As reported by the New York Times, a group of constitutional scholars, Supreme Court litigators and former White House ethics lawyers will today file a lawsuit alleging that President Trump is violating the Constitution by allowing his hotels and other business to accept payments from foreign governments. Such payments, they argue, are in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, and they’re asking a federal court to order Trump to stop accepting them.
Among the team bringing suit is Zephyr Teachout, author of Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United. As she shows in the book, the country was once guided by a capacious understanding of corruption along with a broad set of rules designed to avoid even the appearance of undue influence, but that understanding and those rules have been steadily replaced in recent decades by the narrow, transactional notion of quid pro quo. “The old ideas about virtue were tossed out as sentimental,” she writes, “but the old problems of corruption and government have persisted.”
As she explains in the book, the very notion of “corruption” has a unique power and place in a democracy:
In American culture, one of the social functions of a word like corrupt is to support a system of government where the love of the public and the love of country are celebrated, where citizens do not imagine themselves as solely self-interested. The word corruption is itself a bulwark against temptation, separate from any criminal penalties that may attach to it. There are constant temptations to put private interests ahead of public ones—the language of corruption provides social pressure on the other side of that equation.
President Trump himself has of course demonstrated a heightened appreciation of the power of the word, having made accusations of Hillary Clinton’s corruption a constant refrain. For his part, Eric Trump—a VP at the Trump Organization and heir, apparently, to his father’s sorrows as well as his fortune—called the suit “very, very sad.”