Opinion: Donald Trump’s corruption hurts all of us

FILE - Former U.S. President Donald Trump, with lawyers Christopher Kise and Alina Habba, attends the closing arguments in the Trump Organization civil fraud trial at New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of New York, Jan. 11, 2024. Trump lawyers filed a notice of appeal Monday, Feb. 26, for his $454 million New York civil fraud judgment, challenging a judge’s finding that he lied about his wealth as he grew the real estate empire that launched him to stardom and the presidency. (Shannon Stapleton/Pool Photo via AP, File)

By Chris Edelson

March 19, 2024

Whether it’s a small cabinet-building business, a retired schoolteacher, or the American taxpayer, Donald Trump’s long history of corruption has caused no shortage of damage, writes Chris Edelson.

Donald Trump has a well-established record of failure both in business and in the presidency. He is a man who always puts himself first at the expense of others. In one way, however, you might say that he has succeeded – though not in any positive sense of the word. When it comes to corruption and enriching himself at the expense of others, Trump has no rivals.

One of Trump’s most distinctive qualities is his ravenous greed. Trump always looks for a way to take advantage of people who can’t easily defend themselves. He’s been sued more than 3,000 times by ordinary Americans when he refused to pay them. Trump’s refusal to pay people for their honest hard work has a very real human cost. When the Trump organization didn’t pay an $83,000 bill to a family cabinet-building business in Philadelphia, “that began the demise of the Edward J. Friel Company,” according to the firm’s former accountant.

The unsavory story of Trump’s dealings with the Friel company is not an exception.

In 2018, a federal judge approved a $25 million settlement for “victims of Donald Trump’s fraudulent university involving actions taken before the 2016 election. One Trump University student paid more than $17,000 for the promise of “personal mentoring and real estate expertise,” only to have her assigned mentor “disappear,” never responding to phone calls and emails.

A retired schoolteacher who borrowed from a retirement annuity to pay more than $30,000 to Trump University described herself as “a sheep led to slaughter,” never gaining the “skills to become a real estate investor.” Yet another Trump University student warned voters before the 2016 election that “if Donald Trump was doing this to me, he’s going to do the same thing [to you] if he’s ever elected president.”

The warning was on target – Trump’s shady dealings didn’t stop after the 2016 election. As president, Trump turned the White House into a personal cash register, using the nation’s highest office as a vehicle to line his pockets (and the pockets of family members), often at taxpayer expense. He also abused power to protect himself and his cronies from facing legal consequences for corrupt and otherwise illegal acts.

Although Trump promised that, as president, he would not engage in business with foreign countries in order to avoid conflicts of interest, he was not a man of his word. Trump pulled in more than $150 million from people and entities outside the US while he was in office. These payments raised obvious conflicts of interest. For example, Malyasia’s Prime Minister spent more than $250,000 at a Trump hotel while the Prime Minister was being investigated by the US Department of Justice.

After the Prime Minister’s spending spree, he visited Trump at the White House. Foreign heads of state and other officials understood that dealing with Trump was a matter of “pay to play.

The rule of law requires that everyone is equal before the law and friends of the president don’t get special treatment. Trump doesn’t see it that way—he pardoned multiple associates of his who had been charged or convicted of crimes associated with the 2016 campaign and its aftermath (crimes that might have also implicated or reflected poorly on Trump himself).

Trump’s corruption is not abstract—it has tangible consequences for Americans. To give one example, Trump charged the government more than $2 million for expenses billed to Secret Service officials at Trump properties. Of course, it’s normal for the Secret Service to travel with presidents—but it’s not normal for a president to use Secret Service protection to “line his pockets,” as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a watchdog organization, put it.

Secret Service agents were charged more than $800 a night to stay at Trump properties—sometimes more than $1100 a night. The payments to Trump’s businesses—which ultimately benefit Trump personally—came from taxes paid by all of us.

Trump’s actions since he left the White House make clear that he might as well have a “For Sale” sign taped to his forehead. Trump used to support efforts to ban the social media platform TikTok, but recently changed his tune after meeting with a Republican megadonor who owns a sizable stake in TikTok’s China-based parent company.

Trump also recently lost a civil case in which the judge ordered him to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for fraudulent business practices. That alone would be enough to sink most candidates—for Trump, the massive penalty is almost a footnote to his long history of corruption.

In fact, Trump’s combined legal bills in the past year associated with numerous criminal and civil cases totals more than half a billion dollars. Not surprisingly, Trump is trying to use his presidential campaign as a vehicle to cover at least of his legal fees, including by spending “approximately $50 million in donor money on legal bills and investigation-related expenses,” according to the New York Times.

Earlier this month, Trump’s daughter in law, along with a close ally, were installed as co-chairs of the Republican National Committee. From those perches, Trump’s handpicked lackeys may be able to turn the national party into a piggy bank for Trump’s legal expenses. Indeed, Trump’s daughter in law has already indicated as much saying that she thinks Republican voters would want the political organization to pay his legal fees.

While what I’ve documented is an overwhelming record of corruption and deceit, this is hardly an exhaustive list—it’s simply not possible to describe all of Trump’s corrupt activity without writing a lengthy book (which some have done). The warning, however, could not be clearer.

Returning Trump to office would be an engraved invitation for Trump to pick up where he left off by selling influence on the US government to whomever is willing to pay and lining his pockets with our tax dollars. Trump would have every reason to cash in—in fact, even more reason now than he had eight years ago, because he’s now desperately in need of money to fund his legal bills.

Consider what it would mean to give someone with a proven history of corruption the opportunity to rebuild their fortune by accepting favors from whomever is willing to pay, including foreign governments. I’m tempted to say that this is exactly what the framers of our Constitution would have warned about, but I highly doubt they could have imagined something as disturbing, or as dangerous, as Trump’s history of corruption.



  • Chris Edelson

    Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of Government at American University and has published two books on US presidential power.



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