Andy Schmookler: Is Trump en route to violating Constitution?
On Jan. 20, Donald Trump is scheduled to take the oath of office, swearing to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” But it looks as though Mr. Trump is already on course to be in violation of the Constitution.”
The “emoluments clause” of the Constitution forbids anyone “holding any Office” in the United States from benefiting from gifts or favors from any foreign nation. It is the means by which our founders sought to assure that those entrusted by the people to run their country would not sell out the national interest for their own enrichment.
To avoid any possible suspicion that a president might serve himself at the cost of the nation, an American norm has required that the president’s assets be placed in a blind trust, so he can’t even know where his own private financial interests lie.
Even with people with undoubted integrity, our political system has insisted both on financial transparency from the president for the public and on opaqueness for the president about his own financial interests. Trump has broken precedent on both counts.
He has broken precedent in refusing to convert his holdings into a blind trust. Instead, he has put his children in charge of his opaque economic empire, even while including them in his deliberations as president-elect. Nothing “blind” about that arrangement.
Whether or not Trump is involved in actively running his business is beside the point. What matters is that he would know where his financial interests lie.
And he has broken precedent in refusing to release his tax returns. And, because Trump Inc. is a privately owned corporation, its web of dealings and interests are hidden from public scrutiny. As things now stand, he could sell us out and we wouldn’t even know it.
Trump has been dismissive of concerns about potential corruption, saying that his private profit “is just so unimportant compared to what we’re doing to make America great again.” He will be thinking only about the nation, he is claiming, not about gaining more wealth for himself.
Trump is telling us to just trust that he will put his patriotic duty to country ahead of greed. No other president has required us to rely on trust. But despite there being so much we don’t know about his finances, we do know enough about Trump and money to conclude that — with this particular president — safeguards are especially necessary.
Here are three relevant examples of what we do know:
- In the case of Trump University, which Trump just settled by paying out $25 million, enough information has been made public for us to know that Trump knowingly misrepresented that program in order to bilk average people out of what was for them substantial sums of money. The billionaire, in other words, chose his own enrichment even at the cost of substantially ruining ordinary people.
- In the case of the Trump Foundation, which has just formally admitted to violating the laws against “self-dealing” by charities, and by implication has admitted also to filing false statements under penalty of perjury, we know that Trump was willing to use funds raised for charity to benefit himself.
- The public record also shows that hundreds of lawsuits and other government filings have been brought by contractors and workers claiming that Trump has stiffed them on payment for work Trump contracted for them to perform. His greed trumped fairness, and the fulfillment of promises.
Can anyone point to an instance where Trump has foregone a chance for self-enrichment in deference to any other value?
If we have already seen that neither the values of honesty, nor fairness, nor compassion for others less fortunate, nor even the law could sway Trump from the path of greed, what reason is there to believe that something like “presidential responsibility” would outweigh Trump’s drive to increase his wealth?
Already, evidence is piling up that Trump is using his new public position to bolster his private financial empire. It appears Trump has already, as president-elect, used his contacts with Argentine and British government officials to get favorable treatment for his business enterprises.
The present situation poses such an unprecedented threat to America’s integrity that even stalwart conservative voices – like that of the Wall Street Journal – are saying that Trump must follow American norms and “liquidate his holdings.” Meanwhile, George W. Bush’s ethics adviser has said that unless Trump creates a true blind trust, the Electoral College should refuse to make him president.
But Trump has still not budged.
Are we already heading into a constitutional crisis?
Andy Schmookler — who was the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012 — is the author most recently of “What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World — and How We Can Defeat It.