Find more about Trump’s Constitutional Crisis as it develops here.
From the very first days of our nation, the founders were intent on ensuring that foreign entities did not influence America’s democratic system. They knew that foreign involvement in U.S. elections or policymaking posed an enormous threat to our sovereignty and that a president who would invite foreign interference for his own political benefit would be subject to impeachment. They would have been horrified at President Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to help dig up dirt on a potential political rival.
The founders tackled many important issues during our nation’s formative years, but one of the paramount concerns during their debates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention was their intense concern about foreign interference in American politics. Their concern was animated by the corrupting effects that foreign governments or foreign persons could have on elected officials, including the president.
But the founders not only feared attempts by foreigners to improperly intervene in American affairs—they were just as concerned about a president who may seek out the help of a foreigner for their political or financial self-interest. As one scholar wrote, “That a scheming, feckless leader might sell out his own country was a very real threat in the minds of those tasked to create a constitutional framework for a new government.”
To address their concerns, the framers of the U.S. Constitution included several clauses designed to reduce the opportunities for improper foreign influence in the American political system. One of the most-cited constitutional provisions during the Trump presidency is the foreign emoluments clause, an anti-corruption provision that prohibits government officials from receiving anything of value from foreign governments without the consent of Congress. In fact, Congress currently is suing President Trump over alleged violations of the emoluments clause.
What did the founders say about the dangers of foreign involvement in American elections or a president who might solicit such corrupt involvement?
George Washington, in his farewell address at the end of his presidency, argued that one of the greatest dangers to the United States involved the “insidious wiles” of foreign powers and their multiple avenues to improperly influence our political system. Washington urged Americans “to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”
Thomas Jefferson also sounded the alarm about “entanglements” between the United States and foreign governments, which he and other founders viewed with “perfect horror” due to the corruption that could result. Jefferson knew that a republic could not function if its chief executive would abuse his office—and the public trust—by soliciting personal political assistance from a foreign government.
John Adams had similar beliefs, writing to Jefferson in 1787 that he understood Jefferson’s apprehension about “foreign Interference, Intrigue Influence.” Adams, too, was concerned about corruption in the political system, leading him to assert that America should not conduct elections too often. “As often as Elections happen,” Adams wrote, “the danger of foreign Influence recurs.”
Alexander Hamilton warned specifically about a foreign power’s ability to cultivate a president or another top official. In Federalist Paper Number 68, published in 1788, Hamilton wrote:
These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistry of the Union?
The founders set up our system of checks and balances among three branches of government, in part, to restrain potential presidential corruption. They knew:
… that if the checks and balances proved to be not strong enough to restrain the executive, or if the legislative and judicial branches, convinced by a crisis, yielded too much power to the executive—well, that way lay tyranny, because a president would then be able to do whatever he pleased, even if in the process he destroyed the republic.
One means of preventing this type of tyranny was through impeachment. As James Madison noted, there needed to be a way to remove the president other than through a subsequent election, or else “[h]e might pervert his administration into a scheme of [embezzlement] or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers.”
The founders bestowed the impeachment power on Congress, therefore, as a constitutionally approved method to remove presidents who proved disloyal to the country. The framers of the Constitution originally drafted the impeachment clause to focus on the crimes of treason and bribery. Later, they added the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” at the urging of Virginia delegate George Mason, who thought naming just two crimes was too restrictive. High crimes and misdemeanors are often thought of as involving a president’s abuse of the public’s trust. As one legal scholar has opined:
Trump’s alleged attempt to strong-arm Ukraine into smearing a political opponent fits well within this framework. Using the office of the president for personal political benefit comports with both the standard understandings of bribery and the broader category of high crimes and misdemeanors.
For the founders, “the possibility particularly of foreign influence in any of many potentially insidious forms was an essential reason to bestow the impeachment power on the U.S. Congress, to check the power of a president beholden to or actively working with foreign nations.” Similarly, the founders believed that some forms of foreign-related corruption could violate the emoluments clause, which also could lead to impeachment. Edmund Randolph—governor of Virginia and first attorney general of the United States—said during the ratification debate, without reservation, that where a president becomes corrupted by receiving any present or emolument from foreign powers, “he may be impeached.”
The founders could not have been clearer: There should be no undue foreign influence in the internal affairs of the United States, especially in elections. And certainly, no president should be inviting it, especially for his personal gain. Through the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and other writings and debates, the founders attempted to erect a solid framework—and a clear expectation—that would prevent this sort of corruption and abuse of power.
That framework and those norms worked fairly well for most of the past 232 years. But Donald Trump has flagrantly violated the principles set forth by the founders and enshrined in the Constitution. By pressuring Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election on his behalf, Trump has damaged our national sovereignty and sought to corrupt our election process.
Aside from trampling on constitutional principles and deeply held norms, President Trump has run roughshod over federal law. Applicable statutes passed by Congress prohibit any candidate from soliciting or receiving anything of value from a foreign entity, including opposition research on a political opponent.
Ellen L. Weintraub, the chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, recently crystalized the issue, saying:
Let me make something 100% clear to the American public and anyone running for public office: It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election. This is not a novel concept. Electoral intervention from foreign governments has been considered unacceptable since the beginnings of our nation. Our founding fathers sounded the alarm about ‘foreign Interference, Intrigue, and Influence.’ … Anyone who solicits or accepts foreign assistance risks being on the wrong end of a federal investigation.
President Trump’s solicitation of the Ukrainian president to interfere in the U.S. political process for Trump’s benefit violates the Constitution and federal law—not to mention the public trust. If they were here to see Trump’s deeply corrupt actions, the founders undoubtedly would vote to impeach him and remove him from office.
Michael Sozan is a senior fellow on the Center for American Progress’ Democracy and Government Reform team.
Find more about Trump’s Constitutional Crisis as it develops here.