JIM LO SCALZO / EPA
A treasure map for an American tyrant
Before the day Donald Trump moved into the White House in 2017, Americans had never had to contend with a president in such deep financial trouble — and with such determination to conceal his true finances from the public. Trump’s business empire — the one he espoused during the campaign as an example of his purported financial acumen — was nothing more than a hollow gold-plated shell. While he was dumping money into his hotels, his golf courses, and his real estate deals, they were netting him almost nothing but significant losses year after year. By the time he was running for reelection, Trump was over $400 million in debt, most of which would have been due during his second term should he have won in 2020.
And yet for nearly four years, there was effectively nothing whatsoever the public could do about it. As was the case for so many of the countless outrageous abuses of his presidency, the former president largely got away with serving a full term in which he bargained with foreign leaders, signed tax legislation, and named financial regulators, without ever coming clean about his own personal debts and the conflicts of interest and opportunities for corruption they created. While there are supposed to be laws and limits on the presidency, Trump was unrestrained, exposing just how toothless those safeguards have become and just how urgently the nation needs to reform the office of the presidency itself.
Donald Trump at a campaign event in Vienna, Ohio, March 2016. Trump began one of the most corrupt presidencies in US history on the campaign trail when he failed to disclose his full tax returns and his hundreds of millions of dollars of debt. Mark Makela / The New York Times
Presidents in a democratic system of government are not meant to be able to extract personal profits from government service — or hand out pardons to imprisoned buddies, pervert justice, or foment an insurrection. That’s the promise of democracy: that it will be superior to these authoritarian tendencies of tyrants and kings. When these laws and norms are violated, they should be backed up by severe consequences if that democracy is to maintain its integrity. But right now, as it stands after Trump’s four years in office, American presidents can, in fact, commit all those abuses — and suffer little more than losing their Twitter account.
Trump may not have destroyed the American presidency, but he did put the institution on a perilous path. Because while Trump himself has been sitting in Mar-a-Lago brooding over his loss to Joe Biden, all the weaknesses in our legal and constitutional system that he exploited remain, waiting for a future presidential miscreant to take advantage of them — maybe even for Trump himself, if he is reelected in 2024. That’s why Congress and the current president must act fast and impose more durable legal guardrails on the commander in chief. By passing stronger anti-corruption laws, strengthening existing norms and creating new ones, and deterring future presidents from abusing their power by making an example of Trump and holding him accountable, the country can protect itself against future — and potentially far more devastating — presidential corruption and misconduct. The nation can, and must, prevent the rise of an American tyrant.
Donald Trump’s purported financial acumen helped him ascend to the nation’s highest office. But it was little more than gold veneer for his growing debts and his abuse of the presidency to enrich himself and his family. Mark Makela / The New York Times
As hard as it might be to imagine in our hyperpolarized political climate, imposing new restrictions on the presidency ought to be a bipartisan cause. For those Trump supporters who delighted in the former president’s transgressions, and loved the way he “owned the libs” by ignoring their nattering on about ethics, remember: Corruption knows no party, and the next crooked president could be a Democrat.
We start with Trump’s stonewalling on his personal debt not because concealing his finances was necessarily the worst offense of his presidency, but because it was surely one of his most brazen. Even low-ranking civil servants have to disclose their personal debts in order to guard against corruption, and yet somehow the man in the Oval Office did not. It’s not that Americans had no idea that Trump was a lousy or crooked businessman — that fact was already well documented. But Trump’s refusal to disclose his taxes and other personal financial details left many wondering what more he was hiding. Did he pay federal taxes? How much? Did he have significant debts to foreign actors or others to whom he would be beholden?
"Our norms only go so far in protecting the democracy. Our laws only go so far."
