Richmond is on the record as the first city in the United States to call for an investigation into whether President Donald Trump’s business dealings are creating a conflict of interest for him in his new role of president. On February 21, the Richmond City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for a congressional probe into whether such conflicts might create grounds for impeachment.
Richmond’s Resolution no. 12-17, which was introduced by city councilmember and former mayor Gayle McLaughlin, asks for an investigation focused on the president’s businesses. It alleges that from the beginning of his presidency, Trump has violated the “foreign emoluments” clause and the “domestic emoluments” clause of the Constitution, which forbids the president from receiving emoluments from any king, prince, foreign state or the United States. “Emoluments” refers to financial benefits such as cash payments, goods and services, subsidies, tax breaks, credit extension and favorable regulatory treatment.
According to the resolution, “Donald J Trump… owns various business interests and receives various streams of income from all over the world,” and these include “emoluments from foreign governments, states of the US, or the US itself.” And, it continues, scholars and experts have warned the president that “unless he fully divested his businesses and invested the money in conflict-free assets or a blind trust, he would violate the Constitution.”
“I have received many emails and phone calls from people all over the nation thanking me and the city council for being the first city to do this. Many have said it gives them hope for the future,” McLaughlin said of the February vote.
“There is much fear and concern about the Trump administration, and rightly so. Urging Congress to investigate impeachment due to the president’s business holdings is important to find out if there are conflicts of interest that he has,” she said.
Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said he was not surprised when the city council approved the resolution. “I knew the people [who voted for the resolution] will support it. And I had already been a critic of Trump and the Trump administration,” Butt said. “I don’t like what he’s doing about the environment, I don’t like what he’s doing about climate change, I don’t like what he’s doing about immigration, I don’t like what he’s doing about education. He’s just against everything that I believe in and I worked for.”
But, the mayor added, the resolution is purely symbolic—and it doesn’t call for impeachment itself, but rather for a Congressional investigation that could potentially lead to an impeachment. “It basically says that we support the committee on judiciary at the House of Representatives initiating and conducting an investigation,” said Butt. “A lot of people, I don’t think they read it. They just thought that we passed a resolution saying we’re going to impeach Trump. You know we can’t do that.”
“It doesn’t even call for impeachment; it calls for an investigation,” he added.
The U.S. Constitution states that the House of Representatives has the sole power of impeachment, and that the Senate has the power to try all impeachments. Grounds for the impeachment of the president, vice president, and all civil officers of the United States are treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.
Dan Farber, a law professor at UC Berkeley, agrees that the passing of the resolution is a largely symbolic act. Neither cities like Richmond nor state governments have an actual role in impeachment decisions. “There won’t be an impeachment unless a substantial number of Republican members of Congress have gotten to the point of supporting it. That clearly is nowhere near happening, and may never happen,” he said.
In fact, Farber said, “The definition of what’s an impeachable offense has never been settled. Some scholars argue that it has to be a criminal act; others argue for a broader definition that might include violations of the emoluments clause.”
But, he added, “Like most people who studied constitutional law, this [emoluments clause] is not a clause that I had ever paid much attention to, until very recently. From what I now know, I think there’s at least a reasonably good argument that he is violating the clause.”
Progressive political groups in Richmond applauded the council’s vote, even if it may turn out to have little legal clout.
“We are thrilled that the city council took action. We are hopeful that many other cities and counties will follow suit and also pass impeachment resolutions,” said Chris Darling, a volunteer for Richmond’s Our Revolution group. The national Our Revolution group, which hosts meetings and events in many cities, was created by supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016 to continue to support progressive politics. Darling said Richmond resident and group member Ellen Faden brought the resolution to the city council’s attention, and that the Richmond group agrees with all of the resolution’s premises.
“The point of the [emoluments] clauses is that anybody who is president should not have financial interests that might conflict with what is best for the country. As long as he owns his businesses, Trump has that conflict of interest,” Darling said.
Darling said Richmond’s Our Revolution group is not asking for a specific timeline for the proceedings, but “since he is in violation of the Constitution now, an investigation by the House Judiciary Committee should start investigating now.”
If the House does not start an investigation, he said, his group has no alternative plans. “Trump can only be forced from office by the process of the 25th Amendment or by impeachment. The first is overseen by his cabinet, where they declare he is mentally or physically unfit for office, and so people have no direct input,” said Darling.
Nationally, the advocacy group Free Speech for People and the online initiative RootsAction have led an impeachment petition at ImpeachDonaldTrumpNow.org. As of March 5, close to 900,000 people had signed. According to the campaign website, the legal counsel of its group drafted the model resolution that the Richmond City Council used.
Asked if he is worried that the Richmond council’s vote could affect the city’s federal funding, the mayor said: “I guess I am a little worried,” adding that this worry does not stop him from doing something about it. “We’ll just see what happens,” Butt said.
“We’re already a sanctuary city and so, if we’re going to have our funds cut, that’s because of that, not because we voted to support an impeachment, an investigation,” said Butt, referring to Trump’s statements earlier this year about withdrawing federal funds from sanctuary cities, or those which do not cooperate with federal deportation efforts.
McLaughlin said that aside from focusing on local issues such as rent control, shoreline preservation and pushing back on proposed prison expansion, Richmond officials are also opposed to other presidential policies, such as Trump’s executive order barring immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations, or his intentions to deport undocumented people with criminal backgrounds. “Our immigrant community, in particular, is currently extremely concerned about deportation. The power of people united is what always makes change,” she said.
Butt said he is hoping that other cities will follow Richmond’s lead. In addition to sending the resolution to Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, who represents the city in the US House of Representatives, Richmond officials have also passed copies of the resolution to the city clerks in the West County cities of El Cerrito, San Pablo, Hercules and Pinole, as well as Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, Emeryville and San Francisco.
“There has been lots of good press, and my hope is that other cities as well will consider doing this,” said McLaughlin, which she said will increase the pressure on Congress. “And I know there are some members of Congress who have spoken in support of investigating impeachment as well. We’ll have to watch how things move forward and continue to show resistance.”