The now-confirmed FBI investigation into Donald Trump’s potential collaboration with Russia’s illegal interference in US elections could well lead to multiple criminal convictions and his impeachment. But, it will take a long time.
There is a faster way to force Trump from office. Since day one of his administration, Trump has been in violation of Article I of the Constitution, which prohibits the president from accepting any payment from a foreign government. Trump believes he has resolved the issue by agreeing to donate the profits when foreign government visitors stay at his hotels to the US Treasury.
There are four problems with Trump’s response. First, there is no evidence he is actually doing it or a clear method for how to calculate the profits. Second, Trump’s business organization receives payments for other things besides hotel rooms. For instance, an LLC owned in part by a foreign ruler could purchase a Trump property, his family has received valuable trademarks from China, China also owns a bank that rents space in Trump Tower and provides Trump with business loans. Third, Trump is also in likely violation of a domestic emoluments clause, which prohibits presidents from receiving personal payments from the United States. Finally, Congress has not approved of any of Trump’s proposed handling of foreign payments, which the Constitution requires.
Leading government ethics proponents have been pointing out these violations since Trump took office, but they have gained little traction in the Republican Congress. Impeaching a president on violations of the emoluments clauses of the Constitution with the looming specter of Russian meddling in our elections feels a little bit like convicting Al Capone on tax evasion instead of his murders and racketeering.
But the ever-growing Russian scandal will take months, perhaps even years, to sort out. Congress should immediately appoint an independent commission to fully investigate all aspects of Russia’s clandestine operations and find out who, if anyone, in the US collaborated with them. This investigation, should it occur, will take time. It is a complex web to untangle, witnesses may need to be given immunity to testify against each other, and the case needs to be airtight because everyone, even Trump, deserves the presumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal proceeding.
With the Russian scandal now exploding and showing no end in sight, Republicans in Congress might revisit the issue of Trump’s financial conflicts. If Paul Ryan wants to remain Speaker of the House, he may not want the Russia issue dragging on into the fall of 2018, which seems likely at this point. Congressional Republicans would be wise to begin a second track of congressional inquiry as to whether the Trump organization’s myriad conflicts of interest violate the U.S. Constitution. If so, Congress could remove Trump from office even if they don’t lock anyone up. Any criminal investigation relating to Russia could then continue, with a lower chance of obstruction by Trump. If he remains in the White House, Trump could continue to thwart any investigation through additional firings, through granting pardons to those who might testify against him, and through diversions which could include military attacks on other countries or political attacks on domestic rivals or the news media.
Some Democrats may not prefer this approach, as it would put Mike Pence in the White House and make it more likely that Republicans hold onto their congressional majority. But with a president showing signs of mental derangement who is recklessly provoking possible war with North Korea, we might all conclude the country would be well served with Trump out of office and back on the golf course full time while we await the results of any Russian investigation.