Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–November 2018 Update

Since May 2017, GAB has been tracking credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests, and providing monthly updates on media reports of such issues. It looks like our approach is catching on, given that this past month the New York Times published a similar compendium (which the authors described as “the definitive list”) of Trump-related corruption and conflict-of-interest allegations. It’s not clear whether the NYT plans to regularly update this compendium–if they do, then we might wind down the Trump COI tracker here at GAB, given the NYT‘s much wider reach and greater resources. But for now, we’re going to keep plugging away with our monthly updates. The October 2018 update is now available here. The most notable additions since the previous update include:

  • Reports that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may have been involved in a shady property development deal that entails negotiations and transactions with parties connected to firms over which the Interior Department has regulatory authority.
  • Renewed and intensified concern about President Trump’s past and present business ties to Saudi Arabia, in light of the administration’s tepid response to the murder of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, apparently by Saudi intelligence agents.
  • President Trump’s intercession with Japanese officials on behalf of his campaign donor and supporter Sheldon Adelson, in connection with the latter’s interest in a lucrative license to operate a casino in Japan.

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that 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.

Is the U.S. Political System Characterized by “Legalized Corruption”? Some Tentative Concerns About a Common Rhetorical Strategy

Today is Election Day in the United States. It’s an important election (they all are, really), and I hope those of our readers who are eligible to vote in the United States will do so. But this post isn’t going to be about these U.S. elections specifically. Rather, I want to consider a question about the U.S. electoral system more generally: Is it accurate to describe the U.S. system as a one of “legalized corruption”? That is, do the campaign finance and lobbying rules in the United States amount to a system in which wealthy individuals and interest groups “purchase” favorable policy through what are effectively “bribes”—in the form of campaign contributions or support?

The use of the rhetoric of corruption and “legalized bribery” to describe the U.S. political system has been around for a while, and it seems to have become even more pronounced over the last few election cycles—perhaps galvanized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the Citizens United case. (For examples, see here, here, here, and here.) I certainly understand, and indeed share, the underlying concerns about how the influence of concentrated economic wealth can distort the political process and tilt policy outcomes in a direction that favors the affluent. Yet I’ve felt increasingly ambivalent about the use of the language of “systemic corruption” or “legalized bribery” to describe the very real money-in-politics problem in the United States. There are three main reasons for my ambivalence. Continue reading

Giuliani’s Inappropriate Letter to Romania’s President Will Harm Anticorruption Efforts

Romania has long been considered one of the most corrupt countries in the European Union, but in recent years it has been making a concerted effort to bolster its fight against graft. Since 2013, Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), with the support of the ruling political parties, has been convicting roughly 1,000 people on corruption-related charges each year. However, once these anticorruption efforts began ensnaring high-level politicians—including Liviu Dragnea, the head of the biggest party in the Romanian Parliament—the government began to criticize the DNA’s work as biased, overzealous, and unfair. This conflict has been escalating, most dramatically in late 2017, when hundreds of thousands of Romanians took to the streets to protest an overnight decree that pardoned those serving sentences of five years or less for corruption-related crimes, and also decriminalized government officials’ corruption offenses involving less than $47,000 (raised to $240,000 in a later draft bill). The protests led to violent clashes with the police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds.

Adding to the turmoil, Rudolph Giuliani, former Mayor of New York City and current personal attorney of U.S. President Trump, recently wrote a letter to Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, condemning the overreach of the DNA and supporting the government’s efforts to curtail the DNA’s enforcement of anticorruption laws. Giuliani was paid to write the letter by the Freeh Group, a private American firm whose overseas clients include a Romanian businessman convicted for fraud last year, and another Romanian businessman currently under investigation by the DNA for bribery. Giuliani’s letter raises two distinct corruption-related problems. Continue reading

Lessons from the Trump Administration’s Conflicts of Interest

In May 2017, this blog began tracking corruption and conflicts of interest in the Trump Administration, in order to identify and document the myriad ways that the President, his family, and his closest advisors may “use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.” This includes payments directly from the U.S. government to the Trump Organization (e.g. the Secret Service renting out space in the Trump Tower); use of the presidency to promote Trump brands (e.g. numerous Republican re-election campaigns held in Trump owned businesses); regulatory and policy decisions that benefit the Trump family and close advisors (e.g. the General Services Administration approving a lease for the Trump International Hotel); and private and foreign interests dealing with Trump businesses (e.g. Trump hotel, resort, and other development projects around the world). Keeping track of all these various conflict and corruption risks is important at a time when the news of yesterday gets drowned out and forgotten amid the drama of today.

