In his trial for an enormous spree of tax fraud and other financial crimes, which ended in a conviction on eight counts, President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was clearly angling for a pardon. Unlike several of Trump's other criminal associates (Michael Cohen, Rick Gates, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos) Manafort did not plead guilty and turn state's evidence for a reduced sentence, and didn't even mount a defense in his trial.
In return, Trump hinted to Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt that he might well pardon Manafort for being a loyal stooge. In classic Mafia don fashion, Trump is signaling he might abuse his powers of office to protect criminals who refuse to implicate the leader (he even argued in the interview that flipping lower-level mobsters to get them to testify against kingpins should be illegal). Because the Constitution makes it so difficult to remove a president from office, he will almost certainly continue to be able to dangle this power in front of anyone who is brought up on federal charges.
However, the president's pardon power extends only to federal crimes. Governors, not the president, have pardon power over state crimes. It follows that state attorneys general could use their prosecutorial power to investigate Trump's criminal empire free of the mafioso abuse of pardons. By far the most important of these is the New York attorney general, for which there is a primary election on Sept. 13. Zephyr Teachout in particular — who recently released a book on the history of American corruption — is making an all-out attack on abuse of power the primary argument for her candidacy.
New York is not just the fourth-largest state in the country, it is also the home of its largest city, its major financial sector, and critically, where President Trump's vast business empire is headquartered. The New York attorney general will have power to investigate those businesses — which, let's be honest here, are almost certainly rotten to their very marrow — as well as those of his family and associates. Insofar as they may have violated New York tax, corruption, or securities law (which governs most financial assets due to the location of Wall Street), they will be subject to attorney general oversight.
She could also launch constitutional lawsuits against Trump for violating the Emoluments Clause. The Constitution categorically forbids the president from accepting gifts or payments of any kind from foreign governments, but many foreign officials traveling to the United States have been staying in Trump properties in New York (and D.C. as well), and thus transferring large payments directly to the president. This is flagrantly unconstitutional.
Indeed, we don't even know all the foreign government officials who are lining Trump's pockets. We only know about Saudi Arabia — which spent $270,000 on Trump's D.C. hotel in 2017, and massively boosted revenue at his Manhattan hotel earlier this year as part of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's PR blitz — due to limited disclosure reports and traditional reporting.
As Teachout says in this interview on Chris Hayes' podcast:
[W]hat country in the world doesn't care about American trade policy right now? What country doesn't care about military policy? And Donald Trump is putting up a big sign saying, "If you want to influence me, if you want to make money, if you want to make me richer, want to make me in a better mood, here's the way to do it." It is outrageous that we don't know. But we already know enough to know there's constitutional violations. [Teachout, via NBC News]
It's important to realize that more than Trump is at stake — New York business and politics in general is astoundingly corrupt. Indeed, as Frank Rich writes, Trump is in many ways a prototypical pustule on the diseased flesh of the New York body politic. He grew up in that milieu and was critically shaped by its rampant criminality and total lack of accountability. He made his career by constantly violating laws against white-collar crime, getting caught, escaping with a slap on the wrist, and doing it again.
In ordinary times, it would be awkward at a minimum for a law enforcement candidate to talk about investigating a partisan opponent. But it could not possibly be more obvious that Trump is almost surely corrupt to the bone, and committing one egregious constitutional violation after another. There is simply no choice for New York attorney general candidates other than directly addressing this tsunami of crime and corruption. (And obviously any prosecutions or lawsuits would have to take place in a court of law with full due process.)
So Zephyr Teachout is right. The New York attorney general's office is perhaps the most important independent bulwark against Trump's corruption. The United States desperately needs its next occupant to be a vociferous anti-corruption crusader.
Editor's note: This article originally slightly mischaracterized the size of New York's population. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.