President Trump has flouted a standard upheld by every preceding president: Don’t use the presidency to enrich yourself and your family. Whether or not he has violated the emoluments clause (more about that in a moment), he surely has abused his powers by hawking his businesses while speaking in his official capacity, using his presidency to drive business to his properties, putting family members in positions of power that create inevitable conflicts of interest and refusing to divest himself of business interests that create at the very least the appearance of a conflict.
The most egregious case may have started even before he was elected — pursuing a deal for Trump Tower in Moscow while telling debate audiences and interviewers Vladimir Putin wasn’t such a bad fellow after all. Was Jared Kushner meeting with a sanctioned Russian bank to discuss his own finances or to open up communication for the incoming administration? We’ll never know for sure, but that’s precisely why he should never have been placed in that position.
Trump was at it again on Monday at the United Nations. USA Today reported:
President Trump kicked off his Monday speech before the United National general assembly with a plug for his nearby residential tower.
“I actually saw great potential across the street, to be honest with you, and it’s only for the reason that the United Nations was here that that turned out to be such a successful project,” Trump said, after an introduction from U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
The building in question is the Trump World Tower, a residential skyscraper in the United Nations Plaza.
The Post also reports that Trump properties are becoming ways for domestic and foreign petitioners to endear themselves to Trump:
Trump-owned hotels and clubs have long made money by holding galas and other special events. Now, their clientele is changing. Trump’s properties are attracting new customers who want something from him or his government.
The downside is he is losing a lot of business from individuals and charities that want nothing to do with him, but the issue is not whether on net he comes out ahead or behind. The issue remains whether his nest is being feathered by everything from hotel bookings to trademarks from the Chinese government to influence his official decision-making. He’s getting money from domestic interest-seekers. (“At least 27 federal political committees — including Trump’s reelection campaign — have flocked to his properties. They’ve spent $363,701 in just seven months, according to campaign-finance reports. In addition, the Republican Governors Association paid more than $408,000 to hold an event this spring at the Trump National Doral golf resort, according to tax filings, a gathering the group said was booked back in February 2015.”) And worse, from business associations under investigation or regulatory control of the federal government and foreign delegations Trump now gets a regular stream of bookings.
This grotesque, open corruption, the kind of pay-to-play politics our ethics laws are designed to protect against has been allowed to fester by the Republican Congress. In sitting idly by, Congress has set a new, low standard and an invitation to future presidents to do the same. There are three ways to address the problem.
First, lawsuits have already been filed challenging Trump’s ability to receive monies from foreign governments. The emoluments clause, however, give Congress the right to approve these dealings, which it has not done. Should one or both houses of Congress flip to Democratic control votes can be taken to specifically disallow foreign business to continue, thereby challenging Trump to give up assets or give up the presidency.
Second, in our system of checks and balances Congress should be able to legislate to prevent egregious ethical violations. It could, if it wanted to, pass legislation specifically banning relatives from working in the White House and using government resources. It could, if it wanted to, require a blind trust or full divestiture (that’s not a requirement for the job or a bar to the presidency, just a law that could be applied to the president and vice president as it is for other executive branch employees). It could, if it wanted to, require all presidents to release years of tax returns and other financial information. It could, if it wanted to, bar the government from spending money at his properties. Trump could choose to veto such measures, but that, like any veto, could be overridden. Unfortunately, we have a Republican Congress that considers itself defensive backs for the president not for the Constitution or good governance.
Third, he could be impeached for abusing his office, whether there are new laws or not. It might seem unfair to remove him from office when Congress has heretofore not addressed these issues, but remember that impeachment is not limited to statutory crimes (e.g., bribery). “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” is a political determination. What if, for example, the president required employees to stay at his properties, would only meet with foreign diplomats who rented rooms at his hotels or wouldn’t travel to a foreign country unless it granted favors to promote his businesses? That would be akin to the Russian system — which amounts to an organized crime syndicate. Surely we would say that’s impeachable even if no law is implicated.
What we cannot do is allow this behavior to go unchecked and even unremarked upon. Democrats should introduce legislation and run on it in 2018 to stop Trump’s self-dealing. Republicans on the ballot in 2018 should have to explain why they haven’t restrained the president’s behavior. And if there is anyone on the GOP side who has an ounce of moral courage he or she should join with Democrats in pushing for such legislation right now. Don’t hold your breath. Republicans could have prevented all of this by not nominating him or by passing legislation at the start of the presidency. In refusing to do so, they are enabling corruption and turning the White House into a Kremlin-like operation where the government serves the president’s interests, not the other way around.