Opinion: Corruption as a way of life

In this file photo from Jan. 11, 2017, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump along with his children Eric, left, Ivanka and Donald Jr. arrive for a news conference at Trump Tower in New York.

In this file photo from Jan. 11, 2017, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump along with his children Eric, left, Ivanka and Donald Jr. arrive for a news conference at Trump Tower in New York. Timothy A. Clary / Getty Images via TNS


Published: 01-21-2024 7:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

One news story that failed to garner much traction over the last week or two was the House Democrats’ report on how during the Trump presidency his businesses obtained $7.8 million from foreign governments. This includes $5.5 million China spent at Trump Tower in New York and at Trump hotels in Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas. Another $2 million came from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The report indicates twenty countries monetarily fed Trump businesses during his presidency.

Democrats have demanded that Trump return the $7.8 million foreign governments paid his companies then.

The Constitution prohibits any officeholder, including the president, from accepting money, payments or gifts “of any kind whatever” from foreign governments unless the president obtains “the consent of Congress.” It is what is called the foreign emoluments clause. It is Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution. The framers created this prophylactic rule to guard against foreign governments purchasing undue influence.

When he was asked about it on Jan. 10, Trump responded that “it was a small amount of money” and “I was doing services for them…I don’t get eight million for doing nothing.” Trump never sought the consent of Congress. He never divested or put his businesses in a blind trust as advised by ethics experts. Although he said his sons managed his businesses, he retained ownership and control.

Trump’s violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause couldn’t be any clearer. His businesses during his presidency accepted millions from foreign governments. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md) commented, “The governments making these payments sought specific foreign policy outcomes from President Trump and his administration. Each dollar…accepted violated the Constitution’s strict prohibition on payments from foreign governments, which the founders enacted to prevent presidents from selling U.S. foreign policy to foreign leaders.”

Saudi Arabia immediately comes to mind. The Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, had to try and overcome the vicious and disgraceful crime of assassinating the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. What better way to curry favor with Trump than to throw money at his properties?

To date, there has been a failure of accountability around the violation of the emoluments clause. This fits in with the more general failure of courts over the last 50 years to hold Trump accountable. In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed two emoluments cases and declined to rule on them. In the next year, we will see if this general failure of accountability continues or not.

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The House Democrats had great difficulty even getting the information that was the basis for their report. They had to litigate to gain access to only a portion of Trump’s business records. Their report was not based on complete information so it is highly likely the amount of money Trump obtained from foreign governments during his presidency was higher. The House Committee did not receive documents regarding at least 80% of Trump business entities.

After the Democrats won the court battle to release records, Mazars USA, Trump’s accounting firm, cut ties with Trump and his businesses. Mazars said it would no longer stand behind a decade of annual financial statements it had prepared. Then, when the Republicans won control of the House, they dropped the effort to force Mazars to produce documents about Trump’s business activities.

You could look at this history as an accounting firm not wanting to be part of a fraud followed by an effort by Republicans to cover up.

I think it is fair to say that Trump’s disregard for the emoluments clause showcases his utter contempt for the rule of law. His actions demonstrate that he doesn’t believe the law applies to him. I believe he sees the law as a nuisance to be circumvented.

The historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat has written that “the essence of authoritarianism is getting away with crimes.” Trump may have been the first president to conceive of the presidency as primarily a money-making opportunity for himself and his family. Because of his multiple court cases, he is constantly asking his followers for money and he is literally running to stay out of jail.

The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington have reported that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka Trump made between $172 million and $640 million in outside money during Trump’s White House years. The information comes from the couple’s financial disclosures. In addition, Kushner received $2 billion from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund six months after leaving the White House.

In her book “Strongmen,” Ben-Ghiat argues “the core of the contract between the ruler and his enablers is the offer of power and economic gain in exchange for supporting his violent actions and his suppression of civil rights.” According to NBC, more than half of Iowa caucus-goers believe Trump’s con that he won the 2020 election. The buy-in to the Big Lie remains impressive.

About strongmen like Trump, Ben-Ghiat goes on to say, “They turn the economy into an instrument of leader wealth creation but also encourage changes in ethical and behavioral norms to make things that were illegal or immoral appear acceptable, whether election fraud, torture or sexual assault.”

That fits our former president to a T. Trump follows the ethically sleazy example of his former (now deceased) disbarred attorney, Roy Cohn. When attacked, always counter-attack immediately. Charge your opponent with whatever you have done. No matter how bad things get, always claim victory and never admit defeat.

Ethics is not a word that exists in the Trump vocabulary. He uses lawyers to run out the clock to avoid accountability. Emoluments were just something that got in the way of the money-making. If Trump wins the presidency again, expect an ethical free-fall as he will undoubtedly try to cash in to the max.