— Adam Schiff
The last four years underscored just how corruptible the presidency is. Whether dealing with issues of foreign policy, the economy, or race, Trump’s self-interest was his administration’s north star. His tax cuts served him. His attorney general acted as if he were the president’s personal attorney. And he failed to protect the nation from an attack led by his sympathizers. His national security officials downplayed white supremacist threats because he allegedly lost interest in pursuing investigations of violent threats the minute he would find out that the perpetrator was one of his supporters. Olivia Troye, who worked as a homeland security and counterterrorism advisor to Vice President Mike Pence, told the Globe editorial board that there was an expectation of officials to not talk about white nationalism when sending intelligence up the chain to the president. “We [didn’t] talk about white supremacy,” she said, describing the culture of the Trump White House.
From the White House, Donald Trump ignored the danger of white supremacist groups, and equivocated on the threat they posed to American values and the homeland. After the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., rally that recruited KKK members such as this one from Harrison, Ark., Trump argued that there were good people “on both sides.” Trump later went on to foment an insurrection and attempted coup with the support of white supremacist groups. Evelyn Hockstein / Photo for The Washington Post
An aggressive Congress might have been able to thwart the corruption and abuses of power of the 45th president. Broadly speaking, Congress is supposed to be the main check on the presidency and, in theory, it still could be. But its primary instrument for curbing the presidency — impeachment — has turned out to be a blunt and, in modern times, ineffective weapon. The Trump years demonstrated that too: Twice impeached for clear violations of the public trust, Trump was twice acquitted by senators in his own party.
Ultimately, Congress proved itself a deeply flawed check on an authoritarian president willing to break the law out in the open — and sometimes even admit it on national television. “Our norms only go so far in protecting the democracy. Our laws only go so far. Even our Constitution — as brilliantly written as it is — only goes as far as the men and women are willing to give its provisions meaning,” Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, who served as the lead House impeachment manager during Trump’s first impeachment trial, said in an interview. “If you acknowledge, as many of the Republican senators did during the trial, that the House had proved the president guilty but you still make the decision to acquit, there’s nothing much that the Constitution can do to protect us.
"Democracies don’t die suddenly; they’re poisoned by strongmen who systematically chip away at checks on their power."
“It didn’t require a great clairvoyance to see that if he was guilty and then nonetheless acquitted” in the first trial, Schiff said, “that he would [violate his oath] again in new and perhaps even more debilitating ways.”
The failure of the existing accountability system in the Constitution not only enabled Trump to act on his worst impulses. It also may very well have made his presidency a prelude to something much worse. Because democracies don’t die suddenly; they’re poisoned by strongmen who systematically chip away at checks on their power, just as Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, or Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Even with Trump out of office, American democracy is becoming weaker as long as his deeds go unpunished and the system is unchanged. The next Trump will have an easier time usurping it.
Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the US, hold a swastika burning after a rally in April 2018 in Draketown, Ga. From the White House, Donald Trump ignored the danger of white supremacist groups, and equivocated on the threat they posed to American values and the homeland.Trump later went on to foment an insurrection and attempted coup with the support of white supremacist groups. Spencer Platt / Getty Images
There are many people who, justifiably, want to move on from the horror show that was Trump’s presidency. It was riddled with scandals, and it often felt like each day presented a new unprecedented crisis (or two). But that would be extraordinarily irresponsible. Shown how weak our system of government has become, we have an obligation to fix it.
The American Constitution, as designed by the original Framers, proved to be an incredibly powerful document. But the Framers’ vision was not the sole reason the Constitution was able to sustain a democracy for over 200 years. Waves of American visionaries fought and sacrificed their lives to improve the Constitution and expand American democracy, as was done, for example, with the 13th and 14th, and 19th Amendments. As has always been the case in American history, a strong and resilient democracy requires an active and engaged citizenry, one that is willing to constantly work to improve what they already have. The United States is in desperate need of that kind of commitment and work today.
In this series, the Globe editorial board outlines the key presidential reforms that would prevent a future authoritarian president — perhaps a more competent one than Trump — from abusing their power and subverting our democracy. Just because President Biden has restored a semblance of normalcy to the White House, Americans should not be lulled into inaction. Our government survived a scrape with authoritarian corruption. Next time, we might not be so lucky.