Weekend’s at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago, membership formerly $100,000/year but now $200,000 and perhaps $300,000 next year, Trump charging Secret Service millions for rooms in Trump Tower in New York or other Trump owned properties, staff promoting Trump products, Trump tweeting about Nordstrom dropping his daughters line because of poor sales, these are just a few of the examples of Donald Trump using the White House as his personal Shopping Channel.
The blatanly obvious promotions by Trump during his presidency should worry everyone who thought Trump would form an honest and ethical government. But another, more odious connection is between Trump interests and foreign powers.
As long as Trump continues to profit from his business empire — which he does whether or not he is nominally in charge — the possibility that outside actors will attempt to affect his policies by plumping up his pocketbook will remain very much in play.
Take the Mar-A-Lago as an example. Trump doubles membership fees once he is president, then decides he will spend his weekends there. Trump didn’t personally benefit, but his properties did. If you were a foreign power wouldn’t you want to purchase a few memberships for the opportunity to be close to the President and have the opportunity for a ‘chat’.
Let’s face it, after Trumps disastrous TV appearance this week and his equally disastrous Mar-A-Lago national security blunder with diners popping away with cameras everything Trump was reading and signing, you have to admit Trump isn’t the sharpest pencil in the pack.
Notably, the Trump Organization simply cannot turn over to the US treasury all profit from interactions with foreign powers. For example, consider the significant benefit conferred by a foreign state that decides to host a series of widely advertised functions at a local Trump hotel, greatly increasing the property’s cultural cachet and thus markedly boosting its profit margins and those of other properties branded “Trump”.
For these and other reasons, Trump will remain in violation of the emoluments clause even if he adheres to any plan he offers government. While his lawyer denied that the clause applies to “fair value exchanges” – presumably as distinguished from sweetheart deals – that conclusion defies common sense.
Why should an otherwise forbidden foreign payment to the president be allowed, but only if the president gives that foreign government its money’s worth in services, advancing interests that may be contrary to the U.S.’s own?
This week, some of Trump’s critics moved forward with legal action. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, filed a lawsuit alleging that Trump’s business holdings violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which makes it illegal for government officials to “accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” CREW’s bipartisan legal team includes, among others, Norm Eisen and Richard Painter, who served as ethics lawyers under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, respectively; Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University; and Zephyr Teachout, a professor at Fordham University (and former congressional candidate) who is considered an authority on the Emoluments Clause. All have been vocally critical of Trump’s continued refusal to sell off his business, and are now taking their case to court to argue that several of Trump’s businesses present avenues by which foreign governments could seek to influence the president by, for example, booking stays at one of his hotels or renting space at one of his properties. Additionally, the lawsuit seeks to force Trump to reveal his tax returns, something every president has done since Gerald Ford but which Trump has refused to do, significantly limiting the public’s ability to understand the president’s finances. When asked about the lawsuit, Trump described it as “totally without merit.” Eisen was quick to respond on Twitter, offering to “debate Trump (or his chosen champion) on the merits of our case anytime,” making it clear that CREW intends to continue to pursue its case. (CREW has also filed a separate complaint to the General Services Administration arguing that Trump has violated the lease on his Washington, D.C. hotel, which states that “no … elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”)
Trump has appointed officials which may turn a blind eye to such lawsuits merely because the lawsuits are vexing.