At a recent Republican fundraiser, Ivanka Trump was asked what personality traits she inherited from her parents, and replied that from her mother she learned how to be a powerful woman. From her father, she said, she got her moral compass.
The reaction of the assembled donors — Gasps of shock? Gales of laughter? — was not recorded. But I imagine the group sharing a knowing chuckle, because President Trump’s worldview is now emphatically shared not just by his children but by the entire Republican Party. Its precepts include: Grab what you can, screw over anyone you want, rules are for losers, and if you can get away with it, do it.
Every now and then, however, an institution attempts to put constraints on Trump’s behavior, so far with only limited success. But the chances of some kind of accountability got a little higher Friday, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit revived one of three lawsuits over the president’s obvious and continuous violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
This case was brought by a group of restaurants and a hotel operator claiming that Trump was harming their businesses by using the power of his office to lure both foreign governments and state governments to patronize his restaurants and hotels to win his favor.
While there are some complex legal arguments about whether the plaintiffs have standing to sue, no one honestly doubts that Trump is doing exactly what they claim. The difference between the two parties is that Democrats think it’s wrong for him to do so, while Republicans have apparently decided it’s just fine.
To be fair, we are in some uncharted legal territory on emoluments. Never in two centuries have we had a president so determined to monetize the Oval Office. In fact, before Trump became president, there were no significant emoluments lawsuits in the entirety of U.S. history. It just never came up. There have been presidents who were corrupt in various ways, but none was so brazen as to, for instance, try to get the Group of Seven summit held at one of his golf resorts to revive its flagging fortunes.
What may be most remarkable, however, is not so much that Trump has sought to get paid by so many different people — this is, after all, a man who said proudly when running for president, “My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy. I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy” — but that so many have been so eager to put money in his pocket.
As soon as he took office, everyone immediately understood how the system was going to work. Not only is the president a desperately insecure man-child in need of constant praise; he also demands literal payment, the showier the better. There is no better example than his Washington hotel, just blocks from the White House, where a steady parade of Republican boot-lickers, corporate influence-seekers and foreign governments come to eat, book rooms and hold events so that Trump knows they’re forking over the baksheesh he requires.
There was never any pretense that this was not taking place. Even before he was inaugurated, Trump’s hotel held an event for foreign diplomats at which they were pitched on its amenities. “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’” said one candid Asian diplomat. “Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’”
If there’s a single Republican in good standing (i.e. not a “Never Trumper”) who has raised even the slightest public objection to Trump doing everything he can to profit off the presidency, I haven’t noticed them.
So what happens now? What Trump fears is a trial in any of these three lawsuits, which would entail a discovery process, records introduced in evidence and testimony, all of which could paint a vivid picture of just how corrupt an enterprise he is running. To avoid that spectacle, he will continue to appeal every adverse judgment, all the way to the Supreme Court.
Trump’s belief is that in the end, the five conservatives on the court will come to his rescue and throw out all these lawsuits, on the grounds that the plaintiffs don’t have standing to sue or for some other reason; perhaps they’ll rely on the time-honored legal principle of Rules Apply Only To Democrats.
There’s a good chance he’s right. There’s virtually no doubt that he has at least four votes — those of Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, and Brett M. Kavanaugh — to do literally whatever he wants, no matter how blatantly it violates the Constitution. The question is whether he can count on the fifth vote, that of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
It shouldn’t even be a close call, because what Trump is doing is precisely what those who wrote the Constitution were trying to prevent. But Roberts is also a loyal Republican, even if he sometimes rules against what Republicans want at the moment to save the party from its own excesses.
And this is certainly a time of Republican excesses. The party has, with an enthusiasm few could have predicted, adopted Trump’s worldview of amorality and bottomless avarice as its own. Though in fairness, they were most of the way there already.