emoluments clause

Is Trump Inc. the President’s Greatest Vulnerability?

This spring, as President Trump fired FBI director James Comey; as his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, came under scrutiny for his secret conversations with Russians, including a bank executive close to Vladimir Putin; as The Wall Street Journal reported on the same bank’s murky connection to a foreign Trump development; as the commander-in-chief used his private club at Mar-a-Lago to host the Chinese president, to the delight of its dues-paying members (while also ordering a missile strike on Syria); as the House sought documents from Trump’s favored lender, Deutsche Bank, and the Treasury Department unit that monitors money laundering agreed to share financial records with the Senate Intelligence Committee; and as even Republicans like Lindsey Graham started to talk about investigating Trump’s finances, it began to occur to many people that the president’s defiant refusal to separate himself from his tangle of international business interests might represent something more ominous than mere stubbornness, that his inveterate hucksterism might not be a simple personality quirk or an implausible selling point of his successful campaign, but the fatal weakness of his presidency.

Norm Eisen came to this realization earlier than most. A wry, wiry attorney, he served as an ethics counsel to President Obama and is now the chairman of a nonprofit legal-advocacy group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). He is fond of saying his nickname was “Mr. No” when he worked in the White House. For the past six months, Eisen has been waging a litigation war against its current occupant and his yes-to-everything approach to balancing his public office and private business. Since the election, Eisen has been saying that Trump’s refusal to fully divorce from his company would provide the president’s opponents with an opening. “We sounded a pretty loud and pretty accurate clarion call,” he told me in February, “that if he didn’t separate, everything he did would be surrounded by a miasma of scandal.”

CREW first sued Trump three days after his inauguration, claiming his overseas business ties violated the Constitution. Since then, it has been launching actions against the administration and its allies in Congress at a rate of about one a day, filing lawsuits and public-record inquiries and lodging complaints with authorities like the Office of Government Ethics. These are not the sort of events that mobilize the TV-network klieg lights, like Comey’s recent Senate testimony, but they play a role that is both probative and performative. Grand Washington scandals — the kind that bring down presidencies — are incremental affairs, the product of our rusty democratic machinery, and there are always many people at work in the engine room, stoking the boiler with the fuel of information.

“The Accountability Complex has been activated,” Eisen told me, referring to what he described as an informal network of watchdog groups, journalists, government investigators, and anonymous bureaucrats. Each of the complex’s components interact, turning one another like cogs. A bureaucrat leaks to the journalists, inciting the watchdogs and the investigators, creating headlines that embolden other bureaucrats, turning the gears faster. CREW’s role is catalytic: It pokes and prods via the legal system, pursuing ethical offenses large and small.

After Trump picked a Twitter fight with Nordstrom for remaindering his daughter’s clothing line and Kellyanne Conway told Fox viewers to “buy Ivanka’s stuff,” CREW filed a complaint with the Office of Government Ethics. It filed a similar one regarding Steve Bannon’s continuing relationship with Breitbart, which appears to have caused Trump to issue a retroactive ethics waiver — a fact only revealed after an intense struggle between the OGE’s director, Walter Shaub, and the White House, which wanted to keep such waivers secret. CREW has sued the Department of Homeland Security to obtain records of Trump’s visits to Mar-a-Lago and other private properties. It identifies and amplifies a constant barrage of daily outrages: U.S. Embassy websites promoting Mar-a-Lago; the $16 million sale of a Trump penthouse condo to a businesswoman with close ties to the Chinese government; the Kushner family’s cash-for-visas investment pitch, and on and on.

CREW’s primary focus is on monitoring Trump’s business, as opposed to unearthing the truth about the nature of his relationship to Russia, but Eisen has long predicted that the two strains of inquiry would converge. Recently, the FBI’s investigation has reportedly been moving in the direction of bank accounts of the president and his associates. And CNN reported that U.S. intelligence intercepted conversations among Russian sources discussing “derogatory” financial information they possessed about Trump. The most consequential turning points in the Russia scandal — Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the investigation, Rod Rosenstein’s appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel — have occurred in defiance of Trump, in response to political pressure. CREW has played a role in the chorus, pushing for the Sessions recusal after his undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador came to light and pursuing documents related to the decision via the Freedom of Information Act. It also filed a complaint with the Justice Department over contacts between the FBI and chief of staff Reince Priebus regarding the inquiry. Hours after Comey’s testimony, Eisen and CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder published a Times op-ed laying out the obstruction-of-justice case against Trump. “The special counsel is part of the Accountability Complex,” Eisen said in June. “It’s an independent mechanism within the Executive branch.”

