Robert B. Reich: Trump’s emoluments violations must be punished

Trump berates Mulvaney
(Dan Wasserman)

Donald Trump reversed his decision to host next June's G-7 meeting of heads of state at Trump National Doral Miami because it would have been an impeachable offense and a violation of the Constitution's emoluments clauses.

No, that's not the reason he gave. He said on Twitter that he reversed himself because of "Media & Democrat Crazed and Irrational Hostility."


In reality, Mr. Trump has been funneling government dollars into his own pockets ever since he was elected. The Doral deal was just too much corruption even for Senate Republicans to stomach.

Since he’s been president,Mr. Trump has spent almost a third of his time at one or another of his resorts or commercial properties, costing taxpayers a bundle and giving those resorts incomparable publicity.


One of his golf resorts, Turnberry in Scotland, has gotten business from U.S. Air Force crews overnighting while their planes were refueled.

When Vice President Mike Pence visited the president of Ireland in September, rather than stay in Dublin, he stayed 181 miles away on the other side of Ireland — at the Trump International Golf Links & Hotel in Doonbeg. The person who suggested he stay there was the hotel’s owner, Donald Trump. Those two nights cost American taxpayers nearly $600,000 in ground transportation alone.

Not only are American taxpayers lining Mr. Trump’s pockets, but foreign officials and lobbyists, seeking to curry Mr. Trumps favor, routinely check into the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., or Trump Tower in New York. During Mr. Trump’s infamous phone call to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy last July,Mr. Zelenskiy was eager to tell him he “stayed at the Trump Tower” when last in New York.

Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s oceanfront resort in Palm Beach, Florida, charges its foreign government visitors up to $550 a night for their rooms, according to ProPublica.

How does Mr. Trump get away with this?

Presidents of the United States are exempt from the federal conflict-of-interest statutes — a glaring omission that was never a problem before Mr. Trump exploited this loophole. To make matters worse, Mr. Trump has refused to put his assets into a blind trust, so he knows exactly how much he gains from these transactions.

Theoretically, the public is protected from Mr. Trump’s avarice by the Constitution, which strictly limits the “emoluments” — that is, a payment of money or anything else of value — a president can receive.

Article II, Section 1 says a president receives a salary while in office and “shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States.” Mr. Trump violates this clause every time taxpayer money finds its way into his pockets.

And then there’s Article I, Section 9, which states that no federal officeholder can receive any “Emolument” from any foreign state. Mr. Trump violates this clause whenever he makes money off a foreign government.

The reason the framers of the Constitution included these provisions wasn't just to prevent a president from being bribed. It was also to prevent the appearance of bribes, and thereby maintain public trust in the presidency.

But the appearance if not reality of bribery continues to haunt Mr. Trump. For example, it’s far from clear whether Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the Turkish-Syrian border — a move that has led to the slaughter of Kurds and opened the way for a resurgence of ISIS — was made in the interest of the United States or Mr. Trump’s own business. The Trump Towers Istanbul is his first and only office and residential building in Europe.

Clearly, Mr. Trump continues to violate the Constitution’s emoluments clauses. So how to hold him accountable? Three ways.


The first is through the federal courts. A lawsuit brought by the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia accuses Mr. Trump of violating the Constitution by holding a financial interest in his Washington hotel. Another brought by several plaintiffs alleges that Mr. Trump’s government-subsidized businesses create unfair competition.

A third lawsuit by 215 Democratic members of Congress seeks "the opportunity to cast a binding vote" on the issue, since the Constitution requires the president to obtain "the consent of Congress" before accepting any emolument.

But all these cases are moving through the courts at a slow pace — probably too slowly to stop Mr. Trump from lining his pockets this term of office.

The second way to hold Mr. Trump accountable is through impeachment, which has already begun in the House.

Mr. Trump’s violation of the emoluments clauses should be added to the likely grounds for impeachment already being investigated — seeking the help of a foreign power in an election, and obstruction of justice.

The third and most important way to hold Mr. Trump accountable occurs Nov. 3, 2020.

That’s when the you can stop Mr. Trump from making money off his presidency by voting him out of office.

Robert Reich’s latest book is “The Common Good,” and his newest documentary is “Saving Capitalism.”

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