Will Trump's presidency be legitimate? Probably not: Opinion

New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Jeff HalperinUpdated: Jan 18, 2017, 04:38 PM IST
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An intelligence report claimed that Putin has compromising blackmail material over President-elect Donald Trump. Putin is worth an estimated $200 billion, and Trump is connected to many Kremlin-approved businesses. Photograph:(Getty)

The accusation that Donald Trump will not be a legitimate president, and that he must be impeached the instant he takes office, is obviously a major charge that must not be made lightly. Democracy is messy and accepting a politician you may find horrible is a sad but vital and inevitable part of it. But Donald Trump presents a different case.

Many now question Trump's legitimacy, including the venerated civil rights hero John Lewis, who Trump lambasted on Twitter after he, Lewis, called the President-elect "illegitimate". Again, the accusation of illegitimacy is serious. It must not be used frivolously and must be understood: This is not a mere disagreement about policy. So, why are people saying Trump is illegitimate? 

Rigged election

  • American intelligence, no less than 17 different agencies, all agree that Vladimir Putin himself interfered in the US election to benefit Trump. This is illegal. No foreign government is allowed to contribute even $1 to a US presidential candidate. Whether Putin's interference was the difference between a Trump or a Clinton victory--and Trump won three key swing states by less than 80,000 votes, so it very well could have been--is also irrelevant. The Huffington Post reported that Trump keeping rather than rejecting foreign "influence" could make him and the influencer subject to jail time.
  • America's director of national intelligence James Clapper characterised Russia's pro-Trump cyberattacks as a "multifaceted campaign", and that "Hacking was only a part of also entailed classical propoganda, disinformation and fake news". It's not that Russia hacked the election tallying machines themselves and directly altered the results, it's that their efforts were essentially complex and sophisticated psy-ops meant to shred Clinton's campaign and manipulate American voters into voting for the Kremlin's candidate. 
  • What transpired is illegal. There is an ongoing investigation to determine what exactly did happen and what effect it had, but even Trump himself reversed his initial denials and admitted that it was probably Russia who hacked the Democrats. Trump railed for weeks that the election was rigged against him, but as soon as it became apparent that it was rigged to favour him, he said that, basically, America should just get over it.
  • The 2016 US election was the first in decades to be without safeguards protecting the rights of those from minority communities to vote, as the "Voting Rights Act" was gutted in 2013. The Huffington Post reported that this made it impossible for 1.1 million citizens, mostly non-white and poor, to vote. 
  • Trump won the electoral college votes of three key swing states by very narrow margins. The Huffington Post made it easy to compare the numbers Trump won by in these states to the number of citizens for whom gutting the Voting Rights Act deprived of their fundamental right to vote--known as a "purge list". Trump won Michigan by 13,107 votes, it's purge list was 449,922. Trump won Arizona by 85,257, and its purge list was 270,824. Trump won North Carolina by 177,008, and its purge list was 589,393.  
  • Despite Russian interference, Fake News, the FBI director inexplicably announcing a probe (that led nowhere) into Clinton's emails mere days days before the election, Trump asking followers to watch the polls for voter fraud (interpreted as a call to intimidate voters)  and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, still almost 3 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump. 

Decades of Russian connections, financing

  • Trump's stunning and stubborn refusal to publicly disclose his tax returns (he is the first presidential candidate in 40 years to fail this basic test of transparency) is even more suspect when seen beside his pro-Russia policies and never-ending praise for Putin, even siding with him over American intelligence and the White House, and all his financial connections to Russian gangsters and the Kremlin (a distinction without a difference). Is Russian money behind Trump's pledge to end sanctions against Russia, imposed on them for invading Crimea? 
  • The full history of Russia and Trump is beyond the scope of this article. (Read about some of it here, here and here.) There isn't merely one story that alone does him in; Trump was rescued from bankruptcy by Russian oligarchs in the early 1990s, who seised on the opportunity that the collapse of the Soviet Union presented by personally taking for themselves what had been state-owned companies. What happened next is a long story shrouded, but not entirely, in secrecy. It's said that they bought Trump properties en masse in order to launder money, which enabled Trump to be, and appear like, a success, so long as he looked the other way. No Russian mover and shaker is allowed to operate in these high places without Vladimir Putin's approval, who some experts say is worth an obscene $200 billion. As Eric Trump said in 2008, "We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia".

So Trump likes Russia, so what?

