A Biden Administration Will Have to Confront Trump’s Corruption


On July 21, The New York Times described a small but typical example of corruption in the Trump era. “The American ambassador to Britain, Robert Wood Johnson IV, told multiple colleagues in February 2018 that President Trump had asked him to see if the British government could help steer the world-famous and lucrative British Open golf tournament to the Trump Turnberry resort in Scotland,” the newspaper reported.

What’s striking about this report is how little of a ripple it caused. In any other presidential administration, the use of an ambassador to further a president’s private business would be a major scandal and trigger congressional investigations and perhaps the appointment of a special counsel. At the very least, everyone implicated would have to resign. But Johnson remains the ambassador and there is no sign that he or anyone else, especially Trump, will pay any penalty for corrupting public offices for personal enrichment.

The singular fact about Trump’s corruption is that he’s shown how much a president can get away with as long as Congress is complicit or cowed. The Republicans in Congress have from the start of the Trump presidency given him carte blanche for self-dealing. The implicit bargain has been that as long as Trump hews to the Republican agenda on substantive issues, like tax cuts and court appointments, the party will serve as his legal bodyguard.

Congressional Democrats have made a greater show of oversight, but have proven ineffectual. They decided on a narrow impeachment, which left most of Trump’s crimes unpunished even by a symbolic rebuke. Trump has successfully stonewalled congressional investigations. In theory, the House of Representatives could use the power of the purse to fight Trump on this, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has shown no appetite for this sort of fight.

The sad truth is that that to date, Trump has gotten away with being a massively corrupt president. His success in evading any checks has only emboldened him, especially now that he has a compliant attorney general in William Barr. Acts that Trump might have blanched at early in his presidency, notably commuting the sentence of his crony Roger Stone in an apparent quid pro quo for silence, are now commonplace.

Nancy Pelosi’s argument is that any redress to Trump now is unnecessary because he’ll face punishment by voters. But would Trump’s electoral defeat bring justice?

Last year, California Senator Kamala Harris, while running for the Democratic presidential nomination, suggested that if she were president she would have “no choice” but to bring criminal charges against Donald Trump.

Joe Biden, who won the nomination that Harris lost, has been much more circumspect. On Tuesday, while speaking in a virtual interview with the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Biden said that prosecuting a former president would be a “very unusual thing and probably not very…good for democracy.”


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