For Democrats, Mueller’s Russia inquiry has created delirious anticipation of a sweaty summer of oaths and indictments. In reality, though, the scandal machine tends to grind slowly — it took two years for the Watergate break-in to bring down Richard Nixon; four years elapsed between Paula Jones’s sexual-harassment lawsuit against Bill Clinton and his impeachment. And whether the Russia inquiry will lead to any substantive, actionable findings is impossible to predict. Maybe it will all turn out to be a red herring — “the greatest hoax of all time,” as Trump’s son Eric said last week. Or maybe it will be corruption, not collusion, that brings Trump down.

Despite the pageantry surrounding Comey’s testimony last week, the counterintelligence investigation is likely to proceed in cloistered secrecy. In contrast, CREW works in public, in the courts, the only institution to which Trump has so far deferred, albeit resentfully. “The resistance is not just the people who are marching through the streets,” Eisen said. “The framers of the Constitution foresaw this moment, and they built multiple nodes of resistance into the system itself.” One of them, CREW claims, is written into the Constitution: a recently rediscovered single sentence in Article I, known as the foreign emoluments clause. Earlier this year, Eisen and other activist attorneys dusted off this antique weapon to use against Trump, filing a lawsuit in federal court in New York. They argue it could force a reckoning for the president and his business — and maybe even unlock his most tightly guarded secrets.

Trump announcing his revocable trust at a press conference shortly before inauguration. Photo: Seth Wenig/AP

So far, Trump’s approach to the presidency has been to assert his powers as far as he can until he runs into an authority able to stop him. Eisen argues that Trump set this course early, when he announced at a press conference in January, shortly before he was inaugurated, that he was handing over management responsibilities for his company, the Trump Organization — but little else — to his adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric. He then laid out a remarkably brazen interpretation of the largely unwritten conventions of presidential ethics. “I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president,” Trump said. “I didn’t know about that until about three months ago, but it’s a nice thing to have.”

Gesturing toward a table stacked with manila folders, which were supposedly filled with corporate documents, he brought a private attorney to the podium to describe how he would be placing his assets into an entity called the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust. “As president, I could run the Trump Organization — great, great company — and I could run the country,” Trump said. “I’d do a very good job, but I don’t want to do that.”

As a technical matter of law, Trump is correct. The president is not subject to the conflict-of-interest statute that binds other federal employees, and he doesn’t have to follow the voluntary precedent set by all of his recent predecessors, who divested their financial holdings to entities such as blind trusts. In contrast, Trump has made it clear that he considers any barriers placed between his public office and his private interests purely optional, and the division he announced in January has turned out to be very revocable indeed. It was a sign of things to come. “The administration has been so lawless,” Eisen said. “We have a president who was in violation of the Constitution from the first day, the first hour, the first minute that he took the oath of office.”

The emoluments clause dictates that no federal officer “shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” The annals of the Constitutional Convention suggest it was added in response to a scandal over jeweled snuffboxes presented by the king of France to ambassadors, including Benjamin Franklin. Since then, it had come up only as an occasional annoyance to presidents. Congress prevented Andrew Jackson from accepting a gold medal from Simón Bolívar; Abraham Lincoln politely declined a gift of war elephants from the king of Siam. No one seemed to have considered the possibility that the clause might have a broader application, at least until Trump came along to truly test it.

CREW’s lawsuit claims the president is accepting emoluments in numerous ways. The Trump International Hotel in Washington, for instance, has lately become a gathering spot for the foreign diplomatic corps. The case also cites nonmonetary considerations, like China’s suspiciously timed approval of some valuable Trump trademarks. The specific violations are almost beside the point, though: CREW says that if the case survives the government’s dismissal motion — no easy task — it will try to use the process of discovery to pry open Trump’s finances, perhaps even forcing him to disclose his tax returns. “We’re not filing the case just to get the information; we’re filing the case to defend the Constitution,” Eisen said. “But in order to defend the Constitution, we have to have the information.”

