Anticorruption Tools in the Anti-Trump Toolkit: A Primer

[Kaitlin Beach provided helpful research and thoughtful contributions to this post.]

Since Donald Trump’s election, critics have asserted that his presidency presents unprecedented risks of corruption, cronyism, and conflict of interest. Many argue that President Trump and members of his administration are already engaging in conduct that is not only unethical, but also illegal. Because it can be hard for non-specialists to keep track of the myriad rules that have been referenced in the context, this post provides a brief, non-technical overview of the most important federal laws and regulations that are designed to prevent corruption, conflict-of-interest, and self-dealing in the U.S. government, focusing on those that have been most widely or most creatively discussed in relation to fighting a purportedly corrupt Trump administration.

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Is Going After Trump’s Businesses Under State Law Such a Good Idea?–Some Criticisms To Consider

As regular readers of this blog are aware, although I share the concern that the Trump family’s extensive private business interests pose significant corruption risks, I’m skeptical that existing federal law supplies the tools needed to attack this problem. Some of the most important federal conflict-of-interest laws don’t apply to the President, and some of the creative attempts to sue the President in federal court for alleged violations of the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause face what I fear are insurmountable legal obstacles. Several commentators have proposed reforms to federal law that would deal with the presidential conflict-of-interest problems more effectively, and some Members of Congress have introduced such legislation. But as a practical matter, given Republican control of Congress, these proposals—whatever their symbolic value—are not going anywhere.

If federal law isn’t going to help, might state law be the answer? Shortly after Donald Trump tweeted critical comments about Nordstrom’s department store’s decision to drop his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line, ethics expert Norm Eisen suggested that this tweet might be a violation of California’s unfair competition law (UCL), which prohibits “any unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice.” Around the same time, Fordham Law Professor Jed Shugerman wrote a lengthy blog post, which got quite a bit of well-deserved attention, suggesting that state corporate law tools could be used to go after alleged violations of the Emoluments Clause by Trump’s businesses. Picking up on some of these suggestions, I argued in previous posts that the California UCL, or others with similarly broad phrasing, might be a viable basis for an Emoluments Clause suit, and further that states could amend their UCLs, consumer protection laws, business organization laws, and anticorruption laws in ways that would make it harder for businesses owned or controlled by the President of the United States (or his immediate family) to leverage political power for private commercial gain in ways that would adversely affect the interests of the states’ citizens.

The idea that state (or local) laws might be used in this way is not purely hypothetical or speculative. A couple of lawsuits are already invoking UCLs as a basis for going after allegedly unlawful overlap between the Trump family’s business interests and their political power. First, a Washington, D.C. restaurant brought a private suit alleging that Trump’s ownership interest in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., which occupies a building leased from the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA), violates the terms of the lease, and that this in turn gives rise to a violation of D.C.’s UCL. (That suit, however, was dealt a major blow when the GSA ruled—implausibly—that Trump is not in violation of the lease.) Second, a San Francisco clothing retailer has sued Ivanka Trump under California’s UCL, alleging that various actions by Donald and Ivanka Trump, and others, to promote Ivanka’s brand have unlawfully hurt competitors such as the plaintiff. And in what many took as an encouraging sign, the New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently hired former Assistant United States Attorney Howard Master, who handled public corruption prosecutions under recently-fired U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, and news reports indicate that Mr. Schneiderman is looking into the possibility that Trump’s alleged Emoluments Clause violations also put him in violation of state law.

I’m cautiously optimistic about this line of attack, particularly if state attorneys general and state legislators get involved, and I’m currently working on developing some more concrete proposals along these lines. (As the modern cliché goes, “Watch this space.”) At the same time, though, I’ve talked to a number of smart, thoughtful people who are skeptical that pushing for state-level responses—particularly by aggressive state attorneys general—is such a good idea. While these criticisms haven’t yet convinced me to change my mind, they’re important enough that those of us attracted to the state law approach ought to take them seriously and reflect carefully before we charge ahead. So, let me try to summarize what I take as the three most important arguments against trying to use state law tools to make it more difficult for the Trump family to profit from the presidency: Continue reading

Targeting Trump Businesses as a Response to Conflicts of Interest

Many people, myself included, believe Donald Trump’s failure to place his assets in a blind trust is more than just problematic. The full extent to which President Trump may be abusing public power for private gain—that is, engaging in corruption—is unknowable, so long as his business empire remains opaque and his tax returns stay buried. Even where Trump’s business interests are out in the open, a “shadow of corruption” hangs over the actions he takes as an ostensible public servant.

