When Donald Trump volunteered to run for president of the United States, he should have read the terms and conditions. He seems shocked to learn that the position comes with a set of responsibilities he’s shown a deep resistance to honoring.
Firstly, as president he cannot earn any income outside of his government salary for the duration of his term. This means any investment income he had upon taking office has to go into a blind trust until he leaves office.
There is a good reason for this rule. It was created to prevent the president from being corrupted by foreign influences. But since the sheer scope of Trump’s conflicts of interest around the world is unprecedented for any incoming American president, it presents serious challenges for him and his incoming administration.
To govern well there can be no question of his intermingling private business with his public responsibilities as president. Unfortunately for the Republic, that’s not how Trump apparently sees it.
Since his global brand is predicated on his name and image, he has been reluctant to give either up in exchange for the public good. Last week The Washington Post reported that 100 foreign diplomats gathered at President-elect Trump’s hotel in Washington, D.C. to “to sip Trump-branded champagne and hear a sales pitch about the U.S. president-elect’s newest hotel.”
The Post quoted some of the visiting diplomats agreeing that their stay at the five-star Trump hotel was simply a ploy to ingratiate themselves to the incoming president.
This is the kind of pay for play tactic common to medieval kings, not presidents of the United States. It strengthens his critics’ claims that he is intentionally seeking business and favors from foreign governments to enrich himself at the expense of his office.
Senior ethics watchdogs are already sounding the alarm. Last week Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor who previously served as chief ethics counsel to President George W. Bush, told the press that Trump’s efforts to do private business with foreign diplomats violates a provision in the Constitution intended to prevent foreign states from buying influence with federal officials.
“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,” the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause states.
But buying Trump’s favor by staying in his hotel “looks like a gift” being made by these diplomats, Painter said, and exactly the kind of favor that the Constitution seeks to prevent.
Trump is aware of the rumblings, and so he is using his Twitter account as a ploy to confound his enemies. By changing the subject he hopes to evade their scrutiny. It won’t work.
So, Trump actually has until January 20 to do the right thing and sell his holdings, put them in a blind trust, or give them to his children to manage exclusively. Certainly, his involvement in any business discussions or considerations must end by that date.
There are steep consequences if he still shows an unwillingness to go along. The founders did not want foreign payments to be made to the president in any capacity, ever. In fact, they permitted impeachment where a president flagrantly transgresses.
If Trump uses his office to apply pressure to foreign governments concerning his private business dealings, even though his children are effectively in change of operations, he will still be in violation of the Constitution.
Meanwhile, Painter sounds his own dire warning. “I don’t think the Electoral College can vote for someone to become president if he’s going to be in violation of the Constitution on day one and hasn’t assured us he’s not in violation,” he said.
Worryingly, Trump himself has not shown a mature grasp of the predicament that he finds himself in. He recently told The New York Times that he could run his business perfectly, and then run the country perfectly. He added that the “ law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
In fact, he can, and at the moment he clearly does. It remains to be seen if he has the will or the responsibility to do anything about it.