The emoluments case is the legal equivalent of a shot from a flintlock musket, but the plaintiffs have assembled a high-profile legal team — including Harvard constitutional-law scholar Laurence Tribe — and Eisen says it poses a serious challenge to the president. The Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss the suit on June 9, arguing that its “broad-brush claims” wrongly “assert that the Constitution disqualifies the President from serving as President while maintaining ownership interests in his commercial businesses.” The government’s brief cites several examples of early presidents who privately engaged in foreign trade: George Washington required “weekly reports” from the managers of his plantation at Mount Vernon, wrote business plans in his presidential office, and exported flour and cornmeal to England, Portugal, and Jamaica. Two centuries later, it points out, Nelson Rockefeller served as vice-president while maintaining large stockholdings in oil companies and other multinational corporations. Eisen counters that the brief fails to identify any precedent for an officeholder actually accepting benefits from foreign governments. The lack of applicable precedents only underscores how completely out of the ordinary it is for a president to own a global real-estate, hospitality, and brand-licensing business, which is run by his family and named after himself.

Even some liberal legal scholars initially dismissed CREW’s case as mere political theater. The phrasing of the clause explicitly gives Congress oversight, not the courts. So even if the courts were to agree that the Trump Organization’s business dealings allowed foreign governments to enrich the president, Congress could give him a pass. There is also the issue of standing: In order to bring suit, a plaintiff must demonstrate that it has suffered an injury. CREW’s initial claim — that it had been forced to divert resources to monitor Trump, essentially — stretched the bounds of credulity. The group has since added three plaintiffs with seemingly stronger standing, including an events planner who claims she lost embassy business to the Trump hotel in Washington. But it’s still a weak point, and the Justice Department hit it hard in its dismissal motion. Citing a longstanding principle that the president enjoys broad sovereign immunity from civil suits, the government also claims that it would be unconstitutional for the courts to order Trump to change the way he manages his private business, particularly since it “would require detailed superintendence” and would likely “ensnare the President in prolonged litigation over any number of transactions.”

Still, the suit has gathered strength as the new plaintiffs have joined. On June 12, the attorneys general for Maryland and the District of Columbia announced they were bringing their own emoluments case against the president. New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman has been looking into the Trump Organization as well as potential harms to taxpayers in relation to the emoluments clause. On June 7, Politico reported that Democratic members of Congress, including roughly two-dozen senators, will bring their own emoluments lawsuit in the coming weeks. Each new lawsuit would open an additional front before a different judge, with different technical strengths.

The case has been aided, too, by mounting evidence that foreign powers really have sought to influence Trump through his business. It recently came to light, for instance, that the Saudi government’s lobbying arm had spent $270,000 at the Washington hotel over the course of a few months, during which time it pressured the U.S. government to repeal a law that would allow it to be sued for its alleged role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

A protest projected by the artist Robin Bell on the Trump hotel in Washington, D.C., in May. Photo: Liz Gorman/Bell Visuals

Recently, an artist projected a message on the D.C. hotel’s façade: PAY TRUMP BRIBES HERE. The idea of putting Trump out of business through a lawsuit has excited the grassroots resistance, which makes as little distinction between his political and commercial brands as he does. On a dreary Sunday night in February, a few hundred people packed a community-center auditorium in the West Village to hear the Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout explain how the emoluments case might thwart Trump.

Teachout, who is one of the attorneys on the suit, is better known as a progressive activist and political candidate — she lost a race for Congress last year, running upstate as a Bernie Sanders–style populist — but she is also a serious academic whose work has sought to exhume the concerns of the nation’s founders about corruption. She is credited with unearthing the emoluments clause. “This is not a mere technical part of our Constitution,” she told the audience. “It really epitomizes one of the most important things that our framers were doing when they wrote our Constitution, which is, following Aristotle, following Montesquieu — forgive me, but knowing our history is important — this idea that the greatest threat that we have as a self-governing society is corruption.” The term appears 54 times in Madison’s Constitutional Convention notes.

“It’s an ongoing constitutional conflict when our president is taking money from foreign powers,” Teachout said. “And the goal is to get him to stop.” The audience, however, yearned for something more: the satisfaction of Trump’s defeat. “I’m sure somebody’s going to ask,” Teachout said, “so I’ll just say it is one of the violations that the framers of the Constitution thought would make one eligible for impeachment.” The audience erupted with a furious roar.

The notion that CREW’s emoluments lawsuit would lead to impeachment seemed fanciful even to Teachout. But just by the irritating fact of its existence, the suit — along with the broader ethical scrutiny that has fallen on the Trump Organization — has forced the private company to make some grudging concessions. Most notably, to address concerns about undisclosed business ties around the world, Trump pledged that the family company would not do any “new foreign deals.” And while Trump’s lawyers contended that the emoluments clause did not cover “fair-value exchanges” like hotel rentals and club fees, the company said it would donate any foreign-government payments to the Treasury.

