It’s not entirely uncommon to hear Trump described as a sick man – mostly by Trump antagonists grasping for a word to adequately express the depths of his disturbing behavior. But whatever you think of that description, the idea of Trump as disease carrier might actually be the perfect metaphor when it comes to describing the danger posed by Trump’s corruption. At least, that is, according to one of our country’s leading experts on the topic.
Sarah Chayes, at the time an award-winning reporter, was in Afghanistan to cover the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and its aftermath. In 2002, she decided to give up reporting and remain in Afghanistan to help with the rebuilding. She ended up living in Kandahar, Afghanistan for nearly a decade. Then in 2010, she went on to become a special adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States (Admiral Mike Mullen). Through her experiences reporting and living in kleptocratic countries, she’s become one of our foremost experts on corruption in governments. And now, Chayes is turning her attention to the United States.
In last Friday’s What Did I Miss?, I told you about the first hearing in the emoluments clause lawsuit against Trump that took place last week. I actually hadn’t been following the details of the case all that carefully of late. But thanks to last Friday evening’s Rachel Maddow show, I learned that Chayes has submitted an “amicus brief” in the case. (An amicus brief is a “friend of the court” brief submitted to the Court by someone who is not a party to the case. The brief makes an argument or offers information to try to influence the Court’s judgment. The Court can pay as much or as little attention to the brief as it chooses. But in most instances, the party must have permission from the court or from all parties to the case in order to submit the brief).
Trump’s legal team has asked the court to dismiss the case against him, which would mean that the substantive case against him would never even be heard. Sarah Chayes’ brief asks the court not to dismiss the case and makes the argument for why the case should go forward. And she has a very unique argument . . .
Chayes Makes Her Case
As a reminder, the “emoluments clause” of the Constitution says that no United States official may “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.” So, at its simplest, the emoluments clause is intended to address concerns that a foreign government might try to influence the decision-making of the President (or any other U.S. official) by giving them gifts. To put it even more simply, the founders were worried that a U.S. official could be bribed by an outsider. (When it comes to the legal case, the issue is actually a lot more complex – see these two articles for just a small sampling of the ways in which the issue gets complicated).
In Chayes’ brief, she does address the “bribery” concern. That’s one type of corruption she says we need to be worried about. But then she also raises another concern – a different angle on the corruption that we should be concerned with: Remember, since Trump has not divested from his companies, he still has businesses – hotels, golf courses, etc – all over the world. Many of them are in locations where the governments are kleptocracies, operating through a system of corrupt networks to advance their own interests.*
Chayes says that by doing business around the globe with these corrupt governments (or their agents), Trump is giving these kleptocratic practices his “stamp of approval.” Regardless of what official U.S. policy is, when the President engages with these regimes, he’s telling the U.S. that their behavior is okay, according to Chayes. And once the President says it’s okay, that behavior can infect the United States. So Trump is essentially carrying the virus of kleptocracy into the U.S. and allowing it to spread.
From her amicus brief [PDF]:
Numerous violations of the Emoluments Clause by the President of the United States erode and sully the fundamental principles upon which our country is founded, and expose this nation to grave threats. First, they raise the specter that foreign gifts will influence Presidential policy; second, they undermine citizens’ faith in the integrity of their government; and third, they invite kleptocratic practices typical of places like Afghanistan to infect our democracy.
So to reiterate, Chayes argues in her brief that because Trump is still invested in his global empire, not only do we need to worry about his susceptibility to corrupt foreign influence, we also need to worry that the corrupt practices seen in those foreign countries will be imported here and become our own domestic corruption.
Chayes also notes that in addition to the danger that this corrupt behavior poses in and of itself, it also leads to additional instability because the populace sees what’s happening and reacts with increasing extremism the longer it goes on. In some cases, corruption can lead to violent extremism, such as the formation of terrorist groups like ISIS. More often it leads to simmering cynicism and distrust in government. If allowed to fester, this results in growing protest movements, and eventually, in some cases, revolutions.
Public faith in the institutions of the U.S. government is already weak, and has been eroded by allegations of corruption across the political spectrum. If uncorrected, Defendant’s violations of the Emoluments Clause would feed the cynicism and apathy that are lethal to a democracy.
It’s impossible not to note the irony that Trump himself was elected due in large part to the cynicism and distrust in government that had grown so strong in a significant portion of the electorate. In fact, Chayes herself had written about that shortly after the 2016 election. And now, instead of working to restore the public’s faith in government, he’s turbo-charged the case for the people to believe the government is only there to serve and enrich itself.
Now the question is whether our system is equipped to respond to this. Checks and balances are not self-fulfilling. Someone must actively provide them. At the moment, Republicans are the only ones in the Legislative Branch with the power to do so, yet they have almost entirely abandoned this constitutional duty. So now it is left up to courts. But it’s not yet clear whether the court will feel this issue is within its scope to resolve. We’ll find out soon enough. But if not, what then? And what does it say that the courts are the only possible place left to turn??
Catch The Interview
If you have the time, I highly recommend watching Maddow’s interview with Sarah Chayes, which will help you better understand how these corrupt governments operate and how Trump is following their model. (Plus, it’s of course more interesting to hear the argument directly from the expert herself).
The video is in two parts. Most of the Part 1 is Maddow setting up the interview by giving Chayes’ background and showing a clip of one of Chayes’ experiences in Afghanistan. It’s definitely useful for a full understanding of the story, but if your time is limited and you just want to get to the interview, fast forward to about the 5:30 mark. The interview then continues in Part 2 of the video, which is much shorter.
*In the interview with Maddow, Chayes notes that in these countries, there are three industries in particular that operate through what she describes as these corrupt “networks” of crime and favor-trading between the public and private sectors. The three industries she lists are: (1) energy, (2) banking, and (3) high-end real estate. And, she says, if you’re not a member of one of these corrupt networks – or at least willing to do business their way – you cannot do business in those industries at all.