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How Democrats Can Use Trump’s Corruption Against Him

His conflicts of interest can help build the populist argument against him that Clinton's campaign failed to mount.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump is a fast worker. It’s been less than two weeks since he won the election, and already he’s entangled himself in a series of conflicts of interest that could easily rise to the level of a constitutional crisis. 

The crux of the problem, of course, is that the president-elect runs a large, global corporate empire that he has no intention of liquidating, but instead plans to hand over to three of his adult children—Donald Trump, Jr., Eric Trump, and Ivanka Trump—and son-in-law Jared Kushner. The conflicts inherent in that scheme started to become vividly clear last week, when Ivanka sat in on a meeting her father had with Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe, and, with Eric, joined her father in meeting with a group of businessmen from India who, by their own account, talked to the Trumps about expanding their dealings with the organization. 

Meanwhile, the recently opened Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., took the initiative to invite local diplomats to a reception and espouse the comforts and convenience of staying there—something foreign nations seem eager to do in order to win the good graces of the next commander-in-chief. As one Asian diplomat told The Washington Post, “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’”

The mixture of business and politics in the Trump family’s dealing with foreign powers and corporations is troubling enough, but the solutions being bandied about all have a fatal hurdle in common: They’d require a Republican Congress to take a stand against Trump. Speaking to The Washington Post, Noah Bookbinder, who serves as the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, says “influential members of Congress” could “demand things” like a release of information about Trump family holdings. 

The conservative writer David Frum has a more specific solution: a “law requiring [the] president to release his tax returns.” Democratic Representative Katherine Clark has introduced a Presidential Accountability Act” which would require “the President and Vice President to place their assets in a certified blind trust or disclose to the Office of Government Ethics and the public when they make a decision that affects their personal finances.”

There is also a potential constitutional remedy. As legal analyst Ian Millhiser writes in ThinkProgress, the fact that foreign governments and businesses are trying to curry Trump’s favor with business deals appears to violate the “emoluments clause” of the Constitution, which holds that “no person holding any office of profit or trust under” the United States “shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” Millhiser cites law professor Richard Painter, who worked as chief ethics counsel to President George W. Bush, pointing out that the solicitation of diplomats to do Trump Hotel business could be a violation of the prohibition against emoluments. Ultimately, Trump’s violations could be grounds for impeachment—or, Millhiser thinks, for other hotel chains to sue the president. 

The problem with all these remedies is that they are legal ones, based on a good-government approach to politics: They assume lawmakers will look out for the public interest, and also that Trump will suffer politically from violating the conflict-of-interest rules. In other words, they are totally at odds with an America where Donald Trump has won a presidential election. Trump won not in spite of his norms-violations, but because of them: The fact that he constantly thumbed his nose at the way things are supposed to be done was proof to his supporters that he was the disruptive force who would shake up the status quo.

The ultimate remedy for presidential corruption, impeachment, is a political process, not a legal one. Trump could commit any number of impeachable offenses without being investigated by Congress if the majority Republicans lack the political impetus for doing so. It’s unlikely that a Republican House and Senate would want to start impeachment proceedings unless Trump did something stunningly egregious or became very unpopular. 

Trump’s hold over the Republican Party gives him ample protection from the tut-tutting of good-government types offended by his manifest and manifold conflicts of interest. Any real challenge to Trump’s corruption can’t just be about his violation of laws and norms; it’ll have to take the form of a political attack designed to tarnish his popularity. Democrats need to use the corruption to make Trump unpopular—not just with a possible impeachment in mind, but to turn their fortunes around in 2018 and 2020, when they can deliver the other real cure for the problem: defeating Trump for re-election. That means Democrats will have to mount a sustained campaign to expose Trump’s corruption in a way they failed to do throughout the 2016 campaign. 

