Originally Published: May 18, 2018 5:59 a.m.
The U.S. Constitution has been reduced to a scrap of parchment, rendered irrelevant by the profiteer-in-chief.
President Trump relentlessly railed against China on the campaign trail (“It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world, what they’ve done to the United States, they’ve taken our jobs!”), but days ago he suddenly tweeted his desire to save ZTE, China’s telecommunications giant, to help it “get back into business fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!”
Wait, did Trump’s fans care about Chinese jobs? Is that why they voted for him? Funny, I must’ve missed that.
When Trump shared his sudden love for ZTE and Chinese jobs, he somehow omitted an important development that occurred 72 hours prior to the tweet: China agreed to pump $500 million into an Indonesian theme park that will feature Trump-branded properties, a boon to the Trump Organization. In other words, Trump has gone belly up on China because China has pledged to line his pockets.
Until this week, ZTE was deemed to be a threat to our national security. It has violated U.S. sanctions by selling its smartphones to Iran and North Korea. And the Pentagon has banned the use of ZTE phones on its military bases, fearing that the phones could be used to track the location of our soldiers.
The Trump regime recently announced that American firms would stop selling components to ZTE, and as a result, ZTE was on the verge of shutting down. But now, all of a sudden, Trump wants to help it “get back into business fast.”
It’s amazing how speedily Trump can flip on national security policy when his wallet is being fattened. As one press report points out, “marketing materials ... refer to the theme park and Trump properties as flagship elements of the development, and corporate filings and internal documents show the Trump Organization and the president’s sons have been directly involved in various stages of its planning.”
This is what happens when an ostensibly democratic nation devolves into a craven kleptocracy. For what it’s worth, Section 1, Article 9 of the Constitution specifically bars all federal officials (no exceptions) from profiteering while in office. From the emoluments provision:
“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.”
In the wake of Trump’s election, there was a brief flurry of concern about his blatant and unprecedented conflicts of interest.
White House ethics lawyers, from past Democratic and Republican administrations, warned Trump in a letter that presidential 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.”
And Trevor Potter, a former Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission, presciently sounded the alarm: “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 ... 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.”
But now we’re so numb to the Trump family’s abuses that few of us bat an eye. Trump is being sued in federal court for violating the Founding Fathers’ emoluments provision, but as we all know, these kinds of cases proceed with the speed of a snail. And when a Trump White House spokesman was asked whether China’s decision to enrich Trump was a breach of the Constitution, the flack basically shrugged it off: “You’re asking about a private organization’s dealings that may have to do with a foreign government. It’s not something I can speak to.”
Actually, the press corps was asking about a president’s dealings. The flack’s attempt to hide behind the “private organization” precisely illustrates the abuse.
Some Senate Republicans were stunned earlier this week about Trump’s ZTE flip flop, and they reportedly vowed to raise the issue during a closed-door Tuesday meeting with the profiteer. You don’t have to be a seer to know what happened next. None of them had the guts to tell Trump that China has found the perfect way to play him for a sap.
And none of the Republican senators, confronted with Trump in person, had the guts to say anything that even remotely approximates what Alexander Hamilton warned about in 1788: “In the general course of human nature, a power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.”
I can’t top that one.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at email@example.com.