After working for over a year as one of several contributors to this tracking project, I think that there are also some broader lessons and themes that have emerged from these efforts, which are worth highlighting:

Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–October 2018 Update

Since May 2017, GAB has been tracking credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests, and providing monthly updates on media reports of such issues. After a lapse of a few months during this past summer, we’re again updating the tracker on a monthly basis. The October 2018 update is now available here. Notable additions since the previous update include:

  • Reports that Trump’s Bedminster Golf Club offered discounts to President Trump’s White House staff on branded golf club merchandise, apparently to encourage White House staff to wear Bedminster apparel as a way of promoting the resort and the brand.
  • Reports that President Trump has been personally involved in plans regarding the construction of a new FBI headquarters, including suspicions that President Trump may have interceded to ensure that the new headquarters would be built at the same location as the current headquarters, across the street from the Trump International Hotel, rather than at a larger and more secure location in the suburbs, because the Trump hotel benefits financially from its proximity to FBI headquarters.
  • Reports that administration officials with financial or processional ties to the steel industry have been exercising their influence to deny tariff exclusions to companies applying for such exclusions under Trump’s new steel tariffs.

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that 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.

Will Brazilians Elect Their Own Donald Trump?

Will Brazil get its own Donald Trump? Brazil’s next election is right around the corner (the campaign starts August 16, and first round elections are October 2) but currently Jair Bolsonaro—a right wing, pro-gun rights, anti-gay firebrand who has proudly branded himself the “next Donald Trump”—is polling first among eligible candidates, trailing only former president Lula Inácio de Silva—who as of now is not actually allowed to run due to his conviction on corruption charges—and the “null option” (that is, none-of-the-above). What explains Bolsonaro’s appeal? In large part, the issue of corruption. Revelations of graft and bribery have continued to pile up in Brazil over the last few years—most notably (though not exclusively) in connection with the so-called Car Wash investigation of corruption in Brazil’s state-owned oil company, which may have involved upwards of $5 billion in stolen public funds. These corruption scandals have already led to the impeachment and removal of former President Dilma Rousseff, criminal charges against the current President Michel Temer, and the conviction and imprisonment of former President Lula. Given all this, it’s little wonder that in a recent poll, corruption was ranked as the most important issue for 62% of Brazilian citizens.

Much as Donald Trump pledged to “drain the swamp,” Bolsonaro has centered his campaign on the issue of corruption. He asserts that he is the only candidate in the election who has not engaged in some form of corruption or white collar crime. Of the five major presidential candidates, he’s the only one who is not either from a major party that has been mired in a recent corruption scandal, or been part of a coalition with one of those tainted parties. (Bolsonaro’s party, the PSL (Social Liberal Party) is small, barely present at the national level, and he is advertising his status as a political outsider as one of his appeals.) Thus Bolsonaro has presented himself as the only candidate who will usher in a new, less corrupt era for Brazil.

This places some Brazilian voters who care deeply about corruption in a difficult situation. Many Brazilians may feel like their only alternative to perpetuating a corrupt system is to take a gamble on a disruptive figure like Bolsonaro. Indeed, at a recent campaign event, supporters cited his aggressive anticorruption and anti-crime stances as the principal reasons why they were planning to vote for him. Diehard supporters aside, it’s possible that some Brazilian voters who are not totally comfortable with Bolsonaro might nevertheless be swayed by his outsider persona and his aggressive attacks on Brazil’s current political class. For those who have followed U.S. politics over the past few years, this probably sounds disturbingly familiar—and indeed seems to fit into a now-recognizable pattern, also manifested in the Philippines’ 2016 election of populist, zero-tolerance Duterte. It’s precisely that similarity that should, and I hope will, give these on-the-fence Brazilian voters pause. Continue reading

A Big Victory in the Emoluments Clause Litigation Against Trump–But Might It Be Too Big To Last? A Search for Limiting Principles…

As many of our readers may already be aware, there was a significant and encouraging development last week in the litigation challenging President Trump’s ongoing business dealings with foreign and state governments as unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses. For those readers who haven’t already been following this, here’s a quick synopsis. (Readers who have been following this issue can skip to the end of this bullet point list.)

