HOW MUCH OF TRUMP'S PROFITEERING IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL, AND HOW MUCH IS JUST SLEAZY? A FIELD GUIDE.
No story has gripped Washington's attention over the last year more than the Russia investigation. Robert Mueller's inquest draws ever closer to the president. Three congressional committees are at least going through the motions of conducting their own probes. One breathtaking media scoop follows another. The question at the heart of it all is whether Donald Trump violated the law or the Constitution--and, ultimately, whether those violations merit his impeachment.
Yet all the while, official Washington has tolerated an entire other class of corrupt and potentially unconstitutional behavior being carried out in plain sight, as Trump uses the presidency to enrich himself and his family. He has installed immediate relatives at the helm of the Trump Organization, continued to accept payments from foreign governments and private interests, and lavishly billed the government for using his own properties--all without guaranteeing that he will prioritize his duties as president over his own bottom line.
No president ever entered office with the type of immense personal fortune and ongoing business interests that Trump has. Trump's vast business empire spans more than 500 companies in twenty-five countries and has earned him an estimated net worth of $3.1 billion. Traditionally, on taking office, presidents have placed their assets in a "blind trust" whose trustee is legally barred from telling the beneficiary about the trust's holdings. Jimmy Carter famously placed the family peanut business into a blind trust in 1977. Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all followed suit.
Trump's trust agreement is a little different. For one thing, it's not blind--Trump's children have admitted to providing their father with regular business updates. For another, the agreement allows him to withdraw profits and assets from the trust at any time. That means Trump has a direct and ongoing financial interest in any policy decision that could affect his businesses.
Much of this has happened in broad daylight. The mainstream media has covered Trump's conflicts doggedly. But the steady drip-drip-drip of evidence hasn't captured the public's attention like Russia has, or motivated any serious response by the government--no investigations are under way, either in Congress or the executive branch. This despite the fact that the infractions raise the same terrifying possibility as Trump's possible collusion with Russia: the sacrificing of American interests in the service of the president's personal gain.
The only active effort to investigate Trump's profiteering is happening through civil lawsuits in D.C. and Maryland federal courts. The plaintiffs challenging Trump's behavior include the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW); some 200 Democrats in Congress, led by Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal; attorneys general in Washington, D.C., and Maryland; and hotel and restaurant owners who compete with Trump. They all argue that Trump is in blatant violation of a provision in the Constitution meant to ensure that the president can't exploit his office for profit.
But aside from these civil suits, which may take years to resolve, Trump just keeps getting away with it. One reason this hasn't generated more outcry is that the infractions have been a steady accumulation, rather than one smoking gun. So we thought now, one year into Trump's presidency, would be a good time to pull everything together and document the full scope of what's known about his corrupt behavior. (A more comprehensive list of the improper perks Trump has received is on the Washington Monthly website.) Clearly, the Republican-controlled Congress has no interest in holding Trump to account. But if the Democrats retake Congress, they should start an investigation on their first day. This is their background reading.
CORRUPTION TYPE 1: FOREIGN EMOLUMENTS
Foreign interference in our political system was of grave concern to the framers of the Constitution. They knew that when a federal officeholder receives gifts, money, or other benefits from foreign governments, his judgment is compromised and his...