Welcome to the era of presidential profiteering

    Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington

    Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington

    Sixty days before the inauguration‚ henceforth to be known as Enthronement Day — the craven corruption has already commenced.

    Foreign diplomats intend to line Donald Trump’s pockets by staying at his new D.C. hotel, in order to win favors for the nations they represent. They’re not even subtle about it. One of them says: “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’?”

    “His city.” Gee, I always thought it was our city.

    I had long been led to believe, by the Trump campaign and its voting minority (at this writing, 1.7 million fewer voters than Hillary’s campaign), that the Clintons’ alleged mixing of private business and public service was veritably satanic. And yet here we are, suddenly poised on the precipice of an unconstitutional kleptocracy.

    If you don’t understand what’s going on, check the dictionary definition of the word emolument: “A salary, fee, or profit from employment or office.” Then take a look at what the Founding Fathers wrote into the U.S. Constitution. Section 1, Article 9 specifically bars all federal officials — no exceptions — from profiteering while in office. Conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill, who profess to revere the literal language of the document, might want to read this slowly for full comprehension:

    “… no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatsoever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

    Translation: Unless Trump speedily puts his business empire in a blind trust, to be administered by a trustee with no family ties — a move he has refused to contemplate — he will likely be violating the Constitution on Day One of his enthronement. But don’t take my word for it. Trevor Potter, a former Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission, frames the issue in language that even the dimmest trumpeting troll should be able to process:

    “The founders of this country were greatly concerned about foreign attempts to influence our government. They feared that kings or potentates would make generous gifts to our president in an attempt to sway U.S. policy, so they wrote into the Constitution the emoluments clause, which prohibits the president from receiving any personal financial benefit from a foreign government…

    “Some foreign businesses and foreign leaders will want to cozy up to the Trump family, because that is how they are used to doing business and conducting foreign policy. The children will get a raft of proposals for new hotels and golf courses and other investments in places that will offer very favorable terms: cheap land, no red tape in the permitting process, low-interest loans for construction, a guaranteed large management fee in return for the Trump name on the new enterprise …

    “This is a colossal mistake. It will produce conflicts of interest of an unprecedented magnitude…We will look like the very sort of kleptocracy we criticize in corrupt dictatorships elsewhere.”

    Trump claimed back in August that “the Clinton Foundation is the most corrupt enterprise in political history” — yet here he is now, on the cusp of institutionalizing pay-to-play profiteering on a global scale, in open defiance of constitutional norms, he even met last week three India business partners … and yet, public reaction runs the gamut from silence (congressional Republicans) to numbness (most people). And a lot of Trump critics simply prefer to be distracted by his petty tweetstorms about “Hamilton” and “Saturday Night Life.”

    Granted, some former White House ethics lawyers, from past Democratic and Republican administrations, warned Trump in a letter last week that profiteering is unAmerican — “You were elected to the presidency with a promise to eliminate improper business influence in Washington. There is no way to square your campaign commitments to the American people, and your even higher, ethical duties as their president, with the rampant, inescapable conflicts that will engulf your presidency if you maintain connections with the Trump Organization” — but hey, who cares, right? The holidays are coming, and there’s lotsa football.

    Plus, we have Reince Priebus, the incoming Trump aide. On CNN yesterday, Jake Tapper hit him with the biggie: “As White House chief of staff, you’re supposed to look out for any political or ethical minefields. Is it seriously the position of the Trump transition team that this is not a huge cauldron of potential conflicts of interest?” Priebus replied: “Obviously we will comply with all of those laws and we will have our White House counsel review all of these things.” Yeah, sure. Unless Trump puts his empire in blind trust, Priebus’ assurances are worthless.

    And with the GOP in charge on Capitol Hill, don’t expect anyone to probe Trump by invoking the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause. I suppose that could change, if or when his conflicts of interest flagrantly undercut the national interest. But for now, the party’s House sleuths are more likely to investigate the free-speech behavior of the “Hamilton” cast.

    Oh, speaking of Alexander Hamilton, here’s something he wrote in 1788 — an eloquent warning about pay-to-play corruption in government: “In the general course of human nature, a power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.”

    It’s right here in the Federalist Papers. And it turned up in a 2013 tweet … from Donald Trump.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.