The specter of Donald Trump’s looming presidency has stirred up serious consideration of potentially unlawful conflicts of interest. His expansive business empire makes ethical violations a near certainty. In fact, there have already been incidents where foreign dignitaries made reservations at Trump hotels in order to curry favor with the President-Elect.
The Emoluments Clause of the Constitution expressly prohibits the president from receiving money, gifts, or anything of value from foreign governments or officials. Thus, any foreign officials staying at a Trump hotel would automatically put him violation of the Constitution. Additionally, there are numerous ethics laws enacted by Congress to prevent bribery or corruption on the part of public officials. Trump’s businesses present a tangled web of pending breaches just waiting to happen.
This is not a partisan observation aimed at hobbling The Donald before he even moves in. Republicans are keenly aware of the legal obstacles in the road. One of Trump’s closest advisors, Newt Gingrich, conceded that it was an issue in a radio interview on Monday. His remarks were a disturbing commentary on the privilege of class in politics. He described Trump’s ascension to power as a “billionaire presidency,” which he meant as a justification for special treatment. As reported by Politico:
“We’ve never seen this kind of wealth in the White House, and so traditional rules don’t work,” Gingrich said Monday during an appearance on NPR’s “The Diane Rehme Show” about the president-elect’s business interests. “We’re going to have to think up a whole new approach.”
In other words, the rules for the rich are different than those for the rest of us. That’s an argument for the kind of aristocracy that the United States fought a revolution to escape. Public servants enriching themselves through their office should be illegal no matter their net worth. That’s why in prior administrations, presidents would place their assets in a blind trust and divest them if necessary. And contrary to Gingrich’s assertion, there has been great wealth in White House. Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy come to mind.
Gingrich doesn’t provide any details of the “whole new approach” he’s proposing. However, he did offer one specific method of by which Trump could avoid accountability:
“In the case of the president, he has a broad ability to organize the White House the way he wants to. He also has, frankly, the power of the pardon,” Gingrich said. “It’s a totally open power. He could simply say, ‘Look, I want them to be my advisers. I pardon them if anyone finds them to have behaved against the rules. Period. Technically, under the Constitution, he has that level of authority.”
Actually, he technically does not. The power of the pardon is not “totally open.” For instance it cannot be used to absolve someone for crimes that have yet to be committed. So for Gingrich’s idea to work, Trump would have to wait for the conflicts to occur, then pardon the offenders. And with his unique business structure, his refusal to let go of any of it, and his family’s involvement, he would have to issue new pardons every day.
Furthermore, while the president can pardon himself for criminal penalties, he cannot stop Congress from impeaching him. So any violation of the Constitution as described above could trigger his ouster from office.
Earlier this month Trump promised to hold a press conference on December 15, to address these matters. That was a week ago and he has still not rescheduled the canceled event, other than to say it could be sometime in January. He may be able to evade questions from the press about his shady financial dealings, but he can’t evade justice for long.
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Proposals like the one Gingrich offered only serve to inflame the class division that Trump represents. He is not a king and he is not above the law. But no should be surprised that Gingrich favors leniency for ethical violations by the rich and powerful. He himself was ousted as Speaker of the House for ethical breaches related to his book royalties