The conversation that surrounds the potential impeachment of President Donald Trump focuses on one question: did he or did he not collude with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election? If Trump is guilty of collusion, America will be thrust into a constitutionally murky zone as to the apt punishment or procedure. There is also a possibility that Trump will walk away from the Russia situation completely free of charges if the Mueller report is not as damning as pundits anticipate. There is a reason, after all, why none of the numerous problems with Trump—his bullying, his alleged covert financial and political dealings, or his treatment of women, to name a few—have ever sunk him: he is a master of deflection.
Ironically, when liberal news outlets try to nail Trump, they often allow him to indirectly dictate media coverage. They run stories about Trump’s incoherent 3:00 a.m. tweets that drown out other stories of children dying in ICE custody. The attempt to cover anything Trump individually does has unintended consequences. He could be proven guilty of colluding with Russia, but the American public might be so paralyzed by the sheer quantity of his misdeeds and the overwhelming coverage of them that we find ourselves unable to act and unsure of what course to take—in which case, Trump could walk away without consequence. However, the fact that he is masterful at deflecting news stories of misdeeds with other misdeeds does not negate the fact that Trump has put himself at serious political and legal risk from issues other than Russian collusion. The question now is what can be done about it.
Aside from the complications that Trump’s actions and personality add to the situation, there is a greater issue here about the process of indicting a sitting President. The process straddles the line between the political and the legal: Trump, in his political machinations, may break the law but because the Justice Department currently holds that a sitting President cannot be indicted, Trump must face the political ramifications to his actions before he can face legal ramifications. The political consequences for Trump include not being re-elected or even being impeached; the legal ramifications include putting Trump’s future at the discretion of a judge and jury. The tenuous path towards indicting a president means that Trump necessarily needs to be out of office before any legal proceedings begin. Thus, each misdeed for which Trump could answer, in addition to being a violation of the law, must be egregious enough to get him voted—or forced—out of office.
Obstruction of Justice
The most worrying misdeed that Trump has perpetrated is his blatant attempt to obstruct justice. The legal definition of obstruction of justice is any attempt to interfere with the due process of an investigation; obstruction of justice is a felony. Trump has unabashedly obstructed justice several times now in dealing with the Russia investigation and the various individuals who have been involved with it. In the course of the investigation into Russian collusion, Trump demanded loyalty from then FBI Director James Comey and asked him to end the investigation. Comey refused to do so and was fired. Trump then attempted to fire Mueller twice and has resorted to publicly attacking the Special Counsel, primarily on Twitter. More recently, Trump fired his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the Russia probe and forgoing the power to clear Trump’s name.
Trump’s obstruction traverses the border between mitigating a political problem and committing an actual crime. While problematic political maneuverings may cost him an election in 2020, obstruction of justice is a legal issue that could force him to appear in court. Such a trial would likely follow impeachment—or, if Trump is not elected again, his last day as President. While Trump’s obstruction of justice was committed in relation to the Russia investigation, he is guilty of obstruction of justice regardless of the Mueller report’s findings. The purported collusion and obstruction of justice are connected but not interdependent. Even if Trump is cleared of collusion, he could stand trial—and probably be convicted—for obstructing justice.
Violating the Emoluments Clause
Obstruction of justice is not the only possible felony charge Trump faces, even aside from the Mueller report. Trump is currently violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. The Emoluments Clause prohibits federal officers from accepting gifts, payments or anything of value from foreign countries, stating “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 Clause was instated by the framers to ensure that government officials could not be accept bribes from other countries and thus profit from acting in the interests of a foreign nation. Trump has been using his properties, namely his hotel in Washington DC, to receive money from foreign governments.
That money is technically going to the Trump Organization, and while Trump has put his two sons in charge of his empire, he has refused to give up ownership of the organization, meaning that the money goes into his hands. While Trump breaking any law of the country he was elected to lead is deeply troubling, violating the Constitution, the very document that endows Trump with executive power, is arguably his biggest breach. Trump is currently being sued by Maryland and Washington D.C. for violating the Emoluments Clause and the case will likely be taken to trial. Most notably, Trump’s hotel in the Old Post Office building has been making money and has hosted a number of foreign nationals and employees from major corporations; the Inspector General of the General Services Administration confirmed last month that the hotel is a direct breach of the Emoluments Clause and that it will be performing a legal review of Trump’s lease for the building.
Campaign Finance Violation
Moreover, Trump is involved with another potential crime concerning money going to the wrong place, a crime that he is trying to blame on his former lawyer Michael Cohen. Cohen confessed to using campaign money to pay off Stephanie Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal from publicizing their past affairs with Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election. Cohen pled guilty to the charges and implicated Trump in his testimony, stating that Trump asked his friends in the media to “catch and kill” stories about his infidelities and then instructed Cohen to pay the women with whom he had affairs for their silence.
Trump took to Twitter to distance himself from the scandal and to blame Cohen for the hush money payments. Trump’s minimization is unsurprising, given that the consequences for Cohen are severe. Cohen’s actions—which, by his own admission, were at Trump’s request—helped change the course of the election. Amongst other charges, Cohen was found guilty of violating campaign finance laws, as the sizable amounts paid to the women were contributions to the campaign and they exceeded the legal limit for contributions to a presidential campaign. Cohen was sentenced to three years in jail.
More Than Politics and Laws
While these misdeeds are compelling and concrete instances of Trump violating the law—and could have enough political charge to get him out of office—there is the question of the moral implications of Trump’s behavior. And while any moral misdeed is usually a matter for the court of public opinion and is unlikely to have any tangible consequence, morality is still an important facet of being the president. While the number of voters who believe that a president must be a moral leader is actually decreasing in recent years, which is inversely related to Trump’s rise to power, 66 percent of adults in America still hold that a president must demonstrate morality.
If Trump is expected to be a moral leader, then we must examine not just his actions, but his intentions. While doing so is never easy, we must consider what kind of person subverts the justice system, violates finance law and bullies women whom he had affairs with into silence? Cohen himself explained Trump’s influence in court, saying that working for the president was a choice of “darkness over light.” The answer is not simply that that Trump is fundamentally evil or malicious, however; the answer is that he is an extreme narcissist with a fundamental disrespect for the American government.
Again, disrespect of government is not an impeachable or legal offense, nor is it necessarily a political problem. But it is the reason he fails Americans who look to him for moral leadership and it is the reason behind his punishable misdeeds. Above all, it is the reason that action must be taken—first political, then legal—because Trump has demonstrated that he is unfit to hold the office.
The image featured with this article is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License. The original was taken by Elvert Barnes and can be found here.
Lucy Ritzmann is a first year prospective Political Science major interested in political media and law. Last summer, she interned at the Manhattan Borough President's Office. For winter quarter, she is a Fellow's Ambassador at the IOP. In her free time, she enjoys being with her friends and zumba.