The Founding Fathers would not recognize many aspects of American life today. But they likely would have recognized President Donald Trump’s now-abandoned plan to host next June’s Group of Seven (G7) summit at the Trump National Doral Miami resort for what it was: a very bad idea.
In their wisdom, the founders included in Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution what is known as the emoluments clause. It says, in part, that “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.”
The purpose here is to prevent foreign governments from manipulating domestic decision making. The global landscape has evolved substantially since the late 1700s, but this principle still holds true today.
While there are ongoing arguments in court to determine whether Trump is in violation of the emoluments clause by continuing to own and profit from his hotels as they are patronized by foreign and domestic government officials, there should be little doubt about the Doral decision in the court of public opinion.
A law degree is not necessary to see why a president — or any government or elected official, for that matter — should not be awarding government contracts to his or her family’s business. Even if the intent is not corrupt, the appearance of potential corruption should be enough to forego such a situation.
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney officially announced the plan to use Doral to host the June 2020 G7 summit — which will bring together leaders from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — during a less than impressive press conference last week.
The news was met with deserved criticism — in the political arena, most loudly from Democrats, but from some Republicans as well — and that apparently was enough to convince the administration to reconsider.
In an announcement on Twitter, Trump lamented the reaction to his plans for Doral, and lashed out at Democrats and the media even as he did the right thing by changing course.
“I thought I was doing something very good for our Country by using Trump National Doral, in Miami, for hosting the G-7 Leaders. It is big, grand, on hundreds of acres, next to MIAMI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, has tremendous ballrooms & meeting rooms, and each delegation would have its own 50 to 70 unit building. Would set up better than other alternatives,” Trump tweeted Saturday night. “I announced that I would be willing to do it at NO PROFIT or, if legally permissible, at ZERO COST to the USA. But, as usual, the Hostile Media & their Democrat Partners went CRAZY!”
So, if Trump was going to give the place away for free, what is the big deal? Well, the phrase “if legally permissible” was a big and unexplained “if.” As the Associated Press reported, the president and White House declined to provide details about how the summit would be hosted at cost rather than for profit or how charges to the federal government would be calculated.
In a subsequent interview with Fox News Sunday, Mulvaney acknowledged the problem of perception, even while maintaining that Doral was “far and away the best physical facility” for hosting the summit.
But Mulvaney also said something very telling, and troubling.
“At the end of the day he still considers himself to be in the hospitality business,” Mulvaney told Fox’s Chris Wallace.
Wallace was clearly a little taken aback, as we all should be. The only business the president should be in is the business of the American people. That’s why it is problematic, at best, that Trump decided not to divest from his business while in office, and why the administration should be avoiding any situation that would comingle his family business interests with official U.S. functions and relations.
In a recent court dissent siding with the Trump administration in the ongoing emoluments dispute, a federal appeals judge correctly pointed out that, “President Trump was democratically elected by the American people — and he was elected with his business holdings and brand prominence in full view.”
It’s true, many voters already signaled that they did not care about then-candidate Trump’s break from recent precedent in not releasing his tax returns. And plenty of people see no problem with his blurry line between personal and government business. Mixing the two may be good politics for Trump. But it’s important to remember that good politics and good governance are not the same thing. Good governance not only avoids corruption, but also the perception of corruption.