Impeachment Without Class Politics: An Autopsy

The impeachment proceedings are boring and will result in nothing — but they could have looked much different if the Democrats had pursued an impeachment focused on Trump’s flagrantly corrupt emoluments. The problem is, many House Democrats are incredibly rich themselves and don’t want to anger wealthy donors.

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi answers questions during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on January 9, 2020 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee / Getty

Impeachment was never going to dislodge President Donald Trump from office, because the Senate was never going to vote to convict. Thus it is worth remembering Bernie Sanders’s early warning that impeachment could devolve into Trump dominating political attention at the expense of bread and butter issues that voters really care about.

Could there have been a left version of impeachment? Unlikely. But technically speaking that could have happened if a critique of class power had been the central issue. For that to have happened, emolument clause violations, and specifically domestic emolument clause violations, needed to be the central focus.

The two emolument clauses in the Constitution prevent gifts from foreign powers and limit presidential remuneration to only the presidential salary. Trump’s emoluments clause violations, to the extent we can determine without a legally empowered investigation, appear to involve payments made to him by way of booking large chunks of unused rooms at his hotels, and perhaps buying condominiums in his properties.

But instead of exploring these questions — i.e., how big business conducts political bribery — we got a national-security-venerating snooze-fest about a small and faraway country.

What happened to the class angle? Circumstantial evidence indicates that the House Democratic leadership killed emoluments issues, because hearings focused on corporate influence peddling would have sounded something like a Bernie Sanders rally. Mainstream Democrats are never eager to subject corporations and the rich to harsh public scrutiny. That ideological prejudice seems even stronger now that a socialist is closing in on winning the democratic presidential nomination.

After all, many leading Democratic legislators do not merely side with the rich, they are the rich. For example, Rep. Nancy Pelosi was worth $58 million in 2016 and was worth over $100 million for several years before that.

One congressperson who wished to not to be identified or quoted told me that some Democrats were uncomfortable investigating Trump’s domestic emoluments violations because that would inevitably open a discussion of politicians and their money, in general. For many elected officials, that strikes too close to home.

But early on, emoluments clause issues were in the mix. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, said, “it’s always been emoluments. It’s always been about that for me.” Rep. Jamie Raskin, the constitutional legal scholar-turned-Maryland congressman, pushed emoluments issues aggressively in print and public speeches. Many other House members who clamored for impeachment, while Pelosi was still cautioning against it, also made emoluments violations a central concern.

Domestic emoluments clause violations — meaning corporate bribery of the president — were a logical, visceral, and obvious place to start. Thus, questions about emolument clause violations — precisely because they are compelling — had to die.

Pelosi, in her inimitably arch, gangster style, made sure they did. In her custody, the emolument clause violations simply disappeared. Adam Schiff of the Intelligence Committee and Gerald Nadler of Judiciary Committee helped by whipping up national security concerns about Ukraine. When Raskin attempted to rally support for investigating emoluments issue after Trump suggested that the G-7 meet at his Doral, Florida resort, Pelosi is said to have told him to back off.

What could have been the issues? Without a legally empowered investigation that could subpoena records and compel testimony from corporate personnel, we have only glimpses of what might have been. But those glimpses are revealing.

Corporate Swamp

Public Citizen and the independent journalist Zach Everson have conducted some of the best research into Trump’s economic crimes in office. Public Citizen, relying in part on Everson’s work, found “51 U.S. businesses or business groups” that have appear to used Trump properties to curry favor.

Everson deserves special mention for the low-tech creativity of his research methods, which were essentially staying at the Trump International, DC, hanging out at the hotel bar, and combing through the social media accounts of corporate executives who passed through. This being the age of compulsive online confession, many a visiting corporate manager, who would never answer a journalist’s questions, mindlessly bragged online about their Trump property visits.

After a year, Everson concluded that “Lawmakers, lobbying groups, and would-be powerbrokers were taking full advantage of the chance to better their lot by throwing a few bucks the president’s way.”

Public Citizen found that “Business groups holding events at Trump Organization properties include the Institute of International Bankers, which held its 2018 annual conference at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC.… The Community Financial Services Association, which represents high-rate payday lenders, has twice (in 2018 and 2019) held its annual conference at the Trump National Doral golf club near Miami.”

Payday lenders have received regulatory rollbacks from the Trump administration. The Options Industry Conference was held at the Trump National Doral Resort. Like other parts of the financial industry, they support financial deregulation.