There was plenty of evidence of Trump’s corruption that Democrats could have wielded effectively during the election—most notably, the fraudulence of Trump University (which last week resulted in Trump paying a $25 million settlement and a $1 million fine) and the myriad examples of self-dealing at the Trump Foundation—for instance, spending more $258,000 of the money donated to his charity to pay off lawsuits and legal fines.

Democrats could have used such examples to paint Trump as the opposite of a populist. President Obama showed the way when he said in a September speech, “This is the guy you want to be championing working people? This guy who spent 70 years on this earth showing no concern for working people” Unfortunately, Obama’s attacks on Trump as a phony populist weren’t taken up by the Clinton campaign, which instead tried to paint Trump as a violator of norms. 

The Clinton campaign used Trump’s shocking language to argue that he was beyond the pale—an approach epitomized by its “Role Models” ad, which shows children listening to Trump’s wild rhetoric. The problem with this appeal was that it was fundamentally apolitical—Donald Trump is a bad role model for kids; do we really want a president like that? This emphasis on bad, dangerous Trump failed to link his shocking words with his actual harmful policies; the Democrats didn’t give people who preferred Trump on the issues, or who liked the idea of having someone dangerous in the White House, a substantial reason to vote against him.

Trump easily countered the Clinton campaign by tarnishing his rival as “corrupt Hillary,” and making hay with her alleged “pay-for-play” misdeeds at the Clinton Foundation and the state department, along with her questionable handling of classified email. Democrats were frustrated at the power of the “corrupt Hillary” meme, since by any reasonable measure Clinton’s minor infractions paled in significance to Trump’s history of large-scale fraud. What they failed to realize was that Trump had neutralized accusations of corruption against himself by invoking “corrupt Hillary” to bolster his credentials as a norm-breaker who would fight against a corrupt system. The “Trump is a bad person” line of attack only made him look more appealing to those who want to blow the system up. 

The meme was part of a larger argument Trump made when he boasted about buying politicians. Trump cast himself as the cure for Washington corruption—a strange cure, to be sure, but that was the appeal. “Yes, I’m a crook,” he seemed to say, “but that means I know how this crooked system works and I can fix it. I’m already rich, so the wealthy can’t buy me like they do other politicians.” 

In response, the Clinton campaign was effectively making the same “good government” arguments before the election that are being made now. Democrats need to take a clue from Obama and make a whole different case about President Trump that goes like this: “Trump’s corruption is proof that he’s not looking out for common people. He’s betrayed his promise that he couldn’t be bought. The same Trump that ripped off students at Trump University continues to rip off America. He’s not making America great again, but continuing to enrich himself.” 

As president, Trump’s corruption will be salient in a whole new way that Democrats can exploit. If Trump’s supporters were hoping that he was a smart crook who can’t be bought and would fight for the forgotten American, many of them will surely be surprised to discover that he’s continuing to focus on self-enrichment as president. 

Creating wedges that separate Trump from his base is one of the Democrats’ most urgent tasks going forward, and a fresh argument about corruption is the way forward. A consistent, steady argument that Trump is using his office to benefit himself would have the merit of moving beyond the slogans that only appeal to those that didn’t vote for Trump (“Not My President”), and cut into his support from Trump voters who might feel betrayed. The fact Trump and the Republicans are about to pass tax cuts that benefit the very rich offers an initial opening for making that case. And once he’s sworn in, Trump’s conflicts of interest can be linked to his actual policies. (For example, the way in which Trump’s expanding business ties to countries like Saudi Arabia and India contradict his calls for American businesses to invest in jobs at home.) 

Trump is unlikely to be impeached unless the Democrats gain control of Congress—a long shot at best over the next couple of cycles. But one of the ways to help the Democrats regain their strength in Congress—and ultimately the White House—is to start laying out the case that Trump is corrupt and anti-populist. The argument that Trump violates good-government norms failed in the campaign, and won’t work any better when he’s in the White House. What the opposition needs is a strong, ongoing argument that his corruption is integrally linked to policies that go against ordinary people.