Some of the people who share these concerns are exploring ways in which they might engage in consumer activism as a response to Trump’s conflicts of interest. Consider two organizations that are leading broad boycotts against the Trump Administration. Don’t Pay Trump is a web browser extension that allows one to, in their words, “keep your money out of Trump’s tiny hands.” It alerts the consumer when he or she is making an online purchase from a business that sells Trump products. A second initiative, #grabyourwallet, is a more established and exceedingly low-tech enterprise which also calls for “flexing consumer power.” #grabyourwallet maintains what looks like an excel spreadsheet that displays companies ripe for a Trump boycott. It provides the necessary tools to the activist consumer: name and number of the company, reason it should be boycotted, suggested sample of what to say, and updates on successes. #grabyourwallet received credit for the recent Nordstroms decision to drop Ivanka Trump’s produces from its stores, which earned Nordstroms a Presidential tweeted complaint on February 8th.

Both of these organizations attempt to decrease the profitability of Trump businesses, albeit for different reasons. Don’t Pay Trump seeks to weaponize consumer power to affect administration policy, while #grabyourwallet is explicitly motivated by the Trump family’s conflicts. It is difficult to say how effective the anti-Trump boycotts might be, given the absence of direct analogies to the current situation. Nonetheless, we might be able to draw some lessons from past corporate boycott efforts:

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State-Level Responses to Trump’s Corrupt Mix of Business and Politics: Some Preliminary Proposals

In my last post, I suggested that legal responses to concerns about corruption in the Trump Administration—in particular, concerns about Trump’s use of the presidency to enrich his family—might be more successful at the state level than at the federal level, and might be more viable if they do not attempt to target Trump directly, but rather deploy state law tools to limit the Trump family’s ability to leverage Trump’s position for commercial gain. My last post noted two proposals for lines of legal attack that could be initiated by state attorneys general (or possibly by private parties) under existing bodies of state law: state unfair competition laws (some of which are framed very broadly) and state corporate laws (which give states considerable power to regulate corporations, and possibly limited liability companies (LLCs), operating pursuant to state charters).

These proposals are attractive because they do not require any changes in existing laws. At the same time, and for that same reason, the laws in question are not necessarily well-tailored to the specific and unprecedented corruption/conflict-of-interest problems at issue in the Trump Administration. For that reason, it might be worth exploring potential changes to state law that would give state enforcement agencies, and possibly private litigants, more effective tools to rein in some of the most egregious sorts of potential conflicts, and thereby to enforce a more rigid separation between the Trump Administration and the Trump family’s business interests. Even though Republicans control the large majority of state governments, there are several states where Democrats and sympathetic Republicans might well have enough clout to pass such legislation—including, perhaps most importantly, California, New York, and Delaware. (Many other states have popular ballot initiative processes that might enable the passage of legislation even over the objections of Republican-controlled state legislatures.)

What might such state-level legislative reforms look like? This is a topic I hope to explore in a series of future posts, but here let me throw out a few relatively simple preliminary ideas: Continue reading

State-Level Responses to Trump’s Business Conflicts: A More Promising Line of Attack?

It is genuinely alarming how much Donald Trump seems intent—in true kleptocratic/crony capitalist style—on using his position as President to advance the commercial and financial interests of himself, his immediate family members, and their various business enterprises. As I’ve written before, this approach to governance (if you can call it that) has plenty of precedents elsewhere in the world, but it’s a new experience for Americans. One hopes the U.S. electorate will come to its senses and throw the bum out in four years, but that’s a long way away. In the meantime, the hope that the President might be impeached over his possibly unconstitutional conflicts of interest seems profoundly unrealistic: Republicans control both the House and the Senate, and most Republicans actually seem quite happy to accommodate themselves to a Trump Administration if it enables them to advance their policy goals. Even those Republicans who find Trump’s conduct inexcusable are far more worried about a primary challenge supported by Trump’s rabid supporters than they are about the general electorate. For the same reason, proposals for new federal legislation that would strengthen ethical restraints on the President, whatever their symbolic value, are likely dead-on-arrival as practical proposals. Perhaps understandably, some anticorruption advocates have placed their hopes in the federal courts, most notably through lawsuits alleging that the Trump Organization’s business dealings with foreign governments violate the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, though for reasons I have explained in previous posts (see here and here), I’m doubtful that such lawsuits have much chance of success.

