This is why the Founders banned emoluments

If Congress were doing its job, we wouldn’t have to wonder who the President is working for.


Remember Helsinki?

It was just three months ago, in July. The President of the United States stood on a stage with Vladimir Putin and was abjectly subservient to him. On the subject of Russian interference in the 2016 election, he weighed the unanimous opinion of US intelligence agencies against Putin’s denial and sided with the foreign autocrat. Putin’s other bad behavior — the ongoing proxy war against Ukraine, poisoning of critics in the UK, human-rights abuses at home — led to nary a whisper of criticism from the supposed Leader of the Free World. Trump blamed “both sides” for the poor state of US/Russian relations, and in a subsequent interview, he questioned whether the US would really go to war to defend a NATO ally like Montegnegro from Russian aggression.

If there had been any doubt that Trump was in Putin’s pocket, Helsinki ended it.

This week we saw something similar happen with Saudi Arabia.

The shifting Saudi explanations. In the weeks since the expatriate Saudi journalist (and Virginia resident and Washington Post contributor) Jamal Khashoggi disappeared into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, the Saudi Arabian government has put out a series of narratives, each as preposterous as the last.

  • First they claimed Khashoggi left the consulate alive (and yet somehow evaded the Turkish cameras that saw him enter). Saudi officials even expressed concern about his well-being and said they were trying to find him.
  • When the Turkish government published the names and images of the Saudi agents who came to Istanbul to kill Khashoggi, the Saudis denounced “baseless allegations”. They threatened to respond to any international action against them “with a bigger one“.
  • Then they allowed that Khashoggi might be dead, but if so, it was the work of “rogue killers” who somehow murdered him inside the consulate and disposed of his body without any legitimate Saudi officials noticing.
  • The latest story is that the killing was essentially an accident: The Saudis just wanted to “return” Khashoggi to the Kingdom, i.e. kidnap him. But he struggled, one of the kidnappers got him in a chokehold, and he died. The body was then disposed of by a “local collaborator”, so the Saudis don’t know what happened to it.

Above all, the narratives insist that whatever was done to Khashoggi had nothing to do with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who Khashoggi had been especially critical of, and whose known associates seem to be the murderers.

The Trump echo chamber. Through this all, Trump has been giving his best Helsinki performance, repeating Saudi talking points as if he were working for them and not for us. King Salman’s denial of involvement, he said, was “very, very strong“. (In Helsinki, “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”) “Maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?” (“Who knows?” is also a standard element when Trump wants to defend someone. He projects a reality where it’s impossible to know anything and all scenarios are equally likely. The hacker who hit the DNC computers “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?“) He compared MBS to Brett Kavanaugh, who (in Trump’s mind) was also wrongly accused.

In an interview with The Washington Post Saturday, Trump backed off only a little, acknowledging that the Saudi government’s stories “are all over the place”, but standing by MBS and continuing to repeat the latest Saudi talking points, without worrying about the now-abandoned talking points he repeated only a few days ago.

There is a possibility [MBS] found out about it afterward. It could be something in the building went badly awry. It could be that’s when he found about it. He could have known they were bringing him back to Saudi Arabia.

and insisting that there’s no way to really know.

Nobody has told me he’s responsible. Nobody has told me he’s not responsible. We haven’t reached that point. I haven’t heard either way.

Why? After Helsinki, Americans were left to wonder what exactly had turned Trump into such a puppet. Does Putin have kompromat to hold over his head? Is Trump paying his debt from 2016? Or does the debt go back further, to the Russian money that had come to Trump’s rescue when no one else would fund him? The explanations were suggestive, but still speculative.

This time, though, we don’t have to speculate, because Trump has told us himself:

“Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million,” Trump told a crowd at an Alabama campaign rally in 2015. “Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”

Trump has downplayed his conflict of interest, tweeting: “I have no financial interests in Saudi Arabia.” But Noah Bookbinder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington points out how misleading that denial is: Saudi money still makes its way into his pocket, whether his interests are “in” Saudi Arabia or not.

