Thus far, the debate over Donald Trump’s refusal to sell his assets has focused on whether he might use his position to make himself even wealthier, in ways that most people would regard as corrupt. But earlier generations of Americans—including the founders of our country—would have seen his actions in a far harsher light. They would have viewed Trump as a traitor, someone who was willing to become a stooge of foreign powers.
“Treachery” was the language used at the 1787 Constitutional Convention to describe a president “in foreign pay.” Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris believed that the Constitution needed an impeachment clause because a future president “may be bribed by a greater interest to betray his trust; and no one would say that we ought to expose ourselves to the danger of seeing the First Magistrate in foreign pay, without being able to guard against it by displacing him.” Morris conceded that although most leaders wouldn’t be tempted by foreign money, there were exceptions. In the 17th century, Britain’s Charles II received a pension from the French king Louis XIV, and simultaneously avoided conflict to such a degree that one contemporary despaired that England’s role in the world was “to greaten France.” Morris described Charles II’s actions as taking a bribe. “The Executive ought, therefore, to be impeachable for treachery,” he concluded.
“Traitor” was also, incidentally, the word used by Hillary Clinton’s opponents because of her relationship to the Clinton Foundation, among other things (more on that later).
On the day that Donald Trump takes office, his family will be “in foreign pay.” The Trump Organization will be getting a substantial paycheck from the Chinese government by way of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the largest tenant of Trump Tower. Trump will also be paying interest to China: He’s invested in a partnership that borrowed $950 million from lenders including the state-owned Bank of China. Each of these roles—as landlord and debtor—puts Trump and the country in a position of vulnerability to China. The Chinese government has the capacity to make him richer or poorer, and can use that capacity to influence trade policy and military decisions.
I cite China as an example not because it’s the country most likely to exercise that leverage, but because the language around Trump’s businesses—“entanglements,” “hundreds,” “complex”—can obscure the fact that they involve a number of powerful nations with specific goals in relation to US foreign policy. These countries will have every incentive to use their leverage—and we’ll have a president who has repeatedly shown a remarkable insecurity regarding his business interests. During a Comedy Central roast of Trump in 2011, for example, the participants were allowed to joke about all kinds of his foibles, but according to The Huffington Post’s Daniel Libit, “Trump Tower made it known that two subjects were off-limits: Trump’s past bankruptcies, and any suggestion that he was not as wealthy as he claimed to be.” So if you think that Trump hasn’t exposed himself to leverage by foreign governments, you’ve got another thing coming.