In all of the commotion about impeachment and an impending Senate trial, a story flew under the radar. President Trump recently paid $2 million in damages for misusing charitable money. That $2 million is going to eight charities. In addition, the Trump Foundation is dissolving (it’s $1.7 million in remaining assets going to the same charities), the President’s future charitable endeavors in New York will be under ongoing supervision by the New York Attorney General’s Office, and the Trump children must undergo compulsory training on how to not misuse charitable funds. (Washington Post, NPR, AP, USA Today)
In 2016, candidate Trump skipped a primary debate to hold a televised fundraising rally in Iowa to raise money for veterans (a rally that was set up in direct competition with the debate the he was boycotting). Money did eventually go to veterans charities, but first, $2.8 million were “used for Mr. Trump’s political campaign and disbursed by Mr. Trump’s campaign staff, rather than by the Foundation.”
In addition to using the foundation as part of his political campaign (which charitable organizations aren’t allowed to do), the president used $25,000 of foundation money to make a political donation, taken more than $250,000 in foundation money to settle lawsuits on behalf of his for-profit businesses, and used foundation funds to buy things for himself. And that is just what the president has admitted to. Essentially, the president and his foundation embarked on a course of behavior that “failed to follow basic laws about how charities should be governed.“
That might seem like small potatoes compared to the accusations about Trump withholding appropriated aid to Ukraine in order to pressure the government of that country into opening an investigation of Joe Biden that would hurt the president’s political opponent. But it is important. And it’s important because it shows us something about President Trump’s character: Donald Trump is not a good steward. In fact, he’s a bad one.
When I was a professional fundraiser, one of the most basic rules of nonprofit ethics that I learned was that the money that donors gave to me and the organizations that I worked for did not belong to me or the organizations that I worked for. That money belonged to the people who gave it to us, and our most important responsibility to those donors was to use it to realize the vision that those donors had for it. In fact, that sentiment can be found in the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Donor Bill of Rights: donors have the right “to be assured their gifts will be used for the purposes for which they were given.”
As a pastor, I carry that same ethical rule into my work with the church. The money that people put in the offering plate each week does not belong to me. It doesn’t even belong to the church’s finance committee or the church council. It belongs to the congregation and to God. Our job is to use it as effectively as we can to realize our call as a Christian community.
Nonprofit organizations and the people who work for them are called to be good stewards of the money and other resources that people entrust to our care.
The president is called to something similar. The constitution gives an extraordinary amount of power to the person who occupies that office. And over the lifetime of this country, that power as only grown. The president is commander-in-chief of our armed forces, has broad powers to manage the national affairs of the United States, can veto legislation, appoints officials to more than 6,000 federal positions, can offer clemency for federal crimes, and has primary responsibility for foreign affairs.
That kind of power comes with a lot of responsibility. And we all recognize that certain perks come with that responsibility. The president has—and should have—opportunities for rest, relaxation, and renewal. They should have a comfortable place to sleep, the chance to play a round of golf, and times when they can put a little bit of distance between themselves and the office. And, when they leave office and become members of the extremely small group of living ex-presidents, they should have opportunities to use their experiences to make the world a better place.
Even with those perks, though, the president is still responsible to the constitution and the American people. They even take and oath to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States” and, as best they are able, to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
The idea of faithful execution is important. When Donald Trump took that oath, he swore to put his personal goals aside and answer to something bigger than himself. He would not be Donald Trump but with the powers of the presidency. He would be the president.
Those are two different things, and that difference is important. In fact, that difference may be the most important piece of the presidency. That difference may be the difference between a president and a tyrant. A great president—even a good president—is one who is able to put their own interests aside for the good of the American people and fidelity to the constitution. Even when—especially when—the interest being put aside is the president’s interest in their own reelection.
In other words, the president must be a good steward of what the American people have given to them.
Here’s the thing: Donald Trump is a bad steward. He showed that to us when he used his foundation’s money for business purposes and for personal purposes. He showed us that when he acted as though that money did not belong to his foundation, but to him personally. He showed us that when, even though the money ultimately ended up where it was supposed to go, he treated that money as though it was there, first and foremost, for him to use to advance his personal interests.
That is a theme that goes along with his presidency. Trump treated White House counsel like his personal lawyers, asking them to intervene with the Justice Department during the Mueller investigation. He was furious when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from involvement in the Mueller investigation (and tried to get White House counsel to intervene). He nominated Bill Barr as attorney general partly because Barr would act—and has in fact acted—to protect Trump’s interests. He has given family members White House positions. He and his staff have promoted Trump’s businesses, spent large sums on money visiting Trump properties, and even suggested using a Trump property for the next G7 summit. Even representatives of foreign governments and lobbyists know that staying at a Trump property is a way of currying the president’s favor.
And, of course, that theme is visible in the Ukraine scandal. In the infamous July 25 phone call, Trump asked the Ukrainian government to look into “a lot of talk about [Joe] Biden’s son,” singling out a personal political rival. He also asked the Ukrainian government to be in touch with Attorney General Bill Barr and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani about this matter:
Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the mayor of New York City, a great mayor, and I would like him to call you. I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General. Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy.Memorandum of Telephone Call Between President Trump (United States) and President Zelenskyy (Ukraine)
The legality of any of these things can be debated. But just as Donald Trump did not see a difference between himself and his foundation, he does not see a difference between Donald Trump the man and Donald Trump the president. He is a bad steward because he does not see himself as taking care of anything that belongs to anyone else. He appears to believe that anything that is under his authority as being something that he can use for his personal gain.
It’s no secret that I disagree with Trump’s policy positions. It’s probably no secret that I find him to be personally kind of repugnant. He strikes me as someone who relishes being cruel to people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, people living in poverty, and a variety of others. Those are among the reasons that I didn’t vote for him in 2016. They are among the reasons that I will not vote for him in 2020.
However, when I say that Trump is a bad steward, I don’t simply mean that I disagree with how he stewards the authority that has been leant to him by the American people. I disagreed with George W. Bush. I voted against George W. Bush. I did not believe that he presented a unique, rare, or even particularly serious threat to the well-being of the republic.
When I say that Donald Trump is a bad steward, I mean that he does not understand that he is a steward. And that does present a serious threat. I have no doubt that Trump believes that as long as he is president, the executive branch is his personal property and that he has a right to use it to advance his personal interests (including his interest in being reelected).
It is impossible to overestimate the danger that this presents to the country, especially when we ask what Trump would do in order to be elected to a second term. And that basic lack of understanding of the role of the president—that lack of understanding of the difference between the office that is occupied and the person to occupies it—is what we should be considering when we think about whether to remove Trump from office.