(SL) – I don’t know what else has to be done before Capitol Hill does what it needs to do. Whether it’s the continuance of business profits while holding office, setting off bombs without consulting Congress, Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon..the list goes on. The Rolling Stone says it best:
We have watched this unfold in the open: Trump has thumbed his nose at custom and the Constitution by refusing to resolve the conflicts of interest that will now shadow his presidency. He has used his Twitter account – a 21st-century bully pulpit – not to unify Americans behind his agenda, but to settle personal scores in a sustained assault on freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.
Trump has installed an inner circle that aims to marginalize millions of our countrymen, even as it seeks to degrade the institutions of our government. Finally, Trump has clutched Russia in a perplexing bear hug. Whether he’s done this out of genuine admiration for its brutal regime, because he’s indebted to its oligarchs, or because Trump has somehow been compromised by former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin we have yet to resolve. For Americans, and for our NATO allies, none of these alternatives will be reassuring.
Republicans in Congress have stood by quietly, almost without objection. They’ve acted as enablers – even as Trump has inserted himself as the ur-chairman of publicly traded companies, blessing their manufacturing plans or tanking their stock prices with a single tweet. Republicans used to object to politicians “picking winners and losers.” Just last July, Speaker Paul Ryan called it “a recipe for a closed economy – for cronyism.”
History will judge this period harshly.
Conflicts of interest
Trump has not released his tax returns. The American public remains in the dark about the debts and deals that could bind the 45th president against the national interest or pervert the foreign policy of the United States.
The lack of transparency matters because Donald Trump has not divested from his businesses. His promises to set up a blind trust and to halt new business deals were both empty. As the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, described it, Trump’s decision to hand daily management of the Trump Organization to his adult sons instead is “meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective.”
Sounding more than a bit like Richard Nixon, Trump has proclaimed that “the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” By a lawyerly reading of 18 U.S.C. § 208, that may parse as true – but the claim is false from any moral perspective. The Supreme Court has written that when our leaders “engage in activities which arouse suspicions of corruption,” those office-holders endanger “the very fabric of a democratic society.” Trump, Shaub insisted in remarks delivered January 11th at the Brookings Institution, has failed to rise to the standards “that every president in the past four decades has met.”
In fact, during the transition period, Trump and his children appeared to trade on his status as president-elect: The Trumps have reportedly secured a stalled building permit for a tower in Argentina; Ivanka Trump joined her father in a meeting with the prime minister of Japan, where she has business with a state-backed enterprise; and the Trump Organization’s new leaders, Don Jr. and Eric Trump, took seats at the conference table for a once-in-a lifetime meeting with executives from Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Oracle, Microsoft and others at the “tech summit” convened by their president-elect father at Trump Tower. Even Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been pursuing lucrative business deals with foreign investors. Trump has now named Kushner a senior adviser, skirting anti-nepotism laws.
The president’s global business enterprise remains an invitation to corruption – from interests who may try to ingratiate themselves to Trump by leasing his properties, golfing at his resorts or lodging at his hotels, including the new Trump International, down the street from the White House.
Trump’s business conflicts raise not only ethical but constitutional concerns. Can profits earned from foreign governments paying exorbitant sums for luxury rentals, hotel rooms, golf retreats or $24 cocktails be construed as either bribes or “emoluments” (i.e., gifts)? Those would be impeachable offenses under the Constitution.
The Republican Congress could act to place limits on Trump’s ability to profit from his office. Congress could also force Trump to reveal his tax returns, which 74 percent of Americans want him to release. But the only move a Republican from the legislative branch has made on presidential ethics so far is to threaten the independent government watchdog who dared criticize Trump.
This has left our 45th president, in the words of Harvard legal scholar Laurence Tribe, “a walking, talking violation of the constitution from the moment he takes the oath.”
And then there’s Russia.
The Russian cloud
To borrow a line from Churchill, Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. We have at best spotty information, but what we do know should alarm any American.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia invades its neighbors, threatens NATO allies, is linked to murders of dissidents and journalists, and subverts democracies – including our own. The CIA, FBI and NSA have concluded that Putin had “a clear preference” for Trump over Clinton in the 2016 election and that Russia orchestrated a multifaceted “influence campaign” to help boost Trump, including by hacking emails of the DNC and “senior Democratic officials” ultimately published by WikiLeaks.
We know that Trump – who touted the WikiLeaks disclosures ad nauseam on the campaign trail – laboriously resisted linking Russia to to the hack, insisting “it is very hard to determine who was doing the hacking,” that “the whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on” and that “I know things that other people don’t know.” Only during his press conference – following an in-person classified briefing by the heads of the intelligence community – did Trump finally admit, “I think it was Russia,” only to once more praise the product of Putin’s cyber op, telling reporters, “Look at what was learned from that hacking.”
We have come to know Donald Trump as a man who relishes dominance displays and bullying his adversaries. Recall: “low-energy Jeb,” “lyin’ Ted,” “little Marco” and “crooked Hillary.” But when it comes to the former KGB colonel who leads Russia, Trump has a very different posture. The new American president doesn’t hold himself up as the new big wolf on the global stage. Instead, Trump acts like Putin is his alpha – praising him in December as “very smart!”
