It would be nice to think that all Americans — Republican and Democrat, conservative and progressive — were equally gobsmacked when President Trump used an international economic summit Monday as an infomercial for his hotels.
Trump plugged his golf resorts in Britain and Ireland while meeting with the new British prime minister, Boris Johnson. Then at a post-summit news conference, he raised the idea of holding next year’s G-7 event, which the United States is hosting, at his Doral resort near Miami.
“It’s got tremendous acreage, many hundreds of acres, so we can handle whatever happens,” Trump said. “It’s really — people are really liking it, plus it has buildings that have 50 to 70 units. And so each delegation can have its own building.”
He added, “We haven’t found anything that could even come close to competing with it, really competing with it, especially when you look at the location being right next to the airport.”
And the kicker: “I don’t want to make money. I don’t care about making money. ... It’s not about me. It’s about getting the right location.”
The silliness of that last sentiment notwithstanding, this got me thinking about what the Founding Fathers would make of such a blatant commercial exploitation of the presidency. Like Trump, each of the Founding Fathers also was a businessman.
Unlike Trump, they never sought to personally enrich themselves from official acts.
Past presidents placed their business and financial interests in blind trusts, or sold them off entirely. Trump is having his sons run his companies.
“There’s never been anything like this,” said Brian Murphy, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark who specializes in colonial-era economic matters.
“Yes, the Founding Fathers had business interests,” he told me. “But they never attempted to steer government contracts to themselves or to directly profit from their public service. There was an understanding that this was a line that couldn’t be crossed.”
Trump, he said, recognizes no such lines.
“This thing with the Doral, it has to be the most egregious, the most insidious example of violating the emoluments clause in the history of the country,” Murphy said.
The emoluments clause has come up repeatedly since Trump took office. Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution addressed a common occurrence during the 18th century, the practice of foreign governments bestowing gifts on public officials.
The clause makes clear that “any person holding any office of profit or trust under the United States” cannot “accept any present, emolument, office or title of any kind whatever from any King, Prince or foreign State.” The idea, of course, is to prevent coercion by foreign powers.
“This was in part an anti-aristocratic gesture and a way to prevent any U.S. official from being, in effect, bribed by a king or foreign government,” said Virginia Anderson, a history professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
I’ll leave it to constitutional law scholars to determine whether or not Trump hosting the foreign governments of the G-7 at his Miami resort represents a violation of the law. (Many, including Harvard Law School’s Laurence Tribe, say it does.)
What I find particularly interesting is how Trump’s situation differs from that of our first president, George Washington, who, like the current holder of the office, was heavy into real estate.
Washington, both as a private citizen and as a military leader, recognized there were opportunities to benefit from America’s westward expansion. He bought a number of parcels from Virginia to the Ohio Valley, including his 7,000-acre Mount Vernon estate.
Where Washington’s land speculation becomes even more intriguing is his recognizing that the properties would become immeasurably more valuable if there was a safe and convenient way to transport goods to and from the Atlantic Coast.
He co-founded a business called Potomac Co., which aimed to connect the Potomac, James and Ohio rivers with a network of roads, canals and locks to create a transit system for goods and passengers.
The company was a modest success, although it never came close to accomplishing its ambitious goals. Its canals and locks were taken over by Chesapeake and Ohio Co. in 1828. Ultimately, the canals fell by the wayside as America embraced railroads.
What’s most striking, though, is that there’s no evidence that Washington in any way used the presidency to influence his canal scheme, other than to generally encourage development of east-west transit corridors. Nor is there any evidence he used his office to profit from the venture.
Moreover, after his death, Washington willed his shares in Potomac Co. to be used for endowment of a university in the District of Columbia.
Robert Parkinson, an associate professor of history at Binghamton University, said the Founding Fathers didn’t build more anti-corruption measures into the Constitution because they never anticipated a federal public servant being so self-serving.
“There was a strong cultural group dynamic among the Constitution’s framers,” he said. “And coming out of the Revolution, they shared a belief in putting the nation’s interest before their own.”
Parkinson said the rise of the party system in the 1790s added a greater level of self-interest to political affairs, “but the framers left a lot of these types of rules unwritten, relying on group goodwill.”
“Venal corruption to an extent we’ve seen develop in recent decades, they would’ve associated with the destructive nature inherent to monarchy and aristocracy,” he said.
Murphy at Rutgers University-Newark said the Founding Fathers weren’t naive.
“If you’re imagining people in the early republic didn’t have conflicts — that wasn’t the case,” he said. “Everybody had business interests.”
What was different from now, he said, is that it was implicit in public service that your private interests would be set aside for the greater good of society (not including slavery, which was neither set aside nor for the greater good of anything).
The Founding Fathers didn’t need to codify all aspects of acceptable behavior into law, Murphy continued, because “they had an understanding that they’d be able to recognize corruption when they saw it.”
I asked what the framers would have made of Trump hosting foreign leaders at his own resort.
“If you could dig up Madison,” Murphy replied, “he’d probably say, ‘We gave you the impeachment clause. Why don’t you use it?’”