Trump's novel corruption defense: I do it in plain sight
President Donald Trump's defensive strategy against charges of corruption and self-dealing — which led to the impeachment inquiry — is both novel and incredibly hubristic, even for Trump. The president seems to believe that the best way to overcome charges of corruption and push back against criticism of his unscrupulous conduct is to commit even more blatant acts of corruption, as if doing it right out in the open makes it legal and morally defensible. It couldn't possibly be corrupt or criminal, the reasoning seems to be, when it is carried out in plain sight.
We saw the clearest example of this strategy yet on Thursday, when the Trump administration announced it had chosen one of the president's own resorts to host next year's G7 meeting. The same day acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged that Trump "held up" the nearly $400 million in previously appropriated military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure the government into investigating his political opponent — essentially admitting to quid pro quo — he revealed to an astonished press that the 2020 G7 conference would be held at the Trump Doral golf resort in Miami.
It is hard to overstate how brazenly unethical this is. As Mark Joseph Stern put it at Slate, Trump's decision is "so obviously corrupt, so shameless, and extortionary, that it seems strange to debate whether it is also unlawful." Fox News commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano agreed with this sentiment, saying that the move was a clear violation of the emoluments clause. "He has bought himself an enormous headache now with the choice of this," observed Napolitano. "This is about as direct and profound a violation of the emoluments clause as one could create."
Upon hearing of Trump's decision, Democratic lawmakers were flabbergasted. "The only logical conclusion is that President Trump is proud to be the most corrupt, lawless president in modern American history," remarked Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee. "This casual corruption is happening in plain sight." House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), meanwhile, described it as "among the most brazen examples yet of the president's corruption."
This is all true, of course, but apparently Trump is confident he has become immune to all criticism. An "outside Trump adviser" told Politico that the president has become "fearless" because he is positive that he won't lose the backing of his supporters, no matter what he does (even, presumably, if he shoots someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue). "He doesn't care about the noise the media and the left make," the advisor said. "He has demonstrated he's bulletproof."
In the midst of an impeachment inquiry looking into his corruption, then, Trump is doubling down on his corrupt behavior. Just like when he publicly asked the Ukrainian and Chinese governments to investigate Biden shortly after the impeachment investigation began, Trump is carrying out his corruption for all to see. He has apparently concluded his best option isn't to clean up his act, but to conduct his high crimes and misdemeanors right out in the open, as if to get ahead of his investigators. If he commits the same type of wrongdoing he's committed behind closed doors in front of all the cameras, it demonstrates he has nothing to hide. This doesn't make his actions any less corrupt, of course; it simply shows that Trump is completely lacking in any in any kind of moral or ethical compass, and is extremely confident in his ability to get away with malfeasance.
Sadly, Trump has good reason to be confident. Republicans have shown time and again they are willing to overlook the most egregious type of behavior from the president if it's politically expedient, and in this age of hyper-partisan polarization there's no telling what Trump would have to do to lose the support of his party members. At this point, the president seems to be going all in on corruption. It is a gamble, for sure, but Trump has had pretty good luck so far when it comes to evading the law. One can already hear some of his most partisan supporters praising the president for being so forthright and open about his corruption. All politicians are corrupt, the cynics will say; at least Trump breaks the law in broad daylight!
If anything, the Trump years have shown us just how above the law presidents really are, and how weak the U.S. Constitution is when it comes to holding presidents accountable. The only good that could come out of all this is if it leads to systemic reforms like the aftermath of Watergate. This won't happen, however, as long as Republicans control a single branch of government. One can only hope that enough voters recognize Trump's behavior for what it is by next year.
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