Predicting What a Donald Trump Presidency Means for Online Poker

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Image credit: Daniel Huizinga

The long and contentious 2016 election season has come to an end and the United States has a new President. Donald J. Trump will assume the highest office of the land on 20 January, 2017. Already, there has been great speculation regarding what he will do once he takes office and whether or not he will live up to his campaign promises.

Much of the speculation revolves around higher-priority issues such as the economy, international relations, the border wall and so on. So before we venture too far down the rabbit hole, we must remember that online poker is a relatively niche issue that occupies a lowly position on the national “to do” list. It may be a huge issue for us poker aficionados, but we have to be honest with ourselves and realize internet poker is simply not that important in the grand scheme of things.

Even so, there is a non-zero chance the online poker issue does come up again at some point over the next four years. Online gaming is a major industry and remains a significant, untapped source of tax revenues. Based on my own observations, the idea of generating new tax revenue streams without having to raise taxes has always been a tempting prospect for many lawmakers.

There’s also the issue that American are still playing online poker despite the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA). Unregulated offshore poker sites continue to suck money from the US and sometimes even just outright steal money from players. This cannot be the status quo forever.

What Trump Will Do if the Poker Issue Emerges

If you followed the 2016 election, you know that Mr. Trump can be unpredictable. Whether this is purposeful or his own type of game-theory strategy, Trump’s opponents and supporters have been hard-pressed to predict his next move. That doesn’t make our job today any easier, but we can look at some of his stated positions and past associations to glean some insight into how Trump may react to the online poker issue.

To cut to the chase, there are some reasons for optimism and some reasons for concern. We really can’t draw any definitive conclusions either way at this point. Instead, I’m going to list a few reasons for each point of view and weasel my way out of a firm answer. Sorry, friends, but there are just too many uncertainties at this early date.

Good: Donald Trump has been involved in the casino industry for a long time so we have to assume he understands the benefits of legal gambling and potential tax revenue it would bring. If Trump makes a decision either way, it won’t come from a fear of the unknown as so many elected representatives tend to do.

Bad: Sheldon Adelson is a vehemently anti-online gambling casino mogul who once pledged to spend “whatever it takes” to destroy all hope for legal online poker sites and casinos in the USA. Near the end of the election, Adelson contributed $25 million to an anti-Hillary super PAC in a bid to improve Trump’s chances. When billionaires dump this much money into politics, they expect to be heard by their representatives.

Good: Trump has ties with many in the casino industry. Sheldon Adelson is not particularly unique in that regard. Furthermore, Sheldon Adelson’s contributions to the Trump campaign were significantly lower than expected, which may indicate Adelson isn’t entirely confident in his ability to influence a Trump Presidency.

Additionally, there are reports coming out now that the Trump transition team is purging itself of all lobbyists as a part of his “drain the swamp” pledge. Trump also says he will institute a five-year ban on on lobbying for all government officials who serve during the Trump administration. These actions indicate that Sheldon Adelson may be disappointed if he hopes to sway Trump’s policies with promises of big campaign donations.

Bad: Trump’s Vice President running mate, Mike Pence, is very against legal online poker and gambling. Pence penned a letter in 2014 urging Congress to reinstate its original interpretation of the Wire Act, which would prevent individual states across the nation from legalizing online gaming.

Good: Donald Trump’s new government website has laid out his agenda for the nation since winning the election. One page of the website dedicated to constitutional rights specifically mentions the 10th Amendment and the importance of allowing each state to forge its own way forward without interference from the federal government.

From the website:

“This includes the Tenth Amendment guarantee that many areas of governance are left to the people and the States, and are not the role of the federal government to fulfill.”

This text strongly indicates Trump’s position would be to continue the current approach, which is to allow each state to choose for itself whether or not to regulate online poker and gambling.

Bad: Congressional republicans have been unable to get RAWA (a bill seeking a federal prohibition of online gaming) passed despite holding majorities in both chambers. Now that they have those majorities plus the Presidency, those in support of RAWA may have a newfound sense of motivation.

However, this may not be a threat. Some republicans opposed RAWA on the basis of the 10th Amendment even before Trump ran for office. Now that Trump has pledged to support the 10th Amendment, republicans who opposed RAWA may feel even stronger that they have the upper hand.

Good: As the PPA notes, Trump has an ambitious agenda for the country as the 45th President of the US. Pursuing this aggressive agenda will leave him with little political capital to tell states such as New Jersey, Delaware and Nevada to shut down their legal poker sites.

Overall Outlook

As you can see, there are good reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic. Personally, I am taking the “cautiously optimistic” route. Trump has never once come out against online gambling, he pledges to respect the 10th Amendment and his pledge to reduce the influence of lobbying is promising. My long-held speculation has been that a majority of the opposition to online gaming in the US has been a result of old-fashioned lobbying from the likes of Sheldon Adelson.

What I see as the most likely worst case scenario is Trump never seriously addressing online poker. His ambitious agenda seems unlikely to leave him much time or willpower to take up the unpopular stance of banning online poker at the federal level. Online poker will probably remain a states issue during the Trump residency.

Having said that, one thing we have learned from this election is that Trump has a natural talent for making those in the predictions business look stupid. The only way we will know for sure is to have an actual showdown that forces Trump to take a position.