Far from letting Russia’s meddling in American elections spoil the bromance, Trump tweeted in January, “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it is bad!” With his foreign policy team, Trump has surrounded himself with Russia-friendly advisers, including Gen. Flynn, and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state nominee and former Exxon CEO on whom Putin pinned a medal of friendship in 2013.
Trump’s praise for Putin is so effusive, and his administration’s posture toward Russia so deferential, it is not difficult to believe the Russians have some sort of leverage. Is it financial? As remarked above, Trump refuses to release his tax returns or business records. We don’t know. Back in 2008, Trump’s son Don Jr. revealed that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” Donald Trump has loudly denied in recent days that he owes “Russia” anything. But as the journalist David Cay Johnston has smartly observed, Trump’s disavowals seem lawyerly, never extending to “Russians.” After all, Russian oligarchs, not the state of Russia, are the lenders Americans would be concerned about.
A more salacious alternative is that the Russians have compromising material – kompromat – that they are holding over Trump. This possibility is addressed in the scandalous but unverified dossier published by BuzzFeed that Trump has blasted as “A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION, UTTER NONSENSE,” and “A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!” suggesting it had been leaked by the U.S. intelligence community, which he likened to “Nazi Germany.”
A third, and perhaps more disturbing, possibility is that Trump simply and genuinely admires Putin, and seeks to emulate his rule. That Trump sees little value in the NATO alliance that has kept the peace in Europe, and that he’d rather align himself with the Russian autocrat than with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
James Comey was investigating Trump when he was released. Read this article by Laurence H. Tribe, a Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School .
The time has come for Congress to launch an impeachment investigation of President Trump for obstruction of justice.
The remedy of impeachment was designed to create a last-resort mechanism for preserving our constitutional system. It operates by removing executive-branch officials who have so abused power through what the framers called “high crimes and misdemeanors” that they cannot be trusted to continue in office.
Now the country is faced with a president whose conduct strongly suggests that he poses a danger to our system of government.
Ample reasons existed to worry about this president, and to ponder the extraordinary remedy of impeachment, even before he fired FBI Director James B. Comey and shockingly admitted on national television that the action was provoked by the FBI’s intensifying investigation into his campaign’s ties with Russia.
Even without getting to the bottom of what Trump dismissed as “this Russia thing,” impeachable offenses could theoretically have been charged from the outset of this presidency. One important example is Trump’s brazen defiance of the foreign emoluments clause, which is designed to prevent foreign powers from pressuring U.S. officials to stray from undivided loyalty to the United States. Political reality made impeachment and removal on that and other grounds seem premature.
No longer. To wait for the results of the multiple investigations underway is to risk tying our nation’s fate to the whims of an authoritarian leader.
Comey’s summary firing will not stop the inquiry, yet it represented an obvious effort to interfere with a probe involving national security matters vastly more serious than the “third-rate burglary” that Nixon tried to cover up in Watergate. The question of Russian interference in the presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign go to the heart of our system and ability to conduct free and fair elections.
Consider, too, how Trump embroiled Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, despite Sessions’s recusal from involvement in the Russia investigation, in preparing admittedly phony justifications for the firing on which Trump had already decided. Consider how Trump used the vice president and White House staff to propagate a set of blatant untruths — before giving an interview to NBC’s Lester Holt that exposed his true motivation.
Trump accompanied that confession with self-serving — and manifestly false — assertions about having been assured by Comey that Trump himself was not under investigation. By Trump’s own account, he asked Comey about his investigative status even as he was conducting the equivalent of a job interview in which Comey sought to retain his position as director.
Further reporting suggests that the encounter was even more sinister, with Trump insisting that Comey pledge “loyalty” to him in order to retain his job. Publicly saying he saw nothing wrong with demanding such loyalty, the president turned to Twitter with a none-too-subtle threat that Comey would regret any decision to disseminate his version of his conversations with Trump — something that Comey has every right, and indeed a civic duty, to do.
To say that this does not in itself rise to the level of “obstruction of justice” is to empty that concept of all meaning. Obstruction of justice was the first count in the articles of impeachment against Nixon and, years later, a count against Bill Clinton. In Clinton’s case, the ostensible obstruction consisted solely in lying under oath about a sordid sexual affair that may have sullied the Oval Office but involved no abuse of presidential power as such.
But in Nixon’s case, the list of actions that together were deemed to constitute impeachable obstruction reads like a forecast of what Trump would do decades later — making misleading statements to, or withholding material evidence from, federal investigators or other federal employees; trying to interfere with FBI or congressional investigations; trying to break through the FBI’s shield surrounding ongoing criminal investigations; dangling carrots in front of people who might otherwise pose trouble for one’s hold on power.
It will require serious commitment to constitutional principle, and courageous willingness to put devotion to the national interest above self-interest and party loyalty, for a Congress of the president’s own party to initiate an impeachment inquiry. It would be a terrible shame if only the mounting prospect of being voted out of office in November 2018 would sufficiently concentrate the minds of representatives and senators today.
But whether it is devotion to principle or hunger for political survival that puts the prospect of impeachment and removal on the table, the crucial thing is that the prospect now be taken seriously, that the machinery of removal be reactivated, and that the need to use it become the focus of political discourse going into 2018.