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

The recent and still-unfolding scandal involving President Trump’s apparent pressure on Ukraine to investigate and/or provide dirt on his political rivals has to some degree overshadowed many of the other ethical concerns about President Trump’s behavior in office, 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. (That said, the Ukraine scandal has also drawn greater attention to at least one aspect of this problem, as it did not go unnoticed that in the now-infamous phone July 25 phone conversation between President Trump and President Zelensky, the latter went out of his way to emphasize how much he enjoyed staying in a Trump hotel in New York, which is consistent with longstanding fears that those hoping to influence Trump will give their patronage to his businesses.)

Back in May 2017, GAB began tracking and cataloguing credible allegations of this sort of profiteering by President Trump and his family and cronies. Until May 2019, we’d been updating that report on a monthly basis. The tracker hadn’t been updated for several months since then, partly due to my own lack of organization, and partly because there are now a number of other higher-profile, better-resourced projects with a similar goal. (Among these, I particularly recommend the those from the Sunlight Foundation and from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.) But I think GAB’s somewhat distinctive approach to organizing and describing these concerns might still have sufficient added value that we’re restarting our regular updates to the Trump conflict-of-interest tracker. The newest update is now available here.

A previously noted 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.

In Their Push for Investigations, Did Trump’s Associates Break Ukrainian Law?

The U.S. political news for the last month has been dominated by the explosive and fast-developing scandal involving reports that President Trump and his associates—including not only U.S. government officials but also Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and other private citizens—have been engaged in an ongoing behind-the-scenes campaign to pressure the Ukrainian government to pursue criminal investigations that would benefit President Trump politically. In particular, President Trump, Mr. Giuliani, and others pushed Ukraine to investigate supposed wrongdoing by Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as alleged Ukraine-based interference in the 2016 election on behalf of Democrats. (There is no credible evidence to support either allegation, and experts in President Trump’s administration repeatedly warned him against these unfounded conspiracy theories, to no avail.) The pressure brought to bear by President Trump and his associates on Ukrainian officials appears to have included not only general statements of interest in these allegations—allegations that the Ukrainian authorities viewed as baseless—but also included implicit or explicit threats that failure to comply would lead to various forms of retaliation, both symbolic (the refusal to invite newly-elected President Zelensky to the White House) and tangible (the withholding of desperately needed military aid).

While the main ramifications of this scandal are political rather than strictly legal, the U.S. media extensively discussed whether President Trump and his associates may have violated any U.S. laws, and commentators have suggested a number of potential legal violations. For example, asking a foreign entity for dirt on a domestic political rival might violate the provision of U.S. campaign finance law that makes it illegal to “solicit … a contribution or donation [to an election campaign] … from a foreign national,” where “contribution or donation” includes not only money but any other “thing of value.” President Trump and his associates may also have violated domestic anti-corruption law (the federal anti-bribery statute and/or the anti-extortion provision of the Hobbs Act) in conditioning the performance of an official act (such as the transfer of military aid) on the receipt of something of value from Ukrainian government officials (investigations into political rivals). Private citizens like Mr. Giuliani may have violated the Logan Act, which makes it illegal for private citizens, without the authority of the United States, to correspond with any foreign government or foreign 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.” And of course, the attempts to conceal all of these interactions may have amounted to obstruction of justice.

The focus in the U.S. media on whether President Trump and his associates may have violated U.S. law is entirely understandable, but seems incomplete. Strangely absent from the conversation is any mention, let alone sustained exploration, of the question whether any of President Trump’s associates may have violated Ukrainian law. At least this seems strange to me. Imagine that the situation were reversed. Suppose, for example, that a Chinese businessman, nominally a private citizen but known to have close ties to President Xi, approached the U.S. Attorney General and said something like, “We know your administration is anxious to cut a trade deal and would also like China’s assistance in addressing the North Korea situation. I’m sure President Xi could be persuaded to help you out. But you should help China out too. There’s a dissident, now an American citizen, who’s been writing a lot of damaging lies about President Xi, and he’s gaining a following in China and stirring unrest. Why don’t you publicly announce that the U.S. government is investigating him for running a ring of child prostitutes? That would really help us out.” If a story like this came out, I’m quite sure the U.S. media would be abuzz with discussions about which U.S. laws this businessman might have broken, and whether he might be prosecuted in U.S. courts if U.S. authorities managed to arrest him. But in the Ukraine case, we may have something similar—a private citizen (Giuliani) with close ties to a foreign political leader (Trump) apparently told senior political and law enforcement officials (the Ukrainian President and Prosecutor General) to pursue a bogus criminal investigation in exchange for that foreign government’s cooperation on important issues—and nobody seems to be even raising the possibility that this might violate Ukrainian law.

