It's more than just Ukraine: Trump's constitutional crimes
While the political sphere today is obsessed with Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president and the subsequent fallout, this administration’s criminal scandals go much farther than just this one incident. Soliciting a foreign power for campaign dirt—and possibly leveraging congressional appropriations to do it—is a serious crime, but Trump’s other offenses make even this case petty in comparison. Trump’s criminal activity breaks laws in the Constitution itself. In his tenure, he has accumulated multiple violations of the Emoluments Clause in the constitution. The supreme law of our country was written with great care, and the Emoluments Clause is a particularly fundamental ethics rule. Infractions of our constitution also undermine the validity of the document and all the institutions that spring from it, so maintaining the laws is necessary for public faith in our government. For these reasons and more, the public needs to know about these constitutional violations.
The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.
U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1
What you just read is the Domestic Emoluments Clause, designed to ensure that the only payment the government gives the president is the official salary. It is also designed to stop corruption. The Constitutional Accountability Center explains that the founders created the clause in response to a fear of “the corrupting influence of patronage and the co-mingling of profit and power in the same office.” The Center also makes it clear that the founders understood emoluments to mean “any benefit, advantage, or profit,” so the clause is very expansive. No president is allowed to enrich himself with taxpayer dollars; no state or federal agency is allowed to pay the president. Unfortunately, such payments have still happened.
Trump spends much of his time at his private resorts, most famously Mar-a-Lago. These excursions have created a large taxpayer cost because Secret Service and other federal agents follow the president wherever he goes. Usually, security details like these ones are no issue, but problems arise when these details start to pay the private businesses owned by the president. Federal agents use taxpayer money to stay at Trump’s resorts and hotels, and the costs add up. In 2017, Trump signed a spending bill that provided “$58 million for additional Secret Service costs such as rent in Trump Tower and housing for agents at Mar-a-Lago.” That $58 million comes directly from the taxes we all pay and goes straight into Trump’s revenue books. Taxpayers are directly subsidizing Trump’s businesses when he could be staying at the White House, a presidential property, or a private residence.
The problem worsens when Trump goes to his properties for activities that have no relationship to his White House duties. For example, the State Department paid $15,000 at the Vancouver Trump hotel when the president attended its grand opening in 2017. Ceremonies like this ribbon-cutting event are not the job of the president: Trump should not be compensated for them. Nonetheless, our president once again profited from his personal business dealings at the expense of the taxpayer.
Trump’s use of foreign guest workers at his various businesses also presents concerns. Despite Trump’s long-standing crackdown on all forms of immigration, properties like Mar-a-Lago continue to seek work visas to hire foreigners. Because the president controls the H-2B program that governs these visas (through control of the Department of Labor and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services), these visas constitute a massive conflict of interest and an emoluments violation. Workers at the resort are a benefit to the enterprise, so the federal government authorizing them for Trump is illegal under the domestic emoluments clause. The administration has also repeatedly issued more H-2B visas than what Congress allots—despite Trump’s hardline stance on virtually every other type of migration. These increases make this situation even more compromising.
Perhaps the most flagrant violation of the domestic emoluments clause is the recent scandal involving the Air Force’s trips to Trump’s Turnberry Resort in Scotland. The Air Force has lodged personnel at the Trump business over 40 times since 2015. Although the practice predates the Trump administration, trips to the area have dramatically increased since the president took office; there were only 95 stays in the area during 2015 but over 250 so far in 2019. The practice seems to have revitalized the property, as Trump’s resort lost $4.5 million in 2017 but increased revenue by $3 million the next year. The Air Force’s trips to the area also include millions of dollars worth of fuel purchases at the local Glasgow Prestwick Airport, which is critical to the resort’s success. The stays are especially unusual as military bases nearby offer cheaper fuel prices. Staying at the Trump resort is also odd; one Air Force crew member was surprised by the luxury lodgings compared to the usual Marriotts and Hiltons and even noted the per diem allowances didn’t cover the cost of food at the resort. Even if Trump did not personally order the military to stay at his hotel, the revenue generated by the lodgings constitutes an emolument. If nothing else, Trump is constitutionally obligated to stop these stays. His refusal to do so after this scandal’s revelation proves his complete disregard for constitutional duties and the law.
There are more examples of Trump profiting off of government expenditures to his businesses, but the point is already demonstrated: Trump has violated the domestic emoluments clause. He refuses to give up ownership over his companies and continues to profit from their dealings. All of the taxpayer dollars and government benefits that go to Trump enterprises are clear “benefits, advantages, and profits” and therefore break the highest law in our country, the Constitution. The onus is—and always has been—on Trump to stop all government payments to his properties and businesses, but he has continued to take taxpayer money for his personal gain. Unfortunately, there is more to Trump’s constitutional violations.
No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, 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.
U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 9
This excerpt contains the Foreign Emoluments Clause, the international counterpart of domestic emoluments. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the purpose of the clause “was to ensure that the country’s leaders would not be improperly influenced, even unconsciously, through gift giving.” Similar to the Domestic Emoluments Clause, it “broadly encompasses any kind of profit, benefit, advantage, or service.” Trump has violated this section of the constitution as well.
