Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–December 2019 Update

Earlier this week the U.S. House of Representatives filed articles of impeachment against Donald Trump. Understandably, those articles focused narrowly on the Ukraine scandal (specifically, that President Trump abused his power by improperly pressuring the Ukrainian government to open investigations, and obstructed Congress’s investigation into this wrongdoing), rather than also including other charges, such as that President Trump has improperly, and possibly illegally, leveraged the power of the presidency to enrich himself. Yet these concerns remain important, even if they will not feature prominently in the impeachment debate. So at GAB, we’re continuing the project we started over two years ago, to track and catalogue credible allegations of this sort of profiteering by President Trump and his family and cronies. Unfortunately, each month brings a new incidents, or new information about old incidents, and so we try to do regular updates of this catalogue, and the newest update is now available here.

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

In Pressuring Ukraine To Open Criminal Investigations, Trump’s Associates May Have Committed Many Crimes. But Violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Probably Wasn’t One of Them.

Right now, the biggest corruption story in the U.S., and probably the world, concerns efforts by President Trump and his associates, both inside and outside the U.S. government, threaten to withhold U.S. military aid from Ukraine in order to pressure the Ukrainian government into opening investigations that would help Trump politically. It’s clear at this point, except perhaps to the most rabid partisans, that there was indeed a “quid pro quo,” and the discussion has now turned to the question whether, with respect to President Trump specifically, he should be impeached for his conduct related to this episode (the issue that Rick focused on in yesterday’s post), and, with respect to whether Trump, his private lawyer Rudy Giuliani, or anyone else committed any crimes.

On that second question, commentators have suggested a whole range of criminal laws that some or all of the parties involved might have broken, including:

  • The section of the campaign finance laws that prohibits the “solicit[ation” from a foreign national of a “contribution or donation” to an election campaign of any “thing of value”;
  • The federal anti-bribery statute’s prohibition on any federal public official “directly or indirectly, corruptly demand[ing or] seek[ing] … anything of value personally or for any other person or entity, in return for being influenced in the performance of any official act”;
  • The anti-extortion provision of the Hobbs Act, which prohibits “the obtaining of property for another … under color of official right” (as well as the attempt or conspiracy to do so);
  • The wire fraud statute, which prohibits the devising of any “scheme or artifice to defraud” that involves use of any interstate (or international) wire communication (such as a phone call), where the term “scheme or artifice to defraud” is specifically defined elsewhere in the statute as including a scheme “to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” (This may seem a bit opaque to readers unfamiliar with this corner of U.S. law, but in a nutshell, so-called “honest services fraud” is a theory that when a public official, or some other person in a position of trust, engages in a corrupt scheme to, say, solicit bribes, that individual defrauds her principals by depriving them of her honest services. For an explanation of how this could apply to Trump in the Ukraine case, see here.)
  • In the case of Mr. Giuliani and other parties who do not work for the U.S. government, the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from corresponding with any foreign government or foreign government official “with the intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government …. in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States.”
  • Various provisions of Ukrainian law.

In addition to all of these possibilities, which strike me as at least facially plausible given the evidence that has come to light so far, some commentators have suggested that President Trump’s associates, such as Mr. Giuliani, may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) (see here and here). This argument hasn’t gotten much traction, in my view for good reason. Even for someone like me, who generally has a more expansive view of the FCPA than do some other commentators, it’s hard to see how the evidence we have so far would suggest a plausible FCPA violation. There are two main reasons for this: Continue reading

Can A “Fudgy” Adverb Save Trump From Impeachment?

For weeks President Trump’s defenders have claimed he did not demand Ukraine investigate the Bidens in return for approving the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. In legal terms, the argument was that there was no exchange of one for the other, no quid pro quo, the cornerstone of the crime of bribery.  That defense has now collapsed (here and here). The evidence that Trump sought a “quo,” a personal favor in the form of an investigation of the Bidens, in return for a “quid,” weapons, is overwhelming (here).  His defenders have thus now fallen back to a secondary defensive line: there was a quid pro quo but it was merely an “inappropriate” one. It was not, defenders insist, an impeachable quid pro quo.

Whether this new defense will carry the day remains to be seen.  No American president has ever faced impeachment for soliciting a bribe.  There is thus no standard jurors in a Trump impeachment trial, the 100 members of the United States Senate, can consult in deciding whether Trump’s attempt to use the power of the presidency to obtain a personal benefit is impeachable. But as Senators construct a standard, they might consider the one a 12-person jury of lay people in a criminal trial must use when a public servant is accused of soliciting a bribe. Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–November 2019 Update

While ongoing developments in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukraine to open investigations that might damage Trump’s political rivals continue to dominate the headlines, there are plenty of other reasons to be concerned about other serious ethical problems (some might say “corruption”) in the Trump Administration, including a slew of credible allegations that the President, his family members, and close associates have been using the presidency to advance their personal financial interests. Back in May 2017, GAB began tracking and cataloguing credible allegations of this sort of profiteering by President Trump and his family and cronies. Unfortunately, each month brings a new incidents, or new information about old incidents, and so we try to do regular updates of this catalogue, and the newest update is now available here.

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

Quid Pro Quo: A Primer

Thanks to the Trump impeachment imbroglio, Americans are brushing up on Latin.  Or at least on the Latin phrase quid pro quo. Though Trump’s partisans and opponents are at each other’s throats about virtually everything, a consensus has emerged that if his dealings with Ukraine involved a quid pro quo, he is in trouble. The reason: the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held (examples here and here) that the touchstone of the American federal crime of bribery is the presence of a quid pro quo. If the impeachment investigation were to uncover one in his Ukraine dealings, Trump would be guilty of bribery, one of three crimes, along with treason and high crimes and misdemeanors, for which he can be removed from office under Article II of the U.S. Constitution.