These promises have turned out to be less than categorical. The ban on new deals didn’t apply to a dozen projects already in the pipeline, like a long-dormant resort development in the Dominican Republic that was revived after the election. As for the payments, in May, in response to a demand for documentation from a Democratic congressman, the company turned over a brochure filled with promotional photos, which stated outright that determining the government affiliations of customers would “impede upon personal privacy and diminish the guest experience of our brand.”

Similarly, even though Trump’s lawyers said that the president would “be completely sequestered from any information regarding the Organization’s decisions,” Eric has since conceded that they are regularly updating him on the company’s financial performance. Eric is the chairman of the advisory board of Trump’s revocable trust, and Don Jr. and a longtime Trump Organization executive are its sole trustees. It turns out the president can receive cash distributions from the trust at any time. Moreover, Trump knows exactly what assets he placed inside it.

“That trust is not blind; that trust is as transparent as a window,” said R. Bradford Malt, a Republican attorney who oversaw Mitt Romney’s blind trust when Romney was a governor and a presidential candidate. Like many government-ethics experts, he argues that Trump should have completely disclosed and divested his holdings, if only for his own political benefit, because the alternative opens his finances to endless scrutiny. “We don’t know that there is actually an impermissible conflict right now,” Malt said. “We can only speculate, but that’s the problem — it’s the speculation.”

Richard Painter, a Republican board member of CREW who was an ethics adviser to President George W. Bush, suggested the risk of financial impropriety may be inherent in the Trump Organization’s business model. Ever since The Apprentice, his company has mainly traded on his name via licensing deals. While exchanging payment for an endorsement is the essence of brand-licensing, in a political context that’s called a bribe. And while Trump is exempt from conflict-of-interest laws, he’s not above bribery, extortion, or obstruction-of-justice statutes. “The question is, why are people putting up the money?” said Painter. “Are they trying to ingratiate themselves to the Trumps?”

The Trump Organization appears to recognize the real dangers of a misstep. It has retained Bobby Burchfield, a veteran Republican lawyer in Washington, to act as an outside ethics adviser with approval power over all new business deals. Eric Danziger, the chief executive of the Trump Organization’s hotels division, said that all potential partnerships are now closely scrutinized. “Frankly, no hotel company that I know of ever goes that deep,” he said. “But we want to be that deep now, for the protection of the president and the protection of this company.”

Some conflicts seem impossible to reconcile, however, so long as Trump is president and Trump is Trump. He still likes to golf at his own courses, winter at his own private club, and dine at his own hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. The hotel occupies the palatial Old Post Office Building, which is owned by the federal government and leased to the Trump Organization under a deal signed in 2013. CREW has filed official complaints with the General Services Administration, pointing out that its lease appears to explicitly prohibit the deal’s benefiting any federal employee. But somehow the agency managed to come to the conclusion that it is just fine for the president to act as his own landlord. The Trump Organization spent a reported $200 million on the Old Post Office’s renovation but is pursuing a $32 million federal-tax break to offset its costs. By the way, CREW claims that may violate yet another constitutional clause, regarding domestic emoluments.

Since the election, the Trump Organization’s main focus has been on launching new domestic businesses, including a recently announced budget hotel chain called American Idea, meant to capitalize on the family brand’s popularity in the heartland, and a mid-priced one marketed toward millennial business travelers, called Scion — “a wink” to the Trump sons, said Danziger, who plans to follow a typical franchise model, focusing on second-tier cities like Nashville and Cincinnati. The hotels may be located in America, but that doesn’t completely resolve the issue of international entanglement. Foreign investment is a major source of capital for American real-estate developers, particularly in the hotel industry.

One day in March, I met the first developer to announce plans to build a Scion hotel: Mike Sarimsakci, a flashy, foreign-born developer who called himself the “Turkish Trump.” Shortly after the election, he signed a letter of intent to build a Scion hotel in downtown Dallas. He disclosed the deal to a local business journal, sparking a flurry of national press attention and a municipal uproar. “Maybe it’s the Russians behind me!” the bald, cigar-brandishing builder joked as we lunched at a popular Iranian restaurant, a tenant in one of his other Dallas developments.

