THE MORNING PLUM:
Two of the biggest stories in Washington right now — President Trump’s battle with lawyer Michael Cohen, and a federal judge’s decision to let a lawsuit alleging ongoing violations of the emoluments clause proceed — are both converging toward one endpoint. Both demonstrate the degree to which Trump places his personal interests before those of the American people, and both may shed light on that wretched reality in much more detail in coming days than Trump ever bargained for.
Thursday morning, news reports tell us that Trump’s allies view future disclosures from Cohen — who released audio showing Trump was aware of a hush-money scheme to quiet an alleged mistress before the election — as a serious threat to his presidency. Meanwhile, the judge’s ruling Wednesday means the court battle over whether Trump is violating the Constitution with his business profits shifts into a new phase that could bring more revelations.
In that ruling, a federal judge denied Trump’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit brought by the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C., which alleges that Trump, whose businesses are regularly patronized by foreign officials, is violating the Constitution’s ban on officials accepting emoluments from foreign governments. The court rejected Trump’s effort to define “emoluments” very narrowly, and instead accepted the plaintiffs’ argument that they constitute “profit,” “gain” or “advantage,” i.e., the sort of profits that go to Trump’s businesses. This means the case now moves forward to determine whether Trump reaped such profit, gain or advantage from foreign governments.
In an interview with me, Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is involved in the lawsuit, laid out the next steps: D.C. and Maryland will now seek discovery access to the financial records of Trump’s businesses — in particular, the hotel he owns in D.C. “We’re going to seek records to show what benefits and payments the president got, and that’s going to include extensive business and financial records,” Bookbinder said.
It’s possible Trump could block the discovery process, through an unusual appeal or other means. But if he fails, Bookbinder said, the discovery process could “prove that the president has been receiving payments,” demonstrating this in a new level of detail documenting “foreign officials staying at the Trump hotel,” which could in turn show that “the president is violating the constitution.”
The goal is to get the court to flatly declare that in accepting these payments, Trump is violating the Constitution, and even better, for the court to order Trump to stop. For instance, Trump might have to divest from his businesses (which he has refused to do), or his hotel might have to stop accepting forms of business that constitute the violation, among other possibilities. The case would probably go to the Supreme Court, and it’s possible the plaintiffs could lose or gain only a partial victory, in which the courts declare that Trump is violating the Constitution but not order an end to it. Another possibility, of course, is that Trump defies a court order to stop, which would precipitate a crisis.
But whatever happens, along the way we may well learn much more about the scope and nature of the payments themselves. This will boost pressure on congressional Republicans to exercise real oversight (which may happen only if Democrats take back the House). Barring that, the public will learn a good deal more about Trump’s questionable profiteering — and about the congressional GOP’s abdication in the face of it.
This case goes directly to the core of Trump’s blending of private and public interests at the expense of the country. It is of course completely possible for Trump to continue to profit this way without letting it influence his decision-making. But importantly, Wednesday’s ruling explicitly confirmed that the goal of the Constitution’s ban on emoluments is to remove any possibility that this might happen. The framers “made it simple,” the ruling states. “Ban the offerings altogether.”
Trump’s interests always come first
The crucial point here is that Trump should not be receiving these payments — and should have divested from his businesses at the outset — to remove any doubt for the American people that in his official decision-making capacity, he is acting in their interests at all times, and not in his own. But Trump does not see any institutional obligation of any kind to reassure the people — all the people — in this regard. Instead, he has placed his personal interests first — a form of corruption in its own right. This lawsuit may end up shedding new light on just how much this has lavished on his personal bottom line.
This is the through line to Trump’s battle with Cohen. At a minimum, the audio released Tuesday demonstrated that Trump knew during the election that his lawyer was making a hush-money payoff to an alleged mistress that functioned as a campaign-related expenditure, while not publicly disclosing it as such. Whether or not that is a crime, the Trump campaign falsely claimed “no knowledge of any of this” at the time, misleading the press and the public, thus putting Trump’s seamy personal interests first. And this is only the beginning of what Cohen-related revelations may reveal, when it comes to Trump’s prioritizing of his own interests over those of the rest of the country.
