The least surprising story of the week is also maybe the most enraging…
In January, Donald Trump’s lawyer said that the Trump Organization would donate any profits earned at Trump hotels from a foreign government to the US Treasury. The move was supposedly an attempt to stay on the right side of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which prohibits US government officials from taking gifts or benefiting from foreign governments. Ethics experts noted that the pledge, issued by attorney Sheri Dillon, did not truly address this violation of the Constitution. Trump needed to divest his ownership of the hotels, they contended. And now new documents released by congressional Democrats show that Trump is not taking even his insufficient effort seriously.
How does the Trump Organization determine which foreign funds ought to be donated? Not too assiduously, it appears. The House Oversight Committee several weeks ago asked the Trump Organization for information on this process. In response, the company sent the committee a nine-page pamphlet that instructs staff at its properties on how to handle this matter. The pamphlet indicates that the Trump Organization is not enthusiastic about gathering this information and doesn’t want its guests bothered by any efforts to comply with the Emoluments Clause.
The pamphlet notes that the hotels should not calculate the profit from foreign patronage but rather estimate it. After all, it says, calculating the actual profit would take a lot of effort: “To attempt to individually track and distinctly attribute certain business-related costs as specifically identifiable to a particular customer group is not practical, nor would it even be possible without an inordinate amount of time, resources and specialists.”
When it comes to identifying foreign revenues, the pamphlet tells Trump hotel staff not to try too hard, for that could annoy the customers: “To fully and completely identify all patronage at our Properties by customer type is impractical in the service industry and putting forth a policy that requires all guests to identify themselves would impede upon personal privacy and diminish the guest experience of our brand.” So, the pamphlet points out, the Trump Organization will not try to identify customers who do not inform the hotel that they are representing a foreign government.
(All from Mother Jones, which, as always, is on it)
This is, first of all, a textbook case of how Trump has always worked. Make a big show and then nothing coming of it, whether it is the huge birth certificate announcement or a solemn pledge to uphold the Constitution. Because in his oily reptilian brain Trump knows that the announcement gets the headline, but the follow-through never does.
It’s clever, too: “estimating profits” is perfect. They will “donate” a certain amount of hotel profits that they estimate come from foreign sources, which means, as MJ points out, a foreign government could spend millions of dollars at a hotel that is just breaking even, and none of that would be reported. And it goes without saying that “Trump Possibly Donating Only Percentage of Estimated Profits From Hotel Business” isn’t going to be front-page news.
But you don’t even have to get into the weeds of this scheme to see why it is breathtaking and maddening. They are literally saying that following the Constitution would be too hard, and that it wouldn’t be good for their business. To which one could say, well, shithead, you didn’t have to run for President, but that would be belaboring the obvious. He clearly ran for President partly as a way to make more money. He’s exactly the greedy and terrible person he always was. This isn’t a surprise.
This is exactly how corruption works. Not the minutia, or the actual taking of money; we’re all familiar with how greedy people try to enrich themselves. But how systems and countries become corrupted and rotted. This is how it happens.
I’m not being naive here. America has always been a greedy land, a capitalistic engine that destroys everything in its path. Politicians have always taken from the till, when they haven’t been outright controlling the till. But this is something different.
This isn’t just theft. It is a subversion of the Constitution itself, and it is done flagrantly and openly. That they are sort of dancing around it by being cute isn’t an attempt at subtlety; it is making the crassness behind the moneygrab even more blatant. They are saying, openly: what are you going to do about it?
That’s true corruption. It’s exposing the weakness in a system, which assumes decency but is also ruthlessly partisan, for you own advantage. It’s daring anyone to stop you and knowing that they won’t. It both assumes, and promotes, a moral decay. Because what this says, clearly, is that the institutions, the rules, the very documents to which we pledge allegiance, don’t matter if you are powerful.
We’ve always known that power corrupts, and all that, but in ths history of the American Presidency it has generally been to get more power. People around the President have been greedy and venal, but even Nixon wasn’t bagging cash, for the most part. At least, that wasn’t his sole or even primary goal. It was “just” to crush the Democrats so he could run the world the way he goddamn saw fit.
That’s why this is different. It’s cheap and it is dirty. It’s grubbing and low and vile. This corruption is entirely about money. It reduces the Presidency to a casino, a back-alley game of craps, a bunch of sweaty mooks in a garage office selling phony insurance to widows. Jack Abramoff and and Boss Tweed broke the law to get money. Trump is breaking the Constitution, entirely for money, and no one is stopping him.
Think about it: they literally said that protecting their “brand” was more important than scrupulously following the Constitution. Their brand! I can’t think of a better encapsulation of our idiot moment, one that let a remarkably stupid and inhumanely crass and greedy reality show idiot lie his dumbfuck way to the White House. He won on his “brand”, and his brand is a guy who relentless promotes his brand. It’s looping nonsense, a post-postmodern commerical for commercials.
And no Republican is stopping this. That’s corruption in its truest sense. Putrefaction doesn’t happen because of death; death just allows the bacteria that was always inside to work its rotting ways. Death means you can’t fight off worms any longer. Death is merely the precipitating factor to corporeal corruption.
That was Trump. But we were already on our way. We are a nation obsessed with brands and disinterested in facts. We’re too big and unruly, and have become too partisan. Our system has allowed for the tyranny of the minority (and the seating of Neal Gorsuch is the starkest example of that). Trump corrupted us by being the final death, but we were on our way.