As of 12:01 p.m. today, Donald J. Trump is officially the 45th president of the United States—and a campaign to impeach him is already underway.
In the wake of ethical concerns about his failure to divest from his business operations, experts say that Trump is now in violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause—which prohibits government officials from receiving personal payment from foreign governments—and could be violating other laws as well.
Today, a concerted lobbying effort is starting up, aiming to convince a majority of members of the House of Representatives to vote for a resolution that would order the House Judiciary Committee to launch an investigation into whether there are grounds—based on those ethical concerns—for the impeachment of President Trump.
The democracy advocacy group Free Speech For People, in partnership with the progressive online group RootsAction, is leading the campaign, which is housed at the website impeachdonaldtrumpnow.org. Free Speech For People believes that there are several grounds for the impeachment of Trump—the primary one being the Foreign Emoluments Clause, of which the group believes there is already evidence of violations.
“You don’t want to launch this lightly, obviously. You don’t want to do a fishing expedition. But we do have evidence already of [violations of] the foreign emoluments clause,” Ron Fein, Free Speech For People legal director, told the Prospect in an interview.
Fein points to three main categories of evidence against Trump. The first is his ongoing relationships with specific foreign entities. One clear example is his relationship with the Bank of China, a state-owned bank, which is the largest commercial tenant in Trump Tower and is also a major creditor for Trump. “Those are two types of foreign emolument—one is a rent check; the other is extension of credit,” Fein says. “He was warned about this during the campaign as being an issue and nothing has changed.”
The second, and perhaps most high-profile, instance is his ownership of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Ethics experts are concerned that foreign diplomats and other officials will book hotel rooms and host events there as a way to curry favor with Trump. Profits made from those bookings, experts say, would be a violation of the emoluments clause. There were also allegations, reported by ThinkProgress, that the Kuwaiti Embassy had abruptly cancelled an event at a different D.C. hotel after Trump Organization officials pressured the embassy to hold the event at Trump’s hotel.
The final example, Fein says, is Trump’s business partnership in Philippines to build Trump Tower Manila. Trump is not a developer but has licensed the Trump brand for the project. The developer is a man named Jose E.B. Antonio, who after Trump’s election was named the Philippines’ special trade envoy to the U.S. That means that the head of the company developing Trump Tower Manila, in which Trump has a financial stake, is now a government official who will be dealing directly with the U.S. government.
Experts also say that, now that Trump is president, foreign governments could expedite permitting or otherwise green light Trump Organization ventures abroad as a way to influence the president. Trump drew broad criticism when it was reported that he brought up in a phone call with the Argentinian president a Trump tower construction project in Buenos Aires that had been stalled.
“He has so many ongoing business operations—in many cases, stalled projects—that may find themselves active again as obstacles are removed,” Fein says. “Any type of financial benefit, including expedited permitting, green lighting a project, smoothing the way, would also qualify [as an emolument].”
In his first press conference as president-elect last week, Trump unveiled his long awaited plan to address his business conflicts of interest. Despite a broad-based call for him to fully divest from his businesses, Trump said that he would merely hand over the reins of his company to his two adult sons without divesting. He further pledged that he would donate any profits made from foreign officials staying at his hotels to the U.S. Treasury. Ethicists have staunchly rebuked his plan as not a real plan at all, saying it does nothing to address the core conflicts between the presidency and his business interests.
“He has all of the conflicts of interest that he had before,” Richard Painter, who was the chief ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, told Forbes. “We don’t know who his business partners are, we don’t know who he owes.”
“I hope we don’t have a terrorist attack on some building with his name on it,” Painter continued. “I hope we don’t have an international crisis in a country where he has a lot of money invested. If Turkey and Russia get in a fight or something, it’s not a question about, well, what about my hotel?”
The Emoluments clause has emerged as the clearest path toward impeachment, and is a strategy that has the backing of a wide array of legal and ethics scholars. In a brief for the Brookings Institution, Painter, along with former Obama chief ethics lawyer Norm Eisen and renowned Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe, examined in detail the Emoluments Clause and determined that “Donald Trump’s diverse dealings violate both the spirit and the letter of this critical piece of the U.S. Constitution.”
Free Speech For People will also focus on determining whether there are grounds for impeachment based on the Domestic Emoluments Clause—which forbids the president from receiving payment beyond his salary from state governments, and could potentially come in the form of state tax breaks to Trump’s businesses—and the federal STOCK Act, which prohibits government officials from profiting off insider information.
Fein also says that the group has been in contact with a number of House of Representative members, including those some who sit on the House Judiciary Committee. One potential ally could be Congressman Jamie Raskin, a freshman progressive from the D.C. suburbs in Maryland, who elicited huge cheers at a “Save Obamacare” rally when he said “I may well be voting to impeach [Trump] in the next year or two.” Afterwards, in an interview with The Young Turks Wednesday, Raskin said that “right now it looks pretty clear that he’s on a collision course with the Emoluments clause, because he has refused to divest himself of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars he has in business interests around the world, doing business with foreign governments.”
“[The Emoluments clause] says that no elected official, either member of Congress or the president of the United States, can accept a gift, an emolument or any payment at all from a foreign government,” Raskin continued. “He just simply refuses to accept that reality. So if he goes into office and he refuses to divest himself, the moment that the first conflict comes up, that’s going to look like an impeachable offense—at least to this constitutional professor of law.” (Raskin taught constitutional law at American University)
“Some of them [House members] are at the stage where they are ready to roll; others want to make some further inquiries or questions,” Fein says, though he declined to give the names of any members that his group has talked with or who are supportive of the campaign.
The road to impeachment is, admittedly, long and steep. But Fein says he wants to get the process started right off the bat. The campaign will compile what it believes to be evidence of impeachable violations, engage in public education in targeted congressional districts, and push to pass impeachment resolutions on the state and local level. Partisan loyalty will keep Republicans from coming on board and lending the campaign any semblance of bipartisan credibility, but Fein thinks members will eventually begin peeling off from across the aisle.
“I think what you’ll see is this will start off with a core group and then it will expand with each new revelation [of Trump’s violations],” he says.