Donald Trump is less than a month away from swearing to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” but his method of doing business already reeks of self-dealing and conflicts of interest.
Trump has dismissed calls, including from the Office of Government Ethics, to divest his assets. And he minimized the importance of distancing himself from potential conflicts by postponing until January a long-awaited announcement of his business plans.
What Trump doesn’t seem to realize is that protecting the public interest from corruption is a core democratic ideal embedded throughout the Constitution. During the debate at the Constitutional Convention, the founding fathers gave full-throated expression to their concerns about the various forces that could subvert it. “[N]othing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption,” Alexander Hamilton explained in the Federalist Papers.
These concerns led to the creation of a governmental structure set up to deter corruption, both real and perceived. With fresh memories of a British Parliament corrupted by its dependence on the king, the founders designed features such as the system of checks and balances, the Electoral College, presidential veto power and biennial elections for the House of Representatives to deter institutional corruption.
The founders were similarly anxious about the potential for foreign governments to compromise the nation’s independence by corrupting individual officials. As a deterrent, they drafted provisions to safeguard against the temptations of corruption and to provide government with the means to eliminate it.
Two manifestations are in the Constitution’s emoluments clauses. One declares that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust … shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” The other forbids the president from receiving, apart from his salary, “any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.”
This brings us back to the president-elect. He has a net worth estimated at $3.7 billion with assets and business interests in at least 20 foreign countries. According to one report, his real estate companies have debts of at least $650 million. He has the luxurious Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., leased from a federal government agency he will soon oversee. His post-election contacts with foreign leaders apparently have already jump-started a building project and drawn customers to his Washington hotel.
While his plans to avoid conflicts of interest are still vague, Trump has given no indication that he will sell his assets and put them in a blind trust, which is the course recommended by leading ethics lawyers. By no stretch does Trump’s distancing himself from his companies and vowing not to make deals during his presidency protect him from potential influence by multiple foreign governments, hundreds of creditors, including the government of China and a vast array of business partners.
Nor do the half-measures he has tweeted about meet the constitutional standard expected of the president to put the public interest above his own. For the sake of the republic, let’s hope Trump does the right thing. If he doesn’t, either Congress or the courts will have to rise to the occasion to protect the nation from “cabal, intrigue and corruption.”
Elizabeth B. Wydra is president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a think tank and advocacy group in Washington, D.C. She can be contacted at Elizabeth@theusconstitution.org.