Among the most infuriating and crazy-making political dynamics that have come to define the nascent Trump administration is the ease with which it not only denies reality but also offers its own version as a substitute. For example: President Trump has consistently rejected that he has any conflicts of interest—not because the circumstances that would lead to a conflict of interest don’t exist in his case, but because “the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
“I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president,” he said at a press conference earlier this month. His attorney, Sheri Dillon, backed this up: “The Constitution does not require President-elect Trump to do anything here,” she said, referring specifically to accusations that Trump was violating a provision of the Constitution that prohibits United States officials from accepting gifts or payments from foreign powers, known as the Emoluments Clause. “But,” Dillon continued, “just like with conflicts of interests, he wants to do more than what the Constitution requires.”
That is to say: He is going to do something other than what the Constitution requires while pretending that he is doing the American people a favor when in fact he is a corrupt authoritarian flagrantly violating the rule of law. Failing to divest from his businesses constitutes a “blatant constitutional violation,” Fordham University law professor and anti-corruption activist Zephyr Teachout told Jezebel. “This is a foundational law of the republic—no president has come even close to crossing this line.”
Dillon stated that Trump’s convoluted and opaque corporate assets—broadly known as the Trump Organization—would be “conveyed to a trust,” and that he “has relinquished leadership and management” of the business to his sons, Don and Eric, and Allen Weisselberg, a longtime Trump Organization executive. According to White House Strategic Communications director Hope Hicks, Trump has resigned from his businesses. “As stated at the press conference, the transfer of assets and management was completed prior to or on January 20th,” she told reporters on Monday. CNN later reported that it had obtained from the Trump Organization a 19-page letter that reads: “I, Donald J. Trump, hereby resign from each and every office and position I hold” in the more than 400 businesses subsequently listed.
This does not mean anything. Even if the president turns “leadership and management” of the Trump Organization over to his two adult sons, that is not actually the same thing as relinquishing ownership; a “trust,” moreover, is not actually the same thing as a blind trust. It is true that the president has fulfilled his promise—but what he promised does not matter.
And so the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a non-partisan, non-profit watchdog group, filed a lawsuit on Monday accusing President Trump of violating the Emoluments Clause. Trump’s business interests, the complaint alleges, have created “countless conflicts of interest” and allow “unprecedented influence by foreign governments.” Trump was quick to respond, describing the lawsuit as “totally without merit.” In an email to Jezebel, a spokeswoman for Dillon’s law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius wrote, “We do not comment on our clients or the work we do for them.” A Trump Organization spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
There is nothing in the Constitution that exempts the president from the Emoluments Clause; in fact, CREW’s complaint points out, the framers of the Constitution explicitly had the president in mind when discussing the clause. “There is another provision against the danger mentioned by the honorable member, of the president receiving emoluments from foreign powers,” Edmund Jennings Randolph said at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788. “I consider, therefore, that he is restrained from receiving any present or emoluments whatever. It is impossible to guard better against corruption.”
The stakes here are...pretty high. A conflict of interest, Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren wrote in a landmark 1961 corruption decision, is “an evil which endangers the very fabric of a democratic society, for a democracy is effective only if the people have faith in those who govern, and that faith is bound to be shattered when high officials and their appointees engage in activities which arouse suspicions of malfeasance and corruption.” Anti-corruption regulations are “thus directed not only at dishonor, but also at conduct that tempts dishonor.”
The CREW complaint enumerates the elements of Trump’s business holdings that allegedly violate the Foreign Emoluments Clause, including New York’s Trump Tower, Washington and D.C.’s Trump International Hotel, as well as holdings in China, India, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Turkey, Scotland, the Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan. “Nothing short of divestiture will resolve these conflicts,” Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, said at the Brookings Institution earlier this month. “I appreciate that divestiture can be costly. But the President-elect would not be alone in making that sacrifice. I’ve been involved in just about every Presidential nomination in the past 10 years. I also have been involved in the ethics review of Presidents, Vice Presidents, and most top White House officials. I’ve seen the sacrifices that these individuals have had to make.”
“It’s important to understand that the President is now entering the world of public service,” Shaub said. “He’s going to be asking his own appointees to make sacrifices. He’s going to be asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives in conflicts around the world. So, no, I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the President of the United States of America.”
This is all true; nevertheless, it is a price that Trump is apparently unwilling to pay. “We have to get beyond the Twitter politics. We need to know what is actually going on,” Teachout said, noting that the president’s (still unreleased) tax returns would illuminate this. “We don’t even know the scale of the payments” violating the Emoluments Clause, Teachout said—simply that they exist. If the lawsuit proceeds it is likely that the court would require Trump to provide the returns during the discovery period. A summons for the president has been issued.
As always, if you have access to President Trump’s tax returns or any information about his conflicts of interest please get in touch.