By the way, when I say nobody is talking about this, that apparently includes Ukrainian media and civil society. I don’t read Ukrainian and I’m by no means a Ukraine expert, but I have some friends and other contacts there, and they tell me that while the story is big news in their country, there hasn’t been any discussion about whether Trump’s associates may have violated Ukrainian law. That gives me pause, and makes me think that perhaps I’m totally off base in thinking there’s even an interesting question here. Nonetheless, at the risk of looking foolish (something that’s happened plenty of times before, I admit), I want to use this post to float this topic and see what others think. Continue reading

Memorandum of Conversation Between Presidents Trump and Zelensky UPDATED

America has unfortunately plunged into what is likely to be a long and divisive debate about corruption. Media reports of a conversation President Trump had July 25 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have swirled since allegations surfaced that President Trump had there asked President Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Biden for corruption.  In the hopes of ending speculation about what he said, earlier today President Trump released a memorandum recounting the call.  [Update: The controversy leading to release of the memorandum was sparked by reports an intelligence professional had filed a whistleblower complaint concerning President Trump and Ukraine.  That complaint, released the morning of September 2, is here].

Unfortunately, the release is likely only to fuel ever more nasty, partisan debate. One controversy certain to arise is the memorandum’s accuracy.  It is not a verbatim transcript of what the leaders said, a transcription of an audio recording of the call.  Rather, it represents what one or more staff huriedley scribbled down while the two spoke; later others reviewed it.  Did someone “scrub” more incriminating comments from the memo before its release?  Is there a better record of the call?  Will the person or persons who actually listened to the call come forward to testify to its accuracy?  Or contest the accuracy?

A more critical point of contention is whether what President Trump said during the call is on its face a crime under American law.  President Trump clearly asked President Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Biden for criminal activity.  The Federal Election Campaign Act makes it a crime for presidential candidates to receive contributions, defined as “anything of value,” from foreign citizens or governments. President Trump is a candidate for president in the 2020 election as is the former Vice President. Had Ukraine actually initiated an investigation of the Vice President, would that have been something of value under the election law?  If it would have been, was President Trump’s solicitation of such a contribution a violation of the law?  Or any other U.S. laws?

Is the fact that Mr. Biden is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination relevant to the inquiry?  That, were he to be the Democratic nominee, current polls show him decisively defeating President Trump?

Some reports allege President Trump personally held up critical military and economic assistance to the government of Ukraine, only releasing it under Congressional pressure.  That will surely be the bitterest bone of contention, for if he used a denial or delay in providing aid as leverage to force Ukraine to open an investigation, that would constitute attempted bribery under American law and thus strong grounds for impeachment and removal from office.

Was there such a threat?  As students of U.S. bribery law know, it need not have been overt; “a wink and a nod” suffices.   Expect a great deal of argument over “winks and nods,” with partisans seeing none opponents seeing them everywhere

The only bright spot in this very dismal chapter in American history is release of  memorandum of conversation.  It provides at least some uncontested facts upon which partisans can build their cases.  For those who have yet to read it, here it is Memorandum telephone conversation between Presidents Trump and Zelenskyy

Reflections on the Recent Dismissal of One of the Emoluments Clause Suits Against Donald Trump

One of the issues we’ve been following (on and off) over the last couple of years concerns the lawsuits (three in total) that various plaintiffs have brought against President Trump for alleged violation of the U.S. Constitutions “Emoluments Clauses” (see here, here, here, here, and here). In brief, Article I, Section 9 prohibits officers of the United States from accepting “any present, Emolument, Office or Title, of any kind whatever, from any … foreign state” unless Congress consents, while Article II, Section 1 prohibits the President specifically from receiving (during his or her term in office) “any other Emolument [other than the President’s official salary] from the United States, or any of them.” Critics of President Trump have argued that, because President Trump has not fully divested himself from his various businesses, and foreign governments have purchased goods and services from those businesses (or granted them other advantages, such as regulatory approvals or tax breaks), President Trump is in violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause. Similar sorts of transactions between state governments and Trump-owned businesses give rise to alleged violations of the Domestic Emoluments Clause. And these various lawsuits have sought a judicial remedy for these alleged violations—presumably an injunction requiring either divestment, or else a transfer of any proceeds or profits from prohibited transactions to the U.S. Treasury or some third party (though the plaintiffs in these suits have been a bit vague on exactly what sort of relief they’re seeking).

