Phil Stein, a New York sightseeing tour guide who works with visiting student groups, usually gives his spectators a two-hour break to go shopping on Fifth Avenue. During one outing in March, a group of middle school girls from Texas returned to the tour holding black bags full of Make America Great Again hats from the Trump Store in Trump Tower. To purchase the hats, they told Stein, they had to do something he found startling: fill out forms affirming they were United States citizens and hand over other personal information including their address and email.
“My gut feeling was, this was not right,” Stein said.
Gut feelings aside, what the middle schoolers experienced was not some nationalist-capitalist purity drive. The young Texans had just unwittingly become supporters of Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, one more unprecedented piece of the trashy mosaic that now makes up our political reality: reelection fundraising via chintzy tourist merchandise, a previously unheard of way to raise money for a candidate.
“Everything about Trump is unusual if not unprecedented,” said Richard Briffault, a professor of legislation at Columbia and author of Dollars and Democracy: A Blueprint for Campaign Finance Reform, when I asked whether this was normal candidate behavior.
The layout of Trump Tower, the 58-story Fifth Avenue skyscraper, office building, mini shopping mall, and residence where the president’s wife and youngest son still reside, encourages this confusion. When you go down the golden escalators in the building’s lobby, past the Spaceballs-esque levels of Trump branding on every surface — cases full of Trump gummy bears and Trump golf-club headcovers — and turn a corner, you’re met by a wall of merchandise. It’s piled over a sign indicating that this was once “Trump’s Sweet Shop” which once sold ties, books, and candy.
Bought an 'official' MAGA hat? You just donated to Trump.
Now it’s a full-on Trump-for-president shop, the kind once only seen at his campaign rallies or on his website, selling those boxy Make America Great Again hats for $30, USA hats for $40, and other ephemera of the 45th presidency of the United States.
A spokeswoman for the Trump organization confirmed that purchases at the shop are direct contributions to the president’s reelection fund, and that anyone who wants to buys something has to fill out a basic name and address form on a laptop to make sure they meet the legal requirements for campaign contributions and live in the United States. Signs at the stand don’t exactly spell this out: one says “Only location in New York City to sell OFFICIAL (emphasis theirs) Donald J. Trump for President merchandise,” but you don’t know you’re contributing to the campaign until a cashier directs you to the form.
Bucking tradition, Trump announced his reelection campaign less than a month into his presidency. He raised $13.2 million for reelection in the first three months of the year, Politico reported in April; much of which, according to the site’s review of Federal Election Commission reports, came from the sale of branded merchandise — such as the hats sold at Trump Tower. By comparison, Barack Obama didn’t announce his reelection bid and start fundraising until April 4, 2011, 881 days after the 2008 election, and never sold his wares in a physical store.
Michael J. Malbin, the executive director of the nonprofit Campaign Finance Institute, said that it’s unprecedented for an incumbent to start raising money this early.
“Most wait until they are well into year three before announcing,” he said. “This early in a term, it is clear that tourists are buying presidential mementos and not engaging in the next political campaign. So the president is trading on the power of the office to sell objects to beef up his campaign list long before anyone would think of there being a campaign.”
The Trump store also sees hordes of foreign tourists. Federal law prohibits foreigners from donating to campaigns; this is spelled out on another sign in the shop, which is why the teens had to say they’re American citizens on the form (Stein said he wasn’t sure if they had to show ID to prove it, but it’s unlikely they would have had any since they were only 12 and 13 years old. When I observed sales in action at the stand in late March, I did not see anyone being asked to produce identification). There is no age restriction on making political donations. Collecting the info on people buying the merchandise both helps track donations, and build a supporter base for the 2020 reelection effort — which those middle schoolers won’t be old enough to participate in.
Like many things in the 45th presidency, Malbin said, “there's nothing illegal here; so far it only seems tacky.”
But in a further twist of midtown commercialism, anyone who doesn’t want to donate to the campaign but still show their support of Trump can buy knock-off hats and other merchandise at the regular Trump Tower gift shop, just a few feet away from the campaign stand, and less prominent.
Everything about Trump is unusual if not unprecedented.
The shop has rented its space in Trump Tower — between the former Sweet Shop and the bathrooms — for 10 years and now sells the typical assortment of Midtown crap that lets tourists avow “I love New York!” without actually adopting any of our values. The shopkeeper is friendly and opens with patter about how he’s got bargains compared to the campaign stand: He’ll sell you MAGA hats for cheaper, $20 a pop or three for $50, plus Trump bobbleheads, shirts and mugs. Those hats are a rounded cap shape that (in this reporter’s opinion) are way more stylish than the boxy, ’80s Little League coach style of the official caps.
“It’s the same quality!” he said of the hats, which are made in China.
Knowing Trump’s feelings about the media and grudges, I didn’t ask the shopkeeper’s name, though he was an immigrant. He said Trump used to come into the store to buy candy bars and that he’s nicer than the man you see on TV.
Malbin notes the official campaign merchandise shop, like the other gift shop, would have to pay normal commercial rates for the space, or else it would be guilty of of accepting a corporate contribution.
“The campaign is trading on the presidency to make a profit on hats, some of the proceeds of which are used to pay rent to a corporation owned by the president,” he said. “Whether or not there is a legal conflict of interest, there is self-dealing.”
Presidents naturally have healthy egos, but we have never had one who has a literal golden shrine to himself, complete with gift shop, in the middle of a major American city before. Jimmy Carter didn’t have a gift shop at his peanut farm… because he sold his peanut farm so he could become president. Trump has once again found a way to turn the presidency into a money-maker for himself: selling hats to middle schoolers and straddling the now embarrassingly blurred line between running for president and operating just another tacky midtown tourist trap.