Lawsuits Over Trump's Business Empire May Rein Him In

President Donald Trump and White House press secretary Sean Spicer have stirred up the media hornet nest again today, this time by asserting that Trump only lost the popular vote due to “illegal voters.”  Republicans have frequently railed against the alleged dangers of voter fraud, insisting that American elections are being swayed by vast numbers of unregistered voters, perhaps even illegal immigrants, casting ballots for liberal candidates. Research has widely debunked these radical claims, revealing that voter fraud is actually incredibly rare.

Indeed, as most voters can attest, there is a multi-step verification process before you can cast your ballot for president. In Texas, where I voted, you had to present your voter registration card and a separate form of ID.  The likelihood that any “illegal voter” would bother going through the time and effort to fake these forms of identification, and risk substantial punishment if caught, is very remote.  For Trump and his administration to allege that millions of unregistered voters somehow slipped through the safeguards of the system – despite zero being caught – is laughable.  It’s also scary. 

Despite making a fool of himself in front of the global media, Donald Trump shows no sign of tempering his outrageous commentary or becoming, in any way, “presidential.”  Just like during his campaign, he is shameless. Social sanction does not rein him in. Unlike virtually every other politician, Trump appears not to care about his standing with the media. Liberals should be wary: How do you control a man who cannot be shamed?

Democrats may have to work behind the scenes to cow the president over fears of impeachment and other legal jeopardy. You may not be able to reason with Trump, but you can threaten to kick him out of office prematurely. Although this may seem extremely unlikely, is it any more unlikely than Donald Trump winning the presidency in the first place?

Trump’s legal Achilles heel is his international business empire. The Trump Organization, which is supposed to now fall under the management of Donald Trump’s sons, is the largest business ever held by a president. Most previous presidents, as longtime politicians, had sufficiently separated themselves from business-related conflicts of interest to pass muster. 

Previous wealthy presidential candidates, such as 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, primarily owned stocks and bonds rather than physical commercial holdings like land, real estate, and skyscrapers. It is difficult for Trump to quickly divest his assets and separate himself from his businesses…and his temperament suggests that he will try to thumb his nose at media insistence that he do so. Like a schoolyard bully who has been “triple dog dared,” the real estate scion cannot fathom the thought of being seen as compliant.

Enter stage right: A lawsuit accusing Donald J. Trump of violating the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution. A top-notch team of legal scholars filed such a suit on January 23, claiming that president Trump is accepting “gifts or benefits” from foreign governments as a result of his refusal to divest. 

While some are considering the lawsuit a long shot, it may be difficult for courts to ignore the fact that Trump, as a businessman, is in the profit-seeking business. Previous presidents were found to be in compliance with the Emoluments Clause due to the “nature and source” of the gift or benefit:  Ronald Reagan could enjoy his State of California public servant pension, and Barack Obama could keep his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Richard Nixon, meanwhile, took great pains to divest, opting to sell assets and create blind trusts. But Trump, whose ample income is from profit-seeking endeavors, has chosen to, at most, let his sons continue running his empire.

Although Trump may scoff publicly at the lawsuit, it could put him under relentless legal pressure. As the media continues to dog the president, his party-mates in Congress will urge him to stop antagonizing liberals and look for ways to get the suit dropped. If Trump tones it down, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington may consider dropping their lawsuit after he pledges to further divest from his Trump Organization. 

It’s an old tactic: Even if you cannot win a lawsuit outright, forcing your foe to devote valuable time and resources to his legal defense may inspire him to cut a deal. Though this methodology is typically used by wealthy capitalists against the working poor, it can also be used against aristocrats themselves.

Even if lawsuits against Donald Trump’s allegedly improper business ties may not result in any findings of guilt, they will drain the president’s time and energy.  Allies in Washington may desert him as the media labels them sycophants.  Liberal commentators could use the lawsuits to drive wedges between the Republican chief executive and many small-government, anti-corporate conservatives.  While many Republicans may be riding high on Trump’s inauguration, it will not take long for the honeymoon to wane. As this honeymoon erodes, Trump may be willing to play ball in order to take off some of the media and legal heat.

Media scolding may not fully hold Trump’s feet to the fire, but the threat of costly and time-consuming legal defenses could do the trick. The great irony is that Trump’s opponents will be using the same tactics that wealthy landlords like him have used for decades: Rapid-fire lawsuits against those who are too busy, and too poor, to adequately contest. As president, Trump may have the money, but not the time, to devote to his legal defense. 

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