The Founding Fathers, in barring public officials from receiving payments, gifts, or other items of value from foreign governments or their representatives without congressional consent, seemed to see a problem like Jared Kushner coming.
During the Constitutional Convention, Elbridge Gerry — who would go on to become governor of Massachusetts and then vice president of the United States — gave an explicit warning that without such a constitutional prohibition, “foreign powers will intermeddle in our affairs, and spare no expense to influence them.”
That appears to be exactly what Saudi Arabia did during the Trump administration by forging close ties to Kushner, who as senior advisor to his father-in-law, President Trump, was initially denied a security clearance due to concerns that he could be susceptible to foreign influence. A whistle-blower report later stated Trump overruled that decision to give Kushner clearance.
A New York Times report makes crystal clear why that is necessary. Kushner’s private equity firm, set up in the months after he left the White House, nabbed a $2 billion investment from a fund led by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
This was after Kushner served as the White House point person on Middle East policy, during which he cultivated relationship with bin Salman, which included private, informal contacts and trips to Riyadh.
Though it is impossible to know everything the men discussed, we know plenty about the way bin Salman ingratiated himself with the Trump administration. Trump himself later bragged that he protected the crown prince after the CIA concluded he was responsible for ordering the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“I saved his ass,” Trump told Bob Woodward, according to Woodard’s book “Rage.” “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop.”
We also know that during the Trump administration, another company owned by Kushner received funds from unknown foreign sources, including tax havens with ties to Saudi Arabia.
And from the Times report, we learned that bin Salman helped to intervene to ensure Kushner procured the $2 billion deal after leaving the White House. After the fund’s advisors raised numerous red flags about the deal, due to the Kushner firm’s lack of any sort of track record and the public relations problems dealing with the former advisor and son-in-law of Trump, among other reasons, the crown prince led the full board of the fund to overrule the advisors’ objections.
It’s the realization of the fears Gerry and other Founders expressed hundreds of years ago.
“The Framers understood that for US government officials to owe duties of loyalty and obligation to foreign governments was going to be a very problematic thing for the new nation,” said Daniel I. Weiner, director of the Brennan Center’s Elections and Government Program. “In an increasingly interconnected world, it is becoming even more so.”
But Congress can do something about it. A bill introduced by Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, is a good starting point for lawmakers. The Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Enforcement Act, introduced in November, would: (1) codify the emoluments clause’s prohibition by barring federal officials from receiving foreign emoluments absent congressional approval; (2) increase transparency by requiring disclosure of such emoluments; (3) authorize the Office of Government Ethics to create rules to ensure compliance, and also empower the Office of the Special Counsel to investigate any violations.
But Congress can go even further, expressly stating that such rules apply not only to elected officials, but also to their advisors and family members, and also by giving authority to the Department of Justice to investigate ethics violations that rise to the level of a crime. Acting to advance one’s personal financial interests falls in that category. Federal prosecutors should not have to wait for the OGE to give the OK before they can act.
Legislation can also make clear that foreign officials delaying the emoluments until after US officials have left office does not insulate those former officials from liability if the foreign officials curried favor while they were still in office.
Only by having clear rules with tangible consequences can we stop the next foreign emoluments grift before it happens. Americans should be confident that those in the White House, Congress, and other federal positions are putting the nation’s interest first.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.