NBC News has identified 22 different foreign governments and representatives of foreign governments that have spent money at Trump properties. This list encompasses, amongst others, Russia, Turkey, China, Brazil, the E.U.; the transactions include hotel stays, conferences, and parties. Every time these states or representatives spend money at a Trump hotel or resort, it adds one more emoluments violation to the list. It is simply unacceptable for a president to profit so much and so many times from his position. It is a serious abuse of the office. It is corruption. It is also harder to tell who Trump is really serving: the American people or the governments that are paying him.
To really showcase the divided loyalties that foreign emoluments create, the example of Saudi Arabia needs to be examined. During the 2016 campaign, Trump disparaged Saudi Arabia again and again. He called them “freeloaders.” He demanded they “reimburse” the United States for the protection we offer. He threatened to cut off oil purchases from the kingdom. He even went so far as to say Saudi Arabia was behind the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
Then, right after the election, money started pouring in from the Saudis. A lobbying expedition from the kingdom racked up about $270,000 in expenses at the Trump International Hotel in DC. The events brought military veterans to lobby against a law allowing victims of 9/11 to sue Saudi Arabia. Just like the military visits to Trump’s Scotland property, the veterans in these lobbying events realized the stays were very unorthodox. One recognized how the private rooms, free dinners, and open bars they received were different from the past lodgings—lodgings that used to be in northern Virginia before the election. Another remarked, “We’ve done hundreds of veterans events, and we’ve stayed in Holiday Inns and eaten Ritz Crackers and lemonade. And we’re staying in this hotel that costs $500 a night.” These stays were not the only Saudi payments to the hotel. After several members of the crown prince's entourage stayed at Trump International, the bookings “were enough to increase the hotel’s revenue for the first financial quarter” of 2018 (as an ironic aside, it’s funny to think Trump once criticized Hillary Clinton for taking money from the Saudis). Trump had previously claimed all profits from foreign government transactions would be donated, but the Trump Organization has refused to even identify all its foreign profits, making such a donation impossible.
Trump’s positions on Saudi Arabia have done a complete u-turn from the campaign. In November 2018, after the kingdom assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump vigorously defended the Saudis and denied CIA findings that the crown prince ordered the murder. Just days after the killing, the administration shared sensitive nuclear technology and expertise with the kingdom—doing it again in February 2019. In May of 2019, the Trump administration declared a national security emergency to bypass Congress and sell arms to Saudi Arabia without approval. Trump has also been an unequivocal supporter of the Saudi assault on Yemen, despite massive disapproval from Congress.
If Saudi Arabia was responsible for 9/11, why did Trump give them nuclear technology? If Saudi Arabia was responsible for 9/11, why did Trump give them weapons? The hundreds of thousands of dollars seem to play a role in this president’s astounding change of heart.
If Saudi Arabia alone poses this gigantic conflict of interest, what about the other twenty-one countries? The possible corruption is almost impossible to track—and that’s the point. The foreign emoluments clause was made to prevent these conflicts before they occurred. The payments should never have been made in the first place; they are unconstitutional unless they have Congressional approval. Trump’s callous disregard for the Constitution violates the oath he took when he assumed the office of the president. His behavior has been massively corrupt and shows no signs of stopping. In the process of violating our highest law, Trump has taken at the very, very least $58 million from taxpayers and an unknown amount of money from foreign governments. Trump has defrauded the American public and demonstrated a complete lack of integrity.
Before Jimmy Carter became president, he controlled a family-owned peanut farm. When he assumed office, he divested from it and put the ownership into a blind trust. Why? Because it was a conflict of interest. Carter, along with everyone else in Washington, realized that it could be used to funnel bribes or persuade the administration to pursue private instead of public interests. Jimmy Carter gave up a single farm, but Trump has refused to divest from even one of his business interests. Trump has broken many White House norms, but blatant and unfettered corruption and conflicts of interest cannot be allowed to stand. This problem goes deeper than just one administration. If this level of corruption goes unchallenged, it will make it harder to call out and counter future abuses of power. It will also decrease confidence in our institutions both in our country and abroad. For the sake of the rule of law and faith in democracy, this administration’s crimes need to be countered.
Trump’s violations of both of the emoluments clauses are unconstitutional, illegal, and, most of all, impeachable. After all, if there are impeachable crimes, how are constitutional ones not included? Trump’s actions need to be put through a fair trial and due process now; we cannot wait for Trump to maybe lose in 2020 and face traditional court; doing so would seem to exonerate this misconduct. Additionally, the public needs to hear about these crimes just as much as the criminal justice system. Only the public arena of Congressional hearings and removal trials will provide the much-needed public disclosure of the violations. The necessity of impeachment over this issue makes it so concerning to hear about Democratic leadership limiting the scope of impeachment to just Ukraine. There is only one practical chance to impeach the president, so all crimes need to be on the table. In an event as serious as impeachment, nothing can be left out. It is also very possible that emoluments violations will be even more egregious to the public than the Ukrainian scandal. Trump has taken tens of millions from taxpayers. People might care about that much more tangible and local issue compared to one centered in eastern Europe, so it makes sense strategically.
Democrats and Republicans need to take a stand on this issue. Stand up against corruption. Stand up against conflicts of interest. Stand up against fraud. Stand up against violations of our constitution. If our congresspersons want to protect our democracy and the rule of law, the choice is clear: impeach Trump over his emoluments violations.
Photo courtesy Darron Birgenheier, Creative Commons