A potential hurdle for these suits, though, is whether these plaintiffs are allowed to bring them in the first place—a question independent of, and prior to, the merits of their claims. Under U.S. law, a plaintiff bringing a challenge in federal court must have “standing” to bring the claim, a requirement that has been interpreted (pursuant to an aggressive extrapolation from Article III of the Constitution) to require the plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant’s unlawful conduct causes the plaintiff a direct, concrete injury that is fairly traceable to the defendant’s conduct and that could be remedied by a court order. In addition to this standing requirement, the plaintiffs must also show that they have a valid “cause of action”—in other words (and simplifying the legal complexities a bit) they must show that the legal provision under which they’re suing (here the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses) allow plaintiffs like them to sue to enforce those legal requirements. This in turn typically requires the plaintiffs to show that they have at least a colorable argument that their interests fall within the “zone of interests” protected by the law in question. Even some people (me included) who were sympathetic to the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims worried that, under existing doctrine, the plaintiffs in these cases might lose on standing and/or cause-of-action grounds, especially because federal courts might be anxious to make these cases go away without having to reach the merits.

Three weeks ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals dealt a serious blow to one of these Emoluments Clause cases, ruling that the plaintiffs (Washington D.C. and the state of Maryland) lacked standing to bring the case. In doing so, the appeals court reversed—and chastised—a district court judge who had concluded the plaintiffs had standing, and who later rejected the defendant’s other arguments for dismissing the suit before discovery could proceed. It’s taken me a while to read the opinion carefully, but now that I have, I figured it might make sense to offer some quick reactions. (The delay means that this can’t count as a “hot take.” Perhaps we can call it a “lukewarm take”?)

My main reactions—what the kids today would call the “TL;DR” version—are as follows: (1) The appeals court’s standing ruling is badly flawed as a matter of law. (2) That doesn’t mean the suit should have been allowed to proceed, because there are other preliminary barriers that might have been harder to overcome. (3) Despite the serious legal flaws in the Court of Appeals’ ruling, I think it significantly reduces the odds that these cases might proceed to discovery and trial, notwithstanding the fact that the litigation isn’t technically over. (4) The political consequences of the dismissal, though not great, are likely not as significant as people like me had worried, but nonetheless this case is a troubling and unnecessary abdication of a potentially important judicial check on (unconstitutionally) corrupt behavior. Let me elaborate each of these points: Continue reading

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

For the past two years (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. The May 2019 update is now available here. A couple of the more notable new developments in this update:

  • IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, who is currently fighting at House Committee request for President Trump’s tax returns, owns two Trump-branded properties from which he receives substantial rental income–the value of which is arguably affected by the overall value of the Trump brand.
  • Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report cites former Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s statement that Trump at several points suggested that his presidential campaign would function as an “infomercial” for Trump-branded properties.
  • New information revealed through a Freedom of Information Act request indicates that since 2017 at least seven foreign governments have rented units at a Trump-managed property in New York (the Trump World Tower).

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.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–April 2019 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. The April 2019 update is now available here. A couple of the more notable new developments in this update:

  • Ballard Partners, a lobbying firm with close ties to the Trump administration, is apparently explicitly directing the firm’s clients to book rooms and hold events at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, as a way to influence the administration
  • The Trump Hotel is selling merchandise with images of the White House, in an apparent attempt to further marketize/monetize President Trump’s official position.

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.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–March 2019 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. The March 2019 update is now available here. A couple of the more notable new developments in this update:

  • A House of Representatives Oversight Committee released a report on a Trump Administration proposal to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner was directly involved in discussions of this proposal. Brookfield Management, the asset management firm that effectively bailed out the Kushner family company by leasing the Kushner-owned property at 666 Fifth Avenue, also recently purchased a nuclear services company that would have directly benefited from the Saudi deal.
  • The General Services Administration (GSA) inspector general released a report questioning the GSA’s earlier decision that the Trump International Hotel’s lease on the D.C. Old Post Office was consistent with the terms of the lease; the IG stopped short of saying that the GSA’s determination was improper, but criticized the GSA lawyers for not addressing the constitutional issues implicated by this deal.

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.