The comically obvious corruption missing from Trump's impeachment hearings

Why aren't Democrats going after the president's unconstitutional personal profits?

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Asya_mix/iStock, Aerial3/iStock)

Public impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives ramped up Friday with the testimony of Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Her story was the most compelling yet, detailing her long and often-dangerous diplomatic career, as well as her bewilderment at being abruptly shoved out of office by President Trump. The reason, she said, was a quiet smear campaign from both corrupt Ukrainian oligarchs and the Trump administration.

All this is very important. But so far there is no sign Democrats are going to add Trump's own personal corruption — how he is stuffing American government money into his own bank accounts and taking payments from foreign governments, both in clear violation of the Constitution — to the impeachment hearing schedule. (So far it has gotten only tangential consideration.)

It's a huge missed opportunity.

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As I have written before, it is simply inarguable that Trump is violating both sections of the Constitution that prohibit the president collecting "emoluments," which just an old-timey word for compensation. Article I, Section 9 prohibits taking money from foreign governments without the approval of Congress, while Article II, Section 1 prohibits taking it from any U.S. states or the federal government. While in office, the president is supposed to receive only his salary, currently set at $400,000 — no less, and no more.

Trump receives both less and more. He donates his salary, but he also violates both emoluments prohibitions, raking in money hand over fist from the federal government and foreign states alike. The U.S. government is spending huge sums at Trump's personal properties, which he still owns and promotes continually, both domestically and overseas. (Conservative political operations have spent millions more at Trump hotels, which arguably should also count.) The take is comically obvious: In September, for example, Vice President Pence at the personal request of the president stayed at a Trump hotel in Doonbeg, Ireland, for a state visit in Dublin — which required a 3-hour commute clear to the other side of the country.

Representatives of at least 28 foreign states have stayed at Trump's D.C. hotel, to say nothing of his other properties. His sprawling business empire has ongoing operations in dozens of countries. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a federal watchdog, has monitored Trump's personal conflicts of interest and come up with over 2,300 and counting.

Watch enough screeching Republican propaganda and you can gaslight yourself into doubting this, but it is not difficult to understand why the president should only receive his (extremely ample) salary while in office. The preamble of the Constitution makes clear that its whole aim is to enable "We the People" to achieve things like "establish[ing] Justice" and "promot[ing] the general Welfare" and "secur[ing] the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." It does not say "so the president can become rich beyond the dreams of avarice."

It takes about five seconds of thought to grasp why the American head of state should not be allowed to accept bribes from foreign governments or direct the U.S. government budget into his own pockets. Public servants are supposed to be just that — servants, people who enter politics to virtuously serve the common good. They don't always live up to that standard, of course, but in that case they should be thrown out of office, or perhaps into prison.

Yovanovitch's testimony evinced a painfully earnest faith in American institutions. She clearly thought she was doing God's own work in Ukraine, protecting innocents from Russian domination. "How could our system fail like this? How is it that foreign corrupt interests could manipulate our government?" she asked.

The reason, of course, is that at the top levels of government, the United States is every bit as corrupt as the most beleaguered post-communist states in Eastern Europe, if not worse. The American president is a crook and a thief. Indeed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was by all accounts frustrated and offended by expectations that he should be used like a rented mule for a dirty political trick. He was going to go along with it until the scheme became public only because he figured he had no choice, given Ukraine's dependence on U.S. assistance.

In other words, it is America corrupting Ukraine, not the other way around. Zelensky himself knew the score, carefully mentioning to Trump in a phone call that he stayed at Trump's New York hotel. Can you blame him?

Americans struggle with this realization. The mainstream press, with its wide chauvinist streak, cannot bring itself to describe the dire state of U.S. democracy clearly (parodied well in Joshua Keating's "If It Happened There" series at Slate, which describes U.S. politics in the voice of a New York Times foreign correspondent). Granted, it is good to have an expectation that the United States is not a corrupt country. But simply pretending Washington isn't corrupt won't make it so.

The way to get clean government is to set high expectations for public virtue and punish officials who don't live up to them. If anyone on Earth has ever deserved to be removed from office for corruption, it is Donald Trump — and that was obvious before the Ukraine scandal ever came to light.

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