instituted the discounts available.
But ethics experts say the arrangement only highlights how Trump remains more entangled in his commercial properties than any president in American history. Those blurry lines between his government work and his private business, from which he never divested, are perhaps most fuzzy when the president is spending time with government officials on the grounds of his own properties.
Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and a former associate counsel in the Obama and Clinton administrations, said the practice of offering any discounts to people identified by their Secret Service pins is “absolutely wrong.”
Discounts are not prohibited by the Office of Government Ethics if they are available to all government employees, or if it’s a standardized discount. But if they are not, the discount is considered a gift. Federal officials are also prohibited from accepting gifts in excess of $20, and urged to decline any gifts “when accepting them would raise concerns about the appearance of impropriety.”
“It’s prohibited under the standards of conduct for any government employee to accept a gift because of their official position,” said Canter. “The fact is, people’s access to that facility is extremely limited. It’s not open to all government employees. It’s limited to staff who have access to the facility and second of all, who are given access to the Secret Service pin. It’s not OK.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would not comment on the discount.
But getting perks in the pro shop goes beyond White House staffers.
Trump has pilfered his own store to charm Republican lawmakers and their aides, whom he frequently invites to join him for rounds of golf at his properties in Sterling, Virginia, and Palm Beach, Florida. Republican aides have been directed to the pro shop to pick up golf apparel — gratis — when the president saw they were not outfitted for golf. It is not clear whether Trump later personally picked up the tab, or the business ate the extra expense.
The discounts remain under-the-radar even within the White House. One former senior administration official said he never knew about the price-chop and had always paid full price for pro-shop merchandise. “I overpaid, big time,” the former official said. “Part of me wishes I knew. Part of me is glad I didn’t.” Other aides said they learned of the discount through the grapevine only after having paid full price.
The discounts are also not available across-the-board at all Trump clubs — each pro shop sets its own rules, and staffers who recently shopped at the Turnberry resort while staffing the president on his most recent foreign trip said they were expected to pay full price for the goods they brought home.
POLITICO reviewed a recent receipt that showed a current White House official receiving a 70 percent discount on a piece of merchandise that was a clearance item, and a 30 percent discount on an item from the current collection.
Norm Eisen, who served as the ethics czar under former President Barack Obama, said Trump’s habit of doling out discounted goods from his personal business is an abuse of office.
“It does have an effect on how Trump tries to secure personal loyalty and woo people away from what should be their primary and their only loyalty — to the constitution, to public service and to the people of the United States,” Eisen said. “This is another small inducement, apparently contrary to federal law, that he uses to bind his staff to him personally.”
Trump, who throughout his life has been accused of regularly stiffing contractors and failing to pay his debts, is often a fan of generous gestures when he’s relaxing at one of his own properties. If he sees a table of staffers dining, he’ll often send over a dessert on the house, or pick up the check, another aide said.
Those gestures would be allowed if he, himself, is paying out of his own pocket to cover the meal. But they would also be prohibited by federal gift rules if he simply charged those meals to the club.
A spokeswoman for the Trump Organization, Amanda Miller, did not return calls and emails for 12 days.