Last week, Trump’s new Washington hotel played host to a collection of foreign diplomats.
Back when many expected Trump to lose the election, speculation was rife that business would suffer at the hotels, condos and golf courses that bear his name. Now, those venues offer the prospect of something else: a chance to curry favor or access with the next president.
This wasn’t a spontaneous gathering. This was a meeting arranged by Trump’s family, expressly so that visiting diplomats could ponder ways in which they could make ties to the new administration. It was just one of many methods by which Trump is already moving to monetize the presidency.
Trump isn’t placing his business in a blind trust. More than that, he’s continuing to meet with his business associates even as he’s planning his transition to power. Trump is even planning new business deals to take place during his term in office.
Some companies reflect long-established deals while others were launched as recently as Trump’s campaign, including eight that appear tied to a potential hotel project in Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich Arab kingdom that Trump has said he “would want to protect.”
It’s corruption, without doubt. It places the diplomatic and security interest of the nation at risk. But is it illegal?
If Trump was taking almost any other position in government, what he’s doing would simply be against the law.
Most government officials must follow strict conflict-of-interest regulations designed to block public servants from making decisions in their own private interest.
But because the nature of the position means that presidents are bound to be involved in issues of all sorts, both domestic and international, it’s difficult to create a set of reasonable conflict of interest regulations.
Conscious of their visibility and the perception of possible conflicts, previous presidents have taken very clear steps.
Many modern presidents and major nominees — including Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney — have nevertheless committed to selling or divesting their interests into a blind trust run by an independent overseer with unassailable control.
Trump has no such plans. Despite his years in business, he’s maintained that he’s ignorant of what constitutes a blind trust. Instead, he’ll let his children and existing executives run his company. In fact, since Trump has carried on with business meetings during his transition and has made no secret of the fact that he intends to execute his powers as president at the same desk, in the same office, where he’s perched above Manhattan for decades, it’s more accurate to say that Donald Trump will continue to run Donald Trump’s company.
And there’s nothing we can do about it. The tradition of putting companies in a blind trust? Just a tradition. If neither the voters nor the press will hold the president to task for a conflict of interest, then why bother with such a trust? There’s also no requirement for presidents to reveal their tax returns, or even make financial statements. Donald Trump can run the nation as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Trump Organization, and he can do it without the smallest glimmer of transparency.
There is one possible boundary to this, and it’s one that goes back to the Constitution.
… Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor who previously served as chief ethics counsel to President George W. Bush, says that Trump’s efforts to do business with these diplomats is at odds with a provision of the Constitution intended to prevent foreign states from effectively buying influence with federal officials.
The Constitution’s “Emoluments Clause,” provides that “no person holding any office of profit or trust under” the United States “shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”
If you haven’t run into “emolument” lately, it simply means any kind of payment. On the surface, Trump’s profiting from foreign governments would seem to directly collide with this clause—which country is going to be first to discover that they can rent a U.S. brigade by buying a shipload of Trump Water? But Trump can feign ignorance to such contributions to his bank account, or make the case his position as president is unrelated to funds going into his hotels, pointing back to the reasoning behind the lack of conflict of interest laws on the White House.
Assuming that Trump does not divest from his hotel, however, it may prove difficult to enforce the Constitution against him. There are few court cases dealing with the Emoluments Clause. Typically, the country has relied on internal safeguards within the executive branch and fear of political embarrassment to prevent violations by the president.
Trump is not embarrassed. His voters will not see this conflict as a scandal. The press will not see it as a scandal. His Justice Department will certainly not see it as worth a moment’s consideration.
It’s also quite possible that companies will move to directly compensate Donald Trump, not by contributing to a campaign fund or PAC as has happened with previous candidates but by simply giving him a share of ownership in their company. In one action, they move to reward the president and ensure the alignment of their interests with his. Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, appears to have taken exactly this approach in rewarding Trump as much as $2 million interest in their company along with $100,000 for his campaign.
Bribery is one of the specifically enumerated crimes for which a president may be impeached.
The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.
However, it seems far less likely that the Republican Congress would hold Trump accountable for such actions than that the press would give it any more attention than the passing blurbs for his $25 million fraud payment.
In reality, there seem to be few barriers that stand between Trump and walking off with an unlimited payday. And the biggest potential lies with those policies that are the greatest threat to U.S. interests.
Democratic regimes—say, in Europe—are by their own rules unable to offer de facto personal bribes to the U.S. president. Putin's Russia or, for that matter, Xi's China, will be fine with sending huge business to the profiteer-in-chief. And that will cause a tilt of U.S. policy toward authoritarian regimes. — Paul Krugman