Impeachment for Corruption

We’ve discussed how impeachment organizes the disparate issues surrounding Donald Trump. We’ve focused on the poor political prospects of presidents who faced impeachment and the poor prospects of those presidents’ parties. We’ve examined the history of the constitutional language, especially “high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” We found that a major purpose of the language was to enable Congress to stop corruption in its tracks. Corruption of public officials was a major target of impeachments in both England and America, leading to our constitutional text.

The Founders were very concerned about corruption. One constitutional clause barred public officials from accepting “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or Foreign State,” and a second clause barred presidents from receiving any emoluments other than pre-determined compensation from the U.S. or any state. They couldn’t accept gifts. And they couldn’t accept other benefits, emoluments, including as pay for service. We have elaborate laws about gifts to public officials. They cannot, they must not accept pay as public officials for what they have to do anyway. Judges are generally quite scrupulous. When my classmate, Judge José Cabranes, officiated over a wedding for our son, I asked other judges what I could do in response. They told me anything I did, even though we are old friends, had to be minimal. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote a chapter for a book I edited years ago. I arranged for all the contributors to share whatever royalties the book produced. Justice O’Connor was adamant that she would not take a cent – we put her share of the royalties into a scholarship fund instead. And you may not know that when foreign officials do bring presents to American public officials, the American officials are required to turn those presents over to be warehoused for use in public offices but not given to any public official to keep privately.

There were reasons that the Founders were so concerned. One source of the American Revolution had been the colonists’ anger at all the perks and goodies heaped on officials appointed by the Crown, and the colonists also reacted to the airs those officials put on. But the problem goes much deeper into economic and patriotic reasons. Opportunities steered toward public officials act like a tax on trade as other businesses have to struggle all the harder for business. Opportunities steered toward public officials distort the market because business doesn’t go to the best, but rather to the powerful. The economies of countries where those practices are common do much worse than those free of that kind of corruption. Until recently it’s not been a problem here.

The patriotic problem is loyalty. People perceive that doing business with Trump or his enterprises is more likely to win Trump’s favor and therefore affect American policy. They perceive it because it is ordinary human behavior to bless those who bless us. But it is precisely wrong for a president – their job in the White House is to pursue the best for America, not the best for their own businesses. No one asks presidents to impoverish themselves. I believe Truman was the last to retire without a presidential pension. And they can put their assets in a blind trust as presidents have been doing for some time now so that they do not know and can’t tell what will be better for their business or who has benefitted their assets. Trump has done the opposite. No blind trust. No disclosure of his taxes or the businesses reflected on them. And he blatantly steers business to his own resorts and enterprises.

That’s about the president’s welfare, not the people’s. Corruption has no place in the White House and should be the first article of impeachment. To paraphrase his own language: Dirty Donald; lock him up.

— This commentary was pre-empted by the Facebook hearings but included on the WAMC blog, April, 2018.

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