* TRUMP TEAM WORRIES ABOUT MICHAEL COHEN: After Cohen released the audio of the phone call with Trump, The Post reports that Trump’s allies are worried about more to come:
Within Trump’s political orbit, the uncertainty about what other damaging information Cohen may possess — and if he plans to weaponize it against the president, as now seems possible if not likely — has allies worried. “The general feeling inside and outside the building is that if there was anything, this would be the guy who would know it and now give it up,” said the operative close to the White House.
Intriguingly, The Post reports, both Trump and Cohen privately are angry at each other for what they see as betrayal. No honor among thieves …
* COHEN HAS LOTS OF TAPES. PROSECUTORS HAVE THEM: Another key nugget from the Post story:
The government has seized more than 100 recordings that Cohen made of his conversations with people discussing matters that could relate to Trump and his businesses and with Trump himself talking, according to two people familiar with the recordings. Cohen appeared to make some recordings with an iPhone — without telling anyone he was taping them.
There may be only one tape that features Trump speaking at any length, The Post reports, but there’s no telling what Cohen said about Trump in the other ones.
* ANGRY COHEN SEEN AS ‘GREATEST THREAT’ TO TRUMP: The Associate Press reports on their rapidly deteriorating relationship:
Cohen … is viewed by many in Trump’s orbit as the greatest threat to the former businessman’s presidency. … Cohen … now feels increasingly isolated and burned by the attacks against him by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and by the president’s efforts to play down his former fixer’s role.
Nothing gets a self-respecting fixer more worked up than playing down his fixer prowess. Sad!
* A TRUCE IN TRADE WAR OR JUST A LULL? Trump and the European Union have backed away from a destructive trade war and have pledged to negotiate to lower tariffs, but the New York Times points out:
It was hard to say, given Mr. Trump’s bluster and unpredictable negotiating style, if the agreement was a genuine truce or merely a lull in a conflict that could flare up again. Twice, Mr. Trump’s aides have negotiated potential deals with China, only to have him reject them and impose further tariffs.
The problem: It’s never clear what Trump will need to declare victory, because he often rails at mistreatment of America that isn’t real. If he starts feeling like a loser again, all bets are off.
* DRIVE TO IMPEACH ROSENSTEIN PUTS GOP IN TOUGH SPOT: House conservatives allied with Trump have introduced impeachment articles against Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. But The Post reports:
House Republican aides said that if a member tried to force a vote on the measure, leaders probably would move to send it to the House Judiciary Committee for further review, effectively bottling it up indefinitely. But that could still be an uncomfortable vote for many Republicans who are under pressure from conservative groups — and the voters who follow them — to unseat the man who oversees the investigation Trump routinely denigrates as a “witch hunt.”
So GOP leaders don’t want a full vote on this to happen. Let’s see if they strongly defend the integrity of the investigation and forcefully denounce this bad-faith nonsense for what it is.
* ROSENSTEIN IMPEACHMENT WILL FIZZLE: Congressional reporter Steven Dennis makes a good point about Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who is leading the drive to impeach Rosenstein:
In other words, Trump’s allies know this has no chance whatsoever to get support, even among most Republicans.
* TRUMP TAX CUT BALLOONS THE DEFICIT: Jim Tankersley has a useful look at how the Trump/GOP tax cut is pushing up the deficit to nearly $1 trillion over the next decade. And it could get worse:
The drop in tax payments has come as the American economy is already the healthiest it has been since the crisis, raising questions about whether the deficit could balloon further if growth begins to slow. … Analysts … expect growth to slow in the second half of the year, as interest rates continue to rise and trade tensions weigh on the economy.
Growth in the second quarter looks as if it has been very robust, however, and Trump will proclaim this proves the tax cut is awesome, so never mind what will happen after that. It’s all good.