It was the morning after Trump’s first speech to Congress, a fleeting high point of his presidency. But Sarimsakci was finding that his association with the president wasn’t so healthy for business. A city councilman named Philip Kingston had announced his opposition to the project while casting suspicion on its financing. “Mike travels broadly,” Kingston told me, “and he raises money from a lot of countries that are not typical real-estate investors for Dallas, Texas.”

Sarimsakci told me he had no Russian financing, but said he was raising money from unidentified individuals in Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Qatar. “There is a flight of capital from my part of the world,” he said. “Secular Turks are a little bit on edge.” The website of his company, Alterra Worldwide, listed a number of Turkish- and Central Asian–based businessmen as shareholders, including his brother and partner, Yusuf, who had previously worked in Russia on the development of the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow.

Sarimsakci said he had originally talked to the Trump Organization about building Trump hotels in places like Erbil and Tbilisi, but the election had forced him to refocus his attention on the American market. He told me that as a Muslim immigrant himself, he didn’t completely agree with Trump, but he had a “pragmatic” relationship with his company, and his investors did too. “I was in a meeting last week in Istanbul,” he said. “They want to make money … It could have been Hilton, it could have been Marriott.”

Danziger was annoyed that Sarimsakci had announced the letter of intent, which he stressed was only a preliminary agreement. (“I am obviously very disappointed that that particular developer decided he wanted to get some press for whatever reason,” he later told me, adding that the deal had been signed prior to a background check.) If his goal was to trumpet to the world his relationship with Trump, or at least the Trump Organization, he had accomplished his mission. The appearance of proximity can often be as valuable as an actual connection.

“We are chasing a big deal in Panama,” Sarimsakci told me. A major shopping mall was up for auction; it had been previously owned by an alleged leader of a global drug-money-laundering network. As a result, the deal faced sticky regulatory issues. “I have a 2:30 phone call with OFAC,” Sarimsakci added.

“With who?” I asked.

“It’s a government agency,” he said. “In the United States.” He pulled up a webpage on his phone for the Office of Foreign Assets Control, a Treasury division. “Trade sanctions,” he said. “If you’ve been a bad boy, it’s going to be very hard for you to do business.” The firm administering the auction had just notified him that he had made a third round of bidding, but it appeared he might need other U.S.-government permissions to buy the sanctioned property. “So the reason why I am talking to them, and they are talking to us,” he said, “is I want to make sure that I am [checking] all the boxes, and that way I’m moving forward with the purchase.”

I never heard how Sarimsakci’s talks with OFAC went, because shortly after my visit he stopped returning my phone calls. (The property was reportedly sold in early June to a bidder from Mexico.) After my visit, Kingston and local Democrats, including members of the group Indivisible, held a protest at the parking lot where Sarimsakci planned to build the Dallas hotel. Investigative reports about his business history started to appear: first in the Dallas Morning News, then on the front page of the Times. In April, it was announced that the Dallas deal was dead, ground up by the scrutiny that inevitably descends on all Trump business dealings. “Trump Organization’s Scion Hotel deal falls apart in Dallas,” Painter tweeted triumphantly. “Let’s see what happens in other cities.”

It was never clear whether there was anything actually wrong with Sarimsakci’s financing, other than the fact that it might be foreign. Even some of those who sympathize with the resistance to Trump question whether an unforgiving pursuit of his business is really the battle liberals should be choosing to fight. “It seems to me, what we need — we, as concerned citizens — to focus on are the policy outcomes emanating from this White House and not, you know, who’s paying the rack rate at the Trump hotel,” Linda Greenhouse, the veteran Supreme Court observer, said in a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I mean, that just doesn’t do it for me.” But Eisen counters with examples of policy decisions that seem suspiciously correlated with Trump’s business interests. Why were none of the Muslim nations where Trump has developments included in his immigration ban? Was it any coincidence that the grant of those Chinese trademarks lines up chronologically with Trump’s first conversation with Xi Jinping and his reversal on the question of Taiwan’s sovereignty? “He is influenced, we know, by these minor forms of tribute,” Eisen said.

Every small-scale scandal further powers the Accountability Complex. “Each of these steps have helped to create an atmosphere in which it is now broadly recognized by the public that this is an unethical administration,” Eisen said. He founded CREW in 2003 to serve as a liberal counterpart to conservative legal-advocacy organizations like Judicial Watch, which nagged — and then almost brought down — President Clinton. (It was during a deposition for the Jones case that Clinton denied having had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.) Eisen brings up the Jones case all the time, as an example of a seemingly long-shot piece of litigation that ended up having huge consequences. “I’ve lived through the whole invention of this system that can be used for good or ill,” Eisen said. “And now I find that it’s in the greatest battle, against the Trump subversion of democracy.”