  • Although President Trump claimed he would turn over his business operations to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric, in fact President Trump retains substantial interests in those businesses. Several of those businesses, particularly his hotels (and among those hotels, especially his DC hotel, located at a property leased from the federal government) do substantial amounts of business with representatives of foreign governments, as well as with state governments. Many people have argued that accepting foreign government or state government patronage at Trump hotels violates the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses, respectively. The Foreign Emoluments Clause states that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States] shall, without the consent of Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any … foreign State.” In other words, no officer of the U.S. federal government can accept an “emolument” (whatever that is – more on this question in a moment) from a foreign government. The Domestic Emoluments Clause states that the President “shall not receive [during his term of office] any other Emolument [besides his official salary] from the United States, or any of them.” In other words, the federal government can’t provide any “emolument” to the President other than his official salary, nor can any state government provide any emolument to the President.
  • So, the argument goes, if a foreign government pays for rooms at a Trump hotel, which increases the Trump Organization’s profits and hence President Trump’s personal wealth, President Trump has received an “emolument” from a foreign state. Similarly, if a state government pays for rooms at a Trump hotel (or purchases other goods or services from a Trump business), the President is receiving an emolument from a state government. An additional violation of the Domestic Emoluments Clause may have occurred when the General Services Administration (GSA) (the federal government agency which is, in essence, the landlord for the Trump DC hotel) concluded that the Trump Organization could retain its lease even after Trump’s inauguration, despite the fact that the express terms of the lease appear to preclude this. The argument goes that in allowing the Trump Organization to keep its lease on the property, a federal government agency (in this case the GSA) had granted an “emolument” to the President, in violation of the Domestic Emoluments Clause.
  • Several separate lawsuits alleged these constitutional violations. When they were filed, many people (including me) expected the suits to be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, in particular though not exclusively the inability of the plaintiffs in these cases to show that they were personally and directly harmed by the alleged constitutional violations. And that was indeed what happened to the first case, filed by a civil society nonprofit in New York. But in a separate lawsuit filed in Washington DC by the DC government and the state of Maryland, the judge last April determined that court had jurisdiction over at least some of the plaintiff’s claims (including the claims described above).
  • The President’s lawyers then filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that even if everything the plaintiffs alleged were true (a stipulation the President reserves the right to deny later), there’s no constitutional violation, because neither the profit from a business transaction nor a favorable regulatory decision would count as an “emolument.” Rather, on the President’s view, an “emolument” is only a payment made as compensation for official services.
  • Last week, the District Court issued an order denying the President’s motion to dismiss, rejecting the President’s narrow interpretation of “emolument” and instead endorsing a sweeping definition in which an emolument, for purposes of the relevant constitutional clauses, includes anything of value.

That ruling, as Joe Biden might say, is a big f’ing deal. It’s not the end of the case—far from it—but it’s a huge win for the plaintiffs. Among other things, it means there will now be more fact-finding, including discovery, and probably in a few months we’ll have motions for summary judgment and another judicial order in response, which will likely both keep the issue in the news and possibly bring to light even more damaging information about the President’s business dealings. (The President’s lawyers may try to get an appeals court to consider the jurisdictional issue before this process moves forward by asking for what’s called an interlocutory appeal, but by friends who are experts in civil procedure tell me that such a motion is extremely unlikely to succeed, or at least it would be in an ordinary case.)  So, speaking as someone who was initially skeptical of this litigation—who not only thought it was unlikely to succeed but who worried that it could backfire—I’m delighted to confess error. (I suppose we could still debate whether this was a smart gamble at the time, but it does seem that the gamble is paying off, and who am I to argue with success?)

That doesn’t mean that these suits will ultimately succeed. Even if the plaintiffs prevail in the District Court, there will be an appeal, and I think the odds of the plaintiffs prevailing in the Court of Appeals are low. And even if they do win, the Supreme Court is almost certain to hear the case, and I predict that the Court would find a way to dismiss the case on jurisdictional grounds. (That said, if for some reason the Senate doesn’t confirm Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and in the November 2018 elections the Democrats take the Senate and vow to block any Trump nominee to fill the open seat, then it’s possible that the Supreme Court could deadlock 4-4, leaving any lower court decision in place.)

Now, in addition to the jurisdictional question, one of the issues on appeal will concern the breadth of the District Court’s definition of “emolument.” A lot of the arguments on this point concern matters of text and history. (How did 18th– century dictionaries define “emolument”? What do we learn from debates about the Emoluments Clauses at the Constitutional Convention and ratifying debates? What did early practice look like?) Those arguments are important, but I’m not going to explore them here. There is, however, a separate question of what definition of “emolument” would best serve the purposes of the Emoluments Clauses, which is closely related (if not necessarily identical) to the question of which definition would be the most sensible. I’m very sympathetic to the plaintiff and the District Court’s arguments that the main purpose of the Emoluments Clauses is to serve as broad prophylactic anticorruption measure, one that targets not only quid pro quo deals, but more broadly seeks to eliminate the possibility of governments currying favor with US officials by conferring benefits on them. And I agree that such benefits can take a wide variety of forms. Nonetheless, I do think that the breadth of the definition of “emolument”—as literally anything of value, or as any “profit, gain, or advantage”—might create some problems, and it’s important to think about how the potentially sweeping implications of this definition might be cabined.

I say this not because I’m terribly sympathetic to President Trump’s arguments that he’s not in violation of the Emoluments Clauses. Indeed, based on what I know thus far, I’m fairly confident that President Trump is violating the Emoluments Clauses, and should lose this case on the merits (though the jurisdictional arguments are a closer question). Rather, it’s important to think about appropriate limiting principles for two reasons. First, the likelihood of prevailing on appeal is higher if the plaintiffs and their allies can offer plausible rebuttals to the parade-of-horribles the President’s lawyers will argue follows from defining an emolument as “anything of value.” Second, whatever the appeals court (or perhaps the Supreme Court) says on this issue might have consequences for other cases—with other defendants and different sorts of conduct. So, in the remainder of this post I will first sketch out why the broadest version of the “emolument means literally anything of value” argument might create difficulties, and then consider a series of possible responses to those (alleged) problems. Continue reading