In 2017, Saudi lobbyists spent $270,000 to reserve rooms at Trump’s hotel in Washington. The kingdom itself paid $4.5 million in 2001 to purchase a floor of Trump World Tower and continues to pay tens of thousands in annual common charges to Trump businesses for that property (the total of which could be up to $5.7 million since 2001, according to one estimate). In the past year, as bookings fell overall, Trump’s hotels in New York and Chicago reported a significant uptick in bookings from Saudi Arabia. And a major factor in a recent increase in revenue for the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Manhattan was that Saudis accompanying the crown prince during a recent visit stayed there, as The Washington Post has reported.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s point man for the Middle East and someone MBS has described as “in my pocket“, has also often sought Saudi funding for his real estate ventures.

Trump has tried to paint his own mercenary interests as the nation’s mercenary interests, weaving together a fanciful story of a $110 billion arms order that will create American jobs. But the money Trump has received (and continues to receive) is real.

He has also tried to paint the Saudis as allies that we must stand by (as a counterweight to Iran). But Trump freely criticizes more important allies, like Canada and the other NATO countries. And Senator Lindsey Graham, who is also an Iran hawk, isn’t protecting MBS. The Saudis, he says, “need us more than we need them”.

This is the most in-your-face move by a Mideast ally outside — maybe ever. To kill a man in a consulate in a foreign country, extrajudicial killing, shows contempt for the relationship. I would like to punish those involved. The Global Magnitsky Act would put punishment, sanctions on the individuals that had a hand in this.

And I find it impossible to believe that the crown prince wasn’t involved. So, go after him and his inner circle. Save the alliance. I don’t mind military sales, but I cannot do business with the current leadership. MBS, he’s done to me.

Emoluments and Congress. Even if you find the support-our-arms-customer or support-our-ally-against-Iran motives credible, you will never be sure that Trump’s real motive isn’t to keep raking in Saudi cash. Trump himself may not know for sure which motive is most compelling.

That’s why the Founders put this clause into the Constitution:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, 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.

This is not an innocent-until-proven-guilty thing: No one needs to prove that an officer of the United States government has engaged in quid-pro-quo bribery with a foreign power. It’s not necessary to identify precisely what the officer did for the foreign power, that the action wouldn’t have been done anyway, or that the gift or payment he or she received wasn’t totally innocent. What matters is only that the emolument was paid.

The point is clear: The loyalty of officers of the US government needs to be beyond question.

As the clause says, the only thing that makes an emolument legal is “the Consent of Congress”. (In a famous motivating case, Congress allowed Benjamin Franklin to keep a jewel-encrusted snuff box he was given by the King of France.) Congress is supposed to police this concern. But the current Republican majority simply does not want to know whether Trump is doing anything wrong. It has not passed any resolution consenting to the money Trump’s businesses receive from the Saudis or any other foreign government. Neither has it condemned these emoluments, or even held hearings on them. It just doesn’t want to know.

Stymied from taking any direct action, Democrats in Congress have signed on to a lawsuit attempting to enforce the Emoluments Clause through the federal courts. That case is moving forward, and a judge recently agreed that they have standing to sue. But this lengthy legal process is a far cry from the checks and balances the Founders imagined.

Remember in November. There are many different reasons to want a change of leadership in Congress. (I’ll outline a number of them next week.) But for the long-term health of the Republic, the biggest is that Congress has a constitutional role to play, and it is failing in that role. Blatantly unconstitutional things are happening in the Trump administration, while Congress averts its eyes.

It should be a bipartisan desire that the President work for the American people, and not for foreign princes or presidents. The fact that even this most basic issue has become partisan is a measure of just how far the Republican Party has fallen.

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Comments

  • George Washington, Jr.  On October 22, 2018 at 12:17 pm

    The conservative spin machine is already working, painting Khashoggi as a “bad guy,” “supporter of the Islamic Brotherhood,” and even an al Qaeda member, and at any rate, a critic of our new best friends, the Saudi royal family. So Trump is perfectly justified in not objecting to what is being presented as an internal Saudi action against a “criminal.” Maybe this should be our response whenever some pastor is imprisoned in an Islamic country – that he must have done something wrong, and besides, that’s just what they do in those places.

  • The Serapion Brotherhood  On October 22, 2018 at 1:55 pm

    Since we “know that Kashoggi was murdered by rogue killers (or at least when we temporarily knew that) who slipped in and out of the embassy unnoticed, Cenk Ugyr pointed out that the only logical conclusion is that he was killed by the same people who killed O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife.

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