CREW is officially nonpartisan, but it’s a thin veneer. For the last few years, it has been loosely aligned with a network of organizations, including the super-PAC American Bridge, run by Democratic operative David Brock. After the election, Brock promised to “kick Donald Trump’s ass,” saying in a fund-raising document that CREW’s litigation strategy would assure Trump would be “afflicted by a steady flow of damaging information.” Since Eisen rejoined CREW in December, after his time in government, he has tried to distance the nonprofit from Brock, moving it out of office space it shared with organizations in his network and bringing on Painter. But CREW shares similar objectives and raises money from the same donors, who have lately been pouring money into groups that challenge Trump in the courts. “You’re not seeing the return two years from now or four years from now,” says a Democratic political strategist who advises donors. “It’s two hours from now.”

We’re fighting every battle,” Eisen told me one day in April as he strode the perimeter of Dupont Circle. “For us, it’s a question of total war.” It was a typically hectic day, filled with meetings about litigation, a strategy session with a group of state-level activists, planning for a closed-door CREW fund-raising event to be held in Boston, and conversations with reporters who were working on stories about ethical conflicts. As he walked from the Brookings Institution, where he is a fellow, to a monthly lunch gathering of watchdogs, Eisen told me about his latest crusade, against Republican House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes. After Nunes revealed details from a classified briefing — supposedly bolstering Trump’s claims that Obama had wiretapped him — Eisen co-authored a letter of complaint to the House Ethics Committee. That ended up triggering an investigation that effectively scuttled Nunes’s Trump-friendly Russia inquiry. After he stepped aside, Nunes blamed “left-wing activist groups.” Eisen was thrilled to take credit.

He had another meeting that afternoon, at CREW’s offices, with a fellow former senior official in the federal government, one of many he still communicates with via informal backchannels. The former official asked not to be identified, but he is an expert on Russia and global corruption. Coming into a conference room decorated with headlines from scandals past — one read CLINTON IMPEACHED — Eisen pulled out some blank tax forms, the sort of documentation a real-estate dealmaker like Trump, with interests all over the world, would presumably have to file with the IRS and other agencies. If the emoluments lawsuit moves forward, it might allow Eisen to peek inside the black box of Trump’s finances. And if so, who knows what relationships might be found?

“There’s a big mystery,” Eisen said, “at the center of Trump’s business empire and at the center of the Russia investigation.” They discussed Trump’s connections to various oligarchs and his strangely shifting descriptions of his Russian business dealings. (“I’ve done a lot of business with the Russians,” he said in 2013. “I have no loans, no dealings, and no current pending deals,” Trump said in January, making conspicuous use of the present tense.) The former senior official couldn’t get into anything classified but speculated aloud about what use the Russians might have seen in Trump, long before he was ever considered to be a plausible presidential candidate. “Kleptocrats need to export corruption,” the former official said. “They need to find like-minded cronies in foreign countries that they can essentially turn into allies.”

“Follow the dengi,” Eisen said, using the Russian word for cash. “That’s our motto in this case: Follow the money, the rubles.”

Invoking Deep Throat’s fictional instruction to the Watergate journalists raised the stakes of the emoluments lawsuit — maybe far more than was reasonably warranted. Even some of Eisen’s allies wondered whether he was overpromising, encouraging hope among Trump’s opponents that could all too easily be dashed by a judge’s dismissal. Maybe the best that could be hoped for is that the constant barrage of litigation might check Trump just a bit, averting the worst until 2018 or 2020, when reinforcements arrive.

That evening, after I left Eisen, I walked over to Pennsylvania Avenue, to Trump’s hotel. At happy hour, tourists in athleticwear lollygagged beneath the gold-painted trusses of the cavernous atrium. I met a friend at the Benjamin Bar — named for the founder who accepted the snuffbox — and ordered a glass of Trump Chardonnay. It was, to my surprise, not so bad. Sitting on blue velvet barstools, we discussed the weird world we now inhabited, lowering our voices whenever the bartender came near. It was hard to comprehend the vast scope of the conflict, and equally difficult to imagine Trump ever willingly giving up either the hotel or the presidency. When we finished our drinks, I paid, sending $45 toward the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust.

Additional reporting by Kerry Gold and Julia Mead.

*A version of this article appears in the June 12, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Is Trump Inc. the President’s Greatest Vulnerability?