The heady sums of money spent by foreign powers on Trump properties constitute illegal “emoluments” under the U.S. Constitution. But why hasn’t this president or any previous president been prosecuted for such crimes?
Recent Presidents Bush Sr., Reagan, Clinton, and Bush Jr. put their assets into blind trusts run by disinterested third parties so foreign and domestic governments could not direct business to them. They didn’t want to be the first. But Donald Trump, after promising to keep his personal business and government jobs separate, then brazenly marketed his properties to foreign and domestic government agencies while he was serving.
There have been no emoluments prosecutions for basically the same reason no President has ever been removed from office under the impeachment clause. America never really shook off her ties to Britain’s so-called “constitutional monarchy,” even after the American revolution. A basic underpinning of monarchy is that “The king can do no wrong.” Deep down, many Americans want to believe that of our presidents too.
For long periods of time in England, the King essentially wrote personal checks on the national treasury. In fact, he was officially voted regular income “supplies” by Parliament and could make money off his extensive royal properties. That was all legal. But he also took advantage of a number of mostly immoral and often illegal tax vehicles to feather his nest, including reliefs, benefices, scutages, aids, purveyances, soccages, castle guards, amercements, and escheats. Let’s hope we never come to know these in America.
The outlandish needs of kings historically gave rise to the phrase “a king’s ransom.” Those needs were supported by the theory he should be able to live a life of personal luxury befitting his “station.” That is the direction we are headed with the presidency if we don’t take action to condemn Trump’s double-dipping administration and the administrations of future presidents who will benefit from the precedent he has set.
The impeachment clause bears mention here in a discussion of the emoluments clause. The great democracies of antiquity, Greece and Rome, and even England, which went through periods of democracy, were never afraid to remove their chief executives from office for crimes of personal economic engrossment or other high crimes. Athens and Rome regularly impeached, and fined or exiled their “archons” and “consuls” even when they had only a year or two of office with which to get in trouble. They often did this only after the chief executive left office and the dirty deeds became known. Even England, with its history of adoration of its monarchs, removed Charles I from office and also removed his head.
The theory of democracy is that term-limited leaders must be “in it” to serve, not to get rich and amass personal power, however much they might want to.
Trump, working on a half dozen different fronts, is asking America to provide a high life for these very special creatures of government, and also to enact the monarchist legal theory that the president and senators have absolute immunity from prosecution, so they cannot be impeached and removed at all, ever.
While a district court felt that an emoluments case could proceed against Mr. Trump, the Trump-packed Supreme Court, another one of his autocracy promoting fronts, threw the cases out.
It is time to finally enact the important Constitutional business of enforcing the emoluments and impeachment clauses. We ended slavery, enacted civil rights, and enfranchised women. We now need to make sure this progress continues.
Kimball Shinkoskey is the author of The American Kings: Growth in Presidential Power from George Washington to Barack Obama, 2014.