This is all very depressing, and I acknowledge that in the short term there’s relatively little that can be done; the ultimate remedy will have to be through the electoral process. Nonetheless, I do think that the ideas of enacting new legislation and pursuing certain forms of litigation do hold some promise as means to impose significant constraints on Trumpian corruption. The problem with the proposals I noted above is that they involve proposed responses at the federal level, and for the most part they target the President himself. There’s an alternative, though: Litigation and legislation at the state level, targeting Trump’s business interests and their potential commercial partners. Though hardly a complete solution, there may be a number of things to do at the state level to constrain at least some of the abuses associated with politically-connected business interests that seek to leverage those political connections for commercial advantage, or to facilitate corrupt or otherwise unlawful conduct. To illustrate, let me note a couple of ideas that other experts have floated about how aggressive state attorneys general (or perhaps private litigants) might make use of existing state laws to target Trumpian corruption: Continue reading

Appearances Can Be Revealing: The Trump Administration’s Corruption Perceptions Problem

In the wake of President Trump’s Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” (also known as the “Muslim Ban”), numerous media outlets published articles highlighting the fact that Trump’s order excluded several predominantly Muslim countries where the Trump organization conducts business (see here, here and here). The implication was that this exclusion was intentional, and demonstrates the extent to which Trump’s business ventures create conflicts of interest that influence his policy decisions. Although this explanation is plausible, another likely explanation is that the list of countries targeted by the ban tracked the visa waiver program restrictions Congress passed in 2015 and the Obama administration expanded in 2016 (see here).

Were the limitations on the ban driven by corruption or policy priorities? We don’t know—and that’s the problem. Even if Trump’s executive order had no connection with his business, Trump’s extensive conflicts of interest and unwillingness to divest from foreign holdings casts a shadow of corruption over any decision made by the administration. The fact that every decision Trump makes could be tainted with the appearance of self-interest, regardless of whether his administration actually is doing what it believes is in the public’s interest, is incredibly damaging, delegitimizing, and destabilizing. This is why we have ethics rules for government officials that seek to prevent not only corruption, but also the appearance of corruption. Trump’s failure to clear his presidency of any potential conflicts of interest has a few particularly pernicious effects:

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How Should the U.S. Anticorruption Community Respond to Trump? Engagement vs. Confrontation

So Donald Trump is now the President of the United States, and has been for almost two weeks. Yes, this is really happening. And yes, this is really frightening. As has been pointed out countless times, Donald Trump poses a unique and unprecedented threat to American political institutions. It’s not mainly the hard-right policies that President Trump and the Republican Congress will push. People can strongly disagree with much of that policy agenda (as I do), but those policy positions are, alas, within the American political mainstream. And it’s not just Trump’s obvious narcissism, racism, and ignorance, bad as those are. On top of all that, Trump seems to view the presidency mainly as an opportunity for personal enrichment, and many of his top-level advisors and appointees seem to have a similar attitude. Notwithstanding his (obviously disingenuous) “drain the swamp” rhetoric, Trump—and many congressional Republicans—seem to have little regard for basic ethical norms and principles. And there are reasonable fears, based on what we’ve seen so far, that much of the Trump Administration’s policy agenda, though couched in familiar conservative market-oriented rhetoric, will in fact be oriented toward enriching the friends and families of senior administration officials, including but not limited to Trump’s own organization.

A democratically elected head of government who ran on a populist platform, but whose agenda seems to be oriented primarily toward using political power to enrich himself and his cronies? This might be a new experience for Americans, but as Professor Palifka pointed out in her post last week, this is a familiar story in many other countries (including Mexico, Ms. Palifka’s lead example). Think Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Jacob Zuma in South Africa, and countless others. Now that the U.S. seems to be facing a similar situation, the U.S. anticorruption community—which I’ll define loosely as the diverse set of activists, advocacy groups, commentators, researchers, scholars, and others who focus on anticorruption in their professional work—needs to be actively involved in responding.

Unfortunately, the U.S. anticorruption community is not especially well-prepared to deal with this situation. Put aside for the moment that the most prominent international anticorruption advocacy group—Transparency International (TI)—recently voted to strip its U.S. chapter (TI-USA) of its accreditation, triggering an ongoing internal fight that has, I gather, left the chapter in limbo. (That’s a whole other story.) Much more important than any internal organizational drama is the fact that most U.S. anticorruption advocacy groups have typically focused on questions of U.S. anticorruption policy—such as FCPA enforcement, asset recovery, corporate transparency, and the like—not on systemic corruption in the U.S. government itself. True, some groups have in the past positioned themselves as fighting systemic corruption in the U.S. government, but those groups generally use a broad (in my view, overly broad) definition of “corruption” that emphasizes primarily campaign finance and lobbying reform—noble causes, to be sure, but not really the main worry right now. The U.S. anticorruption community faces a challenge that’s more akin to the challenge anticorruption communities have faced (or are still facing) in places like Mexico, Italy, Argentina, Thailand, and South Africa, though perhaps with even higher stakes.

My sense is that many leading figures in the U.S. anticorruption community are already thinking hard, and having many constructive conversations, about how to respond to the unique challenges posed by the Trump Administration. In the remainder of this post, I want to focus on a basic strategic question that I’ve seen come up many times in these conversations: Engage or confront? Continue reading