Trump’s Get-Rich-Quick Presidency

(Photo: AP/Riccardo Savi)

On Saturday, the Embassy of Kuwait plans to celebrate its National Day at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., one of the more than 500 businesses in roughly two dozen countries around the world owned by the president of the United States.

Embassy officials have denied reports that they moved their celebrations to the president’s D.C. hotel under political pressure from the Trump Organization, even though they originally planned to hold their event at the Four Seasons in Georgetown. But even if the Kuwaitis chose Trump’s hotel for non-political reasons, their National Day venue epitomizes the ethical conflicts and legal peril that Trump cannot avoid as both president and owner of an international business conglomerate.

Until now, Trump has brushed aside suggestions that he divest from his vast business holdings, arguing in essence that the president can do whatever he wants. While it’s technically true that federal ethics laws do not require the president to follow the same rules as his appointees, Trump is in clear violation of the Constitution’s “emoluments” clause, legal experts, watchdogs, and many Democrats argue. Article 1, Section 9 specifically bars the president from receiving money or anything of value from a foreign government or head of state.

The questions surrounding how Trump’s business holdings might distort or even corrupt his executive decision-making has stirred fewer passions and protests than his more inflammatory moves involving immigration and health care. But the Trump Organization’s steady expansion into India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, the doubling of membership fees at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, and the brazen hawking of Trump family-branded products have all intensified public scrutiny of the profits Trump stands to earn as he tends to the nation’s business in the Oval Office.

Most importantly, a broadening congressional investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election adds urgency to the question of what, if any, money Trump owes to foreign states, including Russia. The improper Russian contacts that forced the ouster of Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser, and reports that Trump campaign aides had contacts with Russian operatives during last year’s election, now cast Trump’s business conflicts in an even more disturbing light. Democrats have stepped up their efforts to get to the bottom of Trump's business conflicts. These include a Resolution of Inquiry by House Democrat Jerrold Nadler, of New York, that would force the Justice Department to turn over to the House all information relevant to Trump's business conflicts, ethics violations and Russia ties. Republicans are reportedly preparing to scuttle the resolution in a Judiciary Committee vote scheduled for Tuesday. 

Trump has faced lawsuits and petitions calling for his impeachment, on the grounds that he is violating the emoluments clause, from day one of his presidency. He was unmoved when the head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, Walter M. Shaub Jr., stated point blank that the president’s moves to supposedly separate himself from his business interests were wholly inadequate. The president has handed the Trump Organization’s management over to his two sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, but has failed to divest himself of his business holdings.

Republican control of the House, where any impeachment proceedings would have to start, might make Trump look untouchable. But there are more oversight tools available to check Trump’s ethics violations than meet the eye, according to Liz Kennedy, director of democracy and government reform at the Center for American Progress.

The courts, Congress, and federal ethics agencies all exercise power to hold Trump accountable, notes Kennedy. A challenge for some organizations bringing lawsuits, including the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is that plaintiffs must prove they have the legal standing to sue. The campaign-finance advocacy group Free Speech for People got around this quandary recently with a creative legal tactic. The group has called on New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has a history of tangling with Trump, to revoke the Trump Organization’s business charter in the Empire State.

“The organization is engaged in colluding with the President of the United States to violate the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law,” says John Bonifaz, Free Speech for People’s co-founder and president. The group also points to the Trump Organization’s history of alleged fraudulent, discriminatory, and illegal activity in New York as evidence that its charter should be revoked. Schneiderman has said that he and other Democratic attorneys general are discussing the charter challenge, and that litigation may follow.

Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill are also looking more closely at Trump’s conflicts  Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has introduced legislation that would require the president to disclose his tax returns. A bill sponsored by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren would require the president and vice president to divest from any companies that present a financial conflict of interest. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California recently charged that China’s decision to award Trump a new trademark that allows him to profit from the sale of goods and services bearing his name could be unconstitutional.

Even some Republicans have voiced concern. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, of Utah, has been pressing the General Services Administration to explain why Trump’s lease on the Old Post Office building that houses his Washington, D.C., hotel does not violate a ban on federal and District of Columbia elected officials’ holding government leases. Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee tried without success recently to convince Republicans to join them in demanding Trump’s tax returns from the Treasury Department—something federal tax law empowers the panel to do.

“Congress very clearly and simply has the power to look at Trump’s tax returns, and they ought to use it,” says Kennedy of the Center for American Progress. “The Ways and Means Committee could do it tomorrow.”

So far, congressional Republicans have shown almost zero inclination to stand up to Trump. But 58 percent of Americans lack confidence that the president keeps his business interests separate from his job and another 54 percent of voters want Congress to take action to block Trump from receiving payments from foreign governments. As Trump’s business conflicts mount, alongside constituent concerns, Republicans may find his entanglements impossible to ignore.

This story has been updated to reflect action by House Democrat Jerrold Nadler, of New York.

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