  • American intelligence presented to Obama, and also Trump, a report claiming that Russia has "compromised" Donald Trump. In other words, the claim is Russia has sufficient information over Trump for blackmail. There is apparently "audio and video" on "more than one tape". While the allegations in the intelligence report have not been verified, it is a fact that the report was brought through official intelligence channels to the White House. If they are true, the problem isn't that Donald Trump as president wants to side with Putin, it's that Putin would be the one in charge. 
  • Trump has stocked his cabinet with people who have very deep and concrete links to Vladimir Putin. Rex Tillerson and Paul Manafort are the high profile ones. Tillerson, as CEO of the oil giant ExxonMobil, was personally awarded the "Order of Friendship" from Vladimir Putin, and Manafort secretly received millions in cash to lobby for the pro-Putin leader of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich. Manafort and another Putin-linked Trump aide named Rick Gate resigned in the summer when this came to light, but Manafort quietly came back to advise Trump on cabinet picks. While working for Exxon, Tillerson opposed sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine at a time when the sanctions prevented his company from making billions of dollars on an oil discovery in Russia's north. Trump's pro-Kremlin stance is filtering down in major ways.

General conflicts of interest

  • Trump has a sprawling business empire that spans the globe, and the character of his business is uniquely susceptible to conflicts of interests. There was talk of using a "blind trust" to manage his business while he's president, but "blindness" is impossible, considering a major part of his business is a slew of skyscrapers in marquee destinations around the world with "Trump" written on them in giant golden letters. Foreign dignitaries are already careful to stay in his hotels and use his products, hoping to curry favour. Ivanka Trump is very dubiously straddling the line between managing the private business and serving in public office. 
  • The "Emoluments clause" in the American constitution may be the biggest threat Trump faces. The clause forbids "Any person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States]" from accepting "any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State" (unless Congress explicitly consents). Some experts in US law believe that there are definitely grounds to impeach Trump on his first day in office.
  • But this isn't the end of the story. If a Trump appointee decides not to prosecute Deutsche Bank, will it be because they think it represents the best course for America, or because Deutsche Bank decides in the future to forgive the $300 million Donald Trump owes it? This dynamic can play out countless times more, considering the vastness of Trump's business interests. While many ethics experts call on Trump to completely divest, saying basically the only way for his business to not interfere with his role as president is to not have a business, Trump steadfastly refuses.  
  • When considering whether Trump can be counted on to separate his children running his business from the world leaders he is bound to meet as president, remember that before even assuming office they have already sat in on a meeting with US tech industry leaders and the Prime Minister of Japan. Also, the Trump transition team reportedly sought White House security clearance for Trump's children and nephew, Jared Kushner.
  • Trump said that he will solve the conflict of interest problem not by selling his business, as he will keep a stake in it but will turn the management over to his two sons, joined by an executive. Trump claimed that he will not speak to these two sons about the business. He then joked that if profits are low he will tell them, "You're fired!". This does not meet any serious definition of absolving himself of conflict of interest, especially when the stakes are this high.

Is there enough evidence?

It's hard to get a smoking gun because Trump breaks normal transparency standards by failing to disclose key information, then celebrates himself for disclosing what he hasn't disclosed, then attacks and intimidates anybody who tries to bring this pattern to light.

Trump falsely said he cannot publicly release his tax return (he said he is under audit, the IRS said he is free to release it, then Eric Trump said that releasing it would subject his business interests to public scrutiny). He threatened to sue the New York Times for releasing a page that showed that despite professing to be a billionaire he likely paid no income tax for 18 years.

Trump falsely stated that he does not know Felix Sater, a Russian-born man with proven links to Trump (here they are pictured together) via Bayrock (a real estate firm with offices in Trump Tower) and Putin (Bayrock has seen a cash infusion from Putin-friendly Khazakstani and Russian businesses). Sater has pled guilty to stabbing a man in the neck with a broken margarita glass in a bar fight and to a racketeering scam worth $40 million, connected to four mob families.

Trump denied knowing Putin personally, yet has said on video that he personally knows Putin. In short, Trump and his team do everything to obfuscate what is happening and attack those who threaten his so-called legitimacy. 

There are still many unanswered questions, and it's an understatement to say Trump appears to be in no mood to answer them. Until both Democrat and Trump supporters get real and satisfying answers to everything that got Trump elected and to the nature of what is driving his decisions in office, Trump's legitimacy as presidency will always be hopelessly in doubt. 

And if the real answers to these questions ever come to light, it seems they are unlikely to strengthen Trump's legitimacy.