Other corporate guests that held conferences and board meetings at Trump properties include Sprint and T-Mobile, which later had a merger approved by the Trump administration; the Seasonal Employment Alliance, representing businesses that use overseas guest workers; and the National Mining Association, which has pushed for more access to public lands. An important firearms import/export conference was held at Trump’s DC hotel, and later the Trump administration loosened rules on international firearms exports.

A long list of energy lobbyists are said to have stayed at Trump’s DC hotel.  At least two coal companies had direct dealings with the Trump Hotel during the summer of 2019. As Public Citizen reported, “Murray Energy Corp. CEO Bob Murray and Heath Lovell, a top spokesman for magnate Joe Craft’s Alliance Resource Partners LP, were “VIP Arrivals” for one-night stays on June 20, 2018, according to a list obtained by the Washington Post.” Suggestively, Trump Hotel staff wrote “High Rate” under each executive’s name.

Even Facebook, which many would assume is a Democrat-leaning firm, is rumored to have rented blocks of unused rooms at Trump International Hotel in DC in a possible attempt to curry favor with the Trump administration. As the Intercept reported in October, Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Penn) asked Mark Zuckerberg: “Is there any chance that Facebook actually books blocks of rooms at Trump International Hotel and does not use them?”  Zuckerberg played dumb and promised to follow up.

There is also the issue of Trump’s official presidential visits to his own properties at taxpayer expense. According to a report by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, as of August 2019 Trump had made 362 such excursions. Adding in some 250 other administration officials such as White House staff, Cabinet members, and agency employees, the Trump administration had made 630 visits to Trump properties. From these scraps, we get a sense of what subpoenas might have dredged up.

Nancy Makes Problems Go Away

By mid-summer 2019 over two hundred Democratic Representatives had formally called for impeachment. Pelosi remained opposed.

Then in September came the news of Trump’s July 25 phone call to Ukraine president Zelynsky and the report of a whistleblower who flagged the call as possibly illegal, because Trump had urged Zelynsky to investigate Hunter Biden’s role on the board of Ukraine’s biggest, and notoriously corrupt, gas company Burisma. On Sept. 9, the inspector general for the intelligence community notified Congress that the whistleblower (who is said to be with the CIA) had made a “credible” and “urgent” complaint.

Then seven democratic representatives, all former intelligence officers, published a letter in the Washington Post expressing their grave concerns. They called the whistleblower’s allegations “a threat to all we have sworn to protect.” Now the legitimizing talisman of national security was rattling, and the liberal chattering classes, as if possessed, were in full lather. Emoluments were floating away.

Then, on September 24, Pelosi stepped forward. Her hand had been forced — impeachment was on, and she was in charge. And the class issues associated with emoluments sank into the swamp.

In announcing impeachment proceedings, Pelosi tasked the Intelligence Committee, which she had been a member of for more than twenty years, with creating a report that would form the basis for the process of investigation. With that, it was all over for any class-oriented politics to emerge from impeachment. As CNN reported, Pelosi told House members, “that the Intelligence Committee would be the point panel on the Ukraine investigation, given its jurisdiction and the narrow focus of its probe.” Pelosi reportedly “made it clear the Intelligence Committee was in charge.”

The Intelligence Committee’s report then went to the Judiciary Committee. When the report arrived, emolument issues related to corporate bribery, were gone.  By October 3, AOC was calling impeachment “boring,” even as she was still affirming impeachment’s importance.

Pelosi, ever on the side of capital, no doubt realized that if congressional subpoena power were used to explore emoluments, relations with — and the interests of — major Democratic Party donors might be damaged.

The right-wing Federalist was one of the few outlets to acknowledge what was happening. “This is about Pelosi losing control of her caucus should she continue to resist impeachment, and Pelosi sensing a looming electoral disaster of monumental proportions [a Sanders win?] should impeachment be launched outside the parameters she defines.… So … No Trump hotels. No emoluments. No obstruction. Just Ukraine.”

To put it more pointedly, no Bernie rally themes, no Facebook, no T-Mobile, no Payday lenders, no fossil fuel executives. Just sanctimonious, wrapped-in-the-flag, Kabuki theater about national security and Ukraine — a country few Americans know or care anything about.

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Christian Parenti is associate professor of economics at John Jay College, City University of New York. His most recent book is Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011). His forthcoming book is Radical Hamilton: Economic Lessons from a Misunderstood Founder (Verso, Summer 2020).

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