Quid pro quo means “this for that,” the archetypal example being someone who provides “this money” for “that action” by a public official. But the translation misleads by its simplicity, glossing over critical questions which Congress will have to answer in deciding whether Trump should be removed from office for his actions involving Ukraine:

Must the “this for that” be in the form of an explicit agreement?  Must, that is, there be a meeting of the minds between the two?

Or is a promise enough? That the payer or the recipient merely asked for something – a payment, the performance of an official act — from the other.

Must the terms of the agreement or promise be express? Stated clearly, leaving nor room for doubt. Explicit? Put into words whether written or not.

The Supreme Court, the lower courts, and academic commentators have wrestled with these questions for decades, and while not bound by their answers in an impeachment proceeding, Congress should surely pay heed to them. The federal judiciary arrived at them not during a white-hot partisan debate, with one eye on the effect of one’s chances for reelection. Instead, the answers were reached after deliberate, studied attention to the facts, to answers reached in previous cases, and to the consequences the answers would have on public servants’ future conduct.

Members of the House and Senate are not the only ones that would profit from a study of the American law of quid pro quo. Prosecutors, judges, and legislators in other nations would as well, for the quid pro quo requirement is part of all nations’ antibribery statutes (expressly stated in article VIII of the InterAmerican Convention Against Corruption and article IV of African Union Convention on Preventing and Combatting Corruption and following directly from the texts of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (article 15), the Council of Europe Criminal Law Convention on Corruption (article 2) and the OECD Antibribery Convention (article 1)).  The United States is not the only nation with a bribery jurisprudence (here and here), but thanks to its size, aggressive law enforcement, and quality of its judiciary, its case law applying the quid pro quo standard is surely richer than most if not all.

A primer on it is below. Continue reading

Trump’s Attempted Violation of the Emoluments Clause, and the Inadequacy of the “Services at Cost” Rationale

In a press briefing on October 17, 2019, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney announced that the United States would host the 46th G-7 summit at the Trump National Doral Miami, a golf resort in Doral Florida owned by the Trump Organization. The announcement provoked widespread concern (see here and here) that this choice would violate the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, which bars any person “holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States]” from “accepting any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign state,” as well as the Domestic Emoluments Clause, which bars the President from receiving any emolument, other than his salary, from the United States or any of the individual states. Following two days of complaints—not only from the ethics watchdogs and the President’s Democratic opponents, but also from some of his Republican allies—the White House abandoned the plan. So, the situation appears to have resolved itself. Nonetheless, the particular argument that Mulvaney advanced to defend against the anticipated Emoluments Clause complaints is worth considering—and debunking—lest this argument arise again in another context.

To be clear, the White House’s attempt to host the G-7 at a Trump Organization venue appears to be part of the same pattern of self-dealing that has already prompted multiple lawsuits against Trump for alleged violations of the Emoluments Clauses. As Mulvaney said on Fox News this past Sunday, “[President Trump] still considers himself to be in the hospitality business, and he saw an opportunity to take the biggest leaders from around the world and he wanted to put on the absolute best show.” Although the proposal to host the G-7 summit at the Doral resort was dropped, Mulvaney’s admission is worrying because there are reasons to suspect Trump chose the Doral property to benefit himself financially. (Consider the fact that in 2004, when the United States hosted the summit on Sea Island the organizers served 45,000 meals and paid the resort owners $3 million to reserve the entire property for 10 days.)

When Mulvaney detailed the White House’s decision-making process for the G-7 venue on October 17, he claimed the administration used neutral criteria when it made this choice (which is a bit hard to swallow given that Mulvaney stated the President suggested Doral), and that Doral was actually the best location (an assertion that is hard to assess without knowing the other venues the White House was considering). Furthermore, Mulvaney also argued that there was no Emoluments Clause violation because Doral would host the event “at cost”—that is, that Doral would only charge the government for the cost of the goods and services provided, and would not make a profit. On its face, this sounds plausible. After all, if Doral—and hence the Trump Organization—does not earn any profits on the G-7 meeting, but merely breaks even, then how can Trump have received an “emolument” from the U.S. government? If anything, the Trump Organization would have provided the U.S. government with a venue and associated amenities at a discounted rate.

Despite its superficial plausibility, there are three flaws with the argument that running the event “at cost” would eliminate any Emoluments Clause problem:

Continue reading

Will Congressional Republicans Hold Trump to the Standard to Which They Are Held?

It is no surprise House and Senate Republicans are finding it difficult to defend President Trump’s mixing political business with official business in his dealings with Ukraine. From the day they are elected, members are warned to keep the two separate lest they run afoul of the federal bribery law.  Nor should it be a surprise that President Trump would mix the two, for by his own admission, as a New York City real estate developer he frequently did.

House and Senate Ethics Committee Manuals both tell members “the federal bribery statute makes it a crime for a public official . . .  to ask for . . .  gifts, money, or other things of value in connection with the performance of official duties.”  The “connection” between the request and the duty performed need not be an explicit quid pro quo — contrary to what some Trump defenders say.  Were that the standard, as Justice Kennedy explained in a landmark case, an official could easily escape sanction by resort to “knowing winks and nods.” Continue reading