There’s no question hosting the G-7 would have financially benefited the president, who has famously refused to surrender his interest in his own company. Even if the resort rented out rooms at a reduced rate or at cost, that’s income it otherwise would not have received if the rooms were sitting empty during Miami’s slow summer season. There’s also the publicity and prestige associated with having world leaders gathering for several days at a resort that reportedly has been struggling since Trump was elected.
If almost any other executive branch official knowingly participated in awarding such a lucrative contract to his or her own company, it would almost certainly be a crime. The federal conflict of interest statute, 18 U.S.C. 208, prohibits federal officials from participating “personally and substantially” in a decision or recommendation on a matter in which the official, a family member or the official’s company have a financial interest. Those who willfully violate this provision may be sent to prison for up to five years.
But unlike the federal bribery statute, the conflict of interest law expressly excuses the president (as well as the vice president) from its prohibitions. Trump himself highlighted this exemption in the days before his inauguration during the controversy over whether he would shed his private business interests, saying: “I have a no conflict of interest provision as president … I could actually run my business and run government at the same time. I don’t like the way that looks, but I would be able to do that if I wanted to.”
This exemption is a practical and constitutional necessity: The president cannot lead the executive branch without taking at least some actions that will affect his own pocketbook. If the president promotes a new tax policy and signs the bill into law, for example, that will affect the finances of the president and his family members along with the rest of the country. Congress could not prohibit the chief executive from taking such actions without stifling his ability to govern.
But this criminal law exemption does not provide a green light for a president to steer particular government business to his own company. That is the very definition of corruption. Authoritarian leaders — many of whom the president seems to admire — routinely loot their own governments to enrich themselves. Our entire system of government is premised on the opposite notion: that officials will act in the public interest rather than for their own personal gain.
But whether Trump hosting the G-7 at his own resort would be criminal is really beside the point. It’s a common — and misguided — refrain in this administration that if something is not a crime then it must be basically okay. Withholding aid from Ukraine was not a problem because there was no criminal quid pro quo — until there was, and then there wasn’t again. Meeting with Russians who promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton did not rise to the level of a criminal conspiracy and so was perfectly acceptable. Planning a campaign and communications strategy around the release of Democratic emails stolen by Russian hackers was fine because the campaign did not participate in the criminal hacking itself.
There is a great deal of behavior that may be immoral, unethical or sleazy — and impeachable — without violating the criminal law. Trump has been enriching himself through the presidency from day one. He routinely brings his entire White House entourage to his own resorts at taxpayer expense. Foreign dignitaries snap up rooms in his Washington hotel — and sometimes don’t even use them. In truth, the Doral summit would have been simply the same misconduct on a grander scale. But as a particularly stark example of pure corruption, it ended up being something this White House rarely encounters: a bridge too far.