Opinion

There must be a reckoning

Once he leaves office, Trump must not be allowed to escape punishment

President Trump committed yet another grotesque violation of the Constitution on his recent trip to Scotland, when he used nearly $70,000 in public money to pay for rooms at a hotel in Scotland he owns directly, The Scotsman reports.

This kind of bald corruption is chewing at the roots of the United States as a functioning nation. If constitutional democracy is to survive here, there must be a reckoning with this scandal — and that means prosecutions and prison sentences.

It is simply unquestionable that Trump's behavior is a violation of constitutional stipulations about how the president is to be compensated. Here's what it says:

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. [The Constitution of the United States]

I have written before about how "originalism" is a ridiculous and impossible doctrine, particularly when it comes to thorny issues of rights and due process. But some things are just bleeding obvious, like how the 13th Amendment clearly abolishes chattel slavery.

This certainly was not some kind of simple travel reimbursement. When the president travels on official business, the government pays for his expenses according to ethics rules established to conform to the Constitution and U.S. law — for obvious reasons, you can't just stay at or buy whatever you want on the government nickel. But more importantly, as a Congressional Research Service report details, "when a trip is for political or unofficial purposes, those involved must pay for their own food and lodging and other related expenses," as well as reimburse the government for the equivalent of a commercial airline fare. Trump played two rounds of golf at his resort, and The Scotsman reported that Trump's son Eric — who is not even a government employee — was put up in the most expensive room in the place, a two-bedroom "lighthouse suite" that runs £7,000 per night (or about $9,100). What the government was charged for exactly isn't yet available, but Eric Trump's claim that the hotel was the cheapest option is utterly preposterous.

An emolument is just a payment of some kind. Trump very obviously used his presidential power to pay himself tens of thousands of dollars, and give a family member a handsome goodie to boot.

Whether one takes the clear view of the constitutional drafters, or closely examines precedent, or reads the text according to modern usage, or interprets it in light of what is sensible and necessary for a modern state, all possible schools of interpretation point in the same direction: It is absolutely unacceptable for the head of state to use government power to directly enrich himself. It is practically the dictionary definition of abuse of power.

Indeed, this is considerably worse than the sordid behavior of some gangster-riddled post-Communist Eastern European state. Romania, for instance, recently decriminalized abuses of office where the financial damage is less than $48,000. But as Matt Steinglass points out, a former Romanian deputy prime minister and current head of the largest party was recently convicted of corruption and sentenced to three and a half years in prison for merely using his authority to keep two party members employed at a public agency. That is maybe 0.1 percent of what Trump is doing here — and this is not remotely the first time he's done this kind of thing. Indeed, it's not even the first time he's spent public money on this individual hotel, not to mention how nearly every single one of his top officials also has had both hands in the public till.

This is the kind of moral and political rot that topples nations.

What's more, Trump's money-grubbing is also almost certainly a violation of written anti-corruption statutes, even given how the reactionary Supreme Court majority has cored out those laws with Federalist Society argle-bargle. It clearly runs afoul of anti-embezzlement law, and arguably also 18 U.S. Code § 201, which lays out penalties for any public official who "directly or indirectly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept anything of value personally for or because of any official act performed or to be performed by such official or person." The Supreme Court legalized corruption in part by raising a near-impossible standard of proof for demonstrating a quid pro quo, but in this case the beneficiary to the corrupt act is Trump himself, not some other businessman looking for a handout.

The roots of the corruption crisis go deep, as usual for Trump. One of the more outrageous of the many gross errors committed by Barack Obama was his cowardly refusal to prosecute any of the dozens of Bush administration criminals. Most notably, the entire top echelon of the Bush defense establishment, including the president and the vice president, conspired to commit one of the worst crimes in existence — torture. At least one of the victims was killed (and no good intelligence was produced). According to United States law, and a duly-enacted treaty, that is a crime punishable by any sentence up to and including death.

When he took office, Obama claimed he wanted to "look forward as opposed to looking backwards" — meaning de facto legal immunization of Bush-era war criminals. When the Senate Intelligence Committee mounted a fairly pitiful investigation of the torture program, and the CIA illegally spied on Senate staffers and referred them for prosecution in what committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called "a potential attempt to intimidate this staff," Obama backed the CIA to the hilt. When the executive summary of the report came out, Obama flippantly admitted torture had been committed, but then delivered a hectoring lecture that the perpetrators were "patriots" who had "tough jobs" and so we shouldn't get too "sanctimonious" about the whole beating-people-to-death-for-no-reason thing.

But that was only the start of how his administration enabled rampant criminality through inaction. As Jesse Eisenger details in The Chickenshit Club, under Obama, prosecution of major white-collar crimes virtually ceased altogether. Wall Street got a nearly free pass for an incomprehensible crime spree, getting wrist-slap settlements for millions of illegal foreclosures done with forged documents, rigging municipal bond markets, money laundering for terrorists and drug cartels, and literally thousands of other crimes. In many cases, as with the epic catastrophe of homeowners assistance, the administration actively enabled the crimes.

Now, Obama is not entirely responsible for this infestation of corruption. It's more that he inherited a government where the rule of law had been slowly collapsing for a long time (going back at least to the Richard Nixon pardon), and opted to let it continue to collapse into utter ruination.

I think the main reason he did that is classic American chauvinism — the idea that this is the best country in the world, the land of opportunity. America is great because "in no other country on Earth is my story even possible," as Obama said in his famous 2004 convention speech.

It was a crock then, and it's flagrantly preposterous now. We see now what happens when this stupid, narcissistic attitude is allowed to replace the rule of law — when people sing hosannas to America's greatness instead of actually trying to make it so. Hey presto, you get a lot of criminals. Now one is president, as are most of his important staff.

They must not be allowed to escape punishment.

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