New Online Store Is One More Way For Trump To Profit From Presidency, Critics Say

Nov 20, 2017
Originally published on November 21, 2017 8:29 pm

Good-government types may look askance, but Donald Trump now has a new place to cash in on his White House role.

The Trump Organization recently started a website, TrumpStore.com, to sell Trump-branded merchandise such as T-shirts, baseball caps and coin banks.

It's not to be confused with Trump's other website, DonaldJTrump.com. That site sells a lot of the same kind of merchandise, but its profits flow to Trump's presidential campaign.

By contrast, the profits from TrumpStore.com go to the Trump Organization, which is managed by Trump's two older sons, Eric and Donald Jr., but still owned by the president himself.

And the profits could be sizable. The new site sells the kind of expensive merchandise that can be found in country club gift shops, such as plush bathrobes, polo shirts and golf club covers.

The items are not cheap. A white "Classic Stripe Tech Polo" shirt sells for $105, a Trump baseball cap for $35.

How much it costs to make those items isn't clear, and the privately run Trump Organization didn't respond to requests for comments. But retail consultant Jan Rogers Kniffen says about half of a $35 baseball cap is probably profit.

"When you look at what they're doing, they're trying to mark it up even more than department stores mark up their products," says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group.

Trump isn't the first politician to have an online Web store, Cohen notes.

"What's happened is the campaign businesses have recognized that selling these support products — basically the products that people wear as billboards to show their allegiance and loyalty towards a candidate — are too big of a moneymaker for them to ignore anymore," Cohen says.

But the new website is different, because the profits go to Trump himself, says Larry Noble, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group.

"It fits again into the larger problem of him basically promoting his businesses from the White House," Noble says. "We haven't had another situation where a president has had a website where his business is selling things that are branded with his name."

Is it legal? Noble says most federal employees are barred from profiting off their positions because of conflict-of-interest rules. But such rules don't apply to the president and vice president.

"In reality he still has the right to the profits, so he will profit from whatever he gets from that, as he profits from his golf courses, the hotel, all those enterprises," Noble says.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For decades, Donald Trump has worked hard to leverage his brand. He puts his name on everything from dog collars to teddy bears. Now the privately held Trump Organization has a new online venue called the Trump Store. Here's NPR's Jim Zarroli.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: These days, lots of political candidates have online web stores. The practice is pretty ingenious because it means the campaign wins twice. It gets money from the sale of products such as T-shirts and hats. And it gets free advertising when their supporters walk around in them.

Marshal Cohen is a retail analyst.

MARSHAL COHEN: What's happened is the campaign businesses have recognized that these support products are too big of a moneymaker for them to ignore anymore.

ZARROLI: President Trump, of course, knows a thing or two about self-promotion. He already has a website, donaldjtrump.com, where he sells Trump merchandise - things such as Christmas ornaments and license plate frames emblazoned with his name. The proceeds go to his political campaign. And as of this month, he also has trumpstore.com, which is a private enterprise. Larry Noble of the Campaign Legal Center says that's more unusual.

LARRY NOBLE: We haven't had another situation where a president has had a website where his business is selling things that are branded with his name.

ZARROLI: This newer website is run by the Trump Organization, which is managed by the president's two older sons. But the profits ultimately go back to Trump himself - again, Larry Noble.

NOBLE: In reality, he still has the right to the profits. So he will profit from what he ever gets from that - as he profits from his golf courses, the hotel, all his enterprises.

ZARROLI: Just how much the president will make from this new website is anyone's guess. The privately held Trump Organization doesn't release financial information to the public. And the company didn't respond to a request for comment. Trumpstore.com features much of the merchandise he already sells at his hotels and golf courses. It's the kind of stuff you'd find at a country club golf store - polo shirts and those thick plush bathrobes you see in hotels. Everything is a lot more expensive than you think it should be - again, Marshal Cohen.

COHEN: You know, when you look at what they're doing, they're trying to market up even more than department stores markup their product.

ZARROLI: For instance, the website sells baseball caps with Trump's name on them for $35. Retail consultant Jan Rogers Kniffen says at least half of that is probably profit.

JAN ROGERS KNIFFEN: They're probably buying that Trump cap for less than 17 bucks. And then everything that's made with logos is a little more expensive. So yeah, I'd guess these are 50 to 60 percent gross margin products.

ZARROLI: How many of these caps can Trump hope to sell? Again, we don't know for sure. But Trump's other baseball caps, the ones that say Make America Great Again, were really popular. The campaign had to run an ad warning people not to buy knockoffs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If your hat does not have the dark green under-visor on it, it is counterfeit.

ZARROLI: It's not illegal for Trump to sell baseball caps with his name on them. But the Campaign Legal Center's Larry Noble says it's one more example of a disturbing practice by the Trump administration.

NOBLE: It fits again into the larger problem of him basically promoting his businesses from the White House.

ZARROLI: Noble says the Trump Store is one more example of how far the president is willing to go to cash in on his office. And despite months of criticism, he doesn't show any sign of stopping. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DELI'S "PUT IT ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.