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And the grift goes on


Scott notes that, now that he’s out of office, Donald Trump is facing a mountain of legal woes, both civil and criminal. (This CNN story fleshes out some of the details at greater length).

Meanwhile there are some rumblings via Maggie Haberman that Trump is going to launch some sort of “victory” tour, that may feature giving speeches for gargantuan sums in places like the Gulf States (the Persian Gulf, not the Redneck Riviera).

This seems like a good moment to point out the Former Presidents Act, which is now going to funnel millions of dollars of taxpayer money to Trump, is a bad law that should be revoked.

Under the FPA, Trump gets a $220,000 inflation-adjusted annual pension, and a whole bunch of other benefits. The biggest moneymaker of the latter is the right to “rent” office space, anywhere he wants, from any landlord of his choosing, at any rent that “landlord” wants to charge. (I think you can guess where this is going).

Currently, Clinton, Bush, and Obama are all renting more than 8,000 square feet of office space each in, respectively, Manhattan, Dallas, and Washington DC. The collective cost of this is more than $1.5 million per year (Jimmy Carter is renting much less expensive space in Atlanta).

In addition, each is getting another $400,000 or so in annual benefits in the form of health care, subsidies for staff salaries and benefits, communications, office supplies, printing, mailing privileges, and travel expenses. (The annual cost of Secret Service protection, which is a confidential figure, is provided via another statute, not the FPA, and would not be affected by the FPA’s revocation).

Collectively, these three former presidents are each currently getting about $1.1 million in annual benefits from the FPA (Carter is getting a little less than half as much). But I doubt Trump will be satisfied by even this level of taxpayer-funded largesse. Instead, I expect him to “rent” office space inside Mar-a-Lago for some exorbitant sum, with this rent being paid to the facility, which is owned by the Trump Organization.

Again, there is nothing in the FPA to stop him from doing this.

It’s been suggested that Congress could revoke some or all of Trump’s benefits under the FPA while leaving them intact for our other ex-presidents, but this approach would run into legal problems, since it could be characterized plausibly as a functional bill of attainder — that is a quasi-criminal punishment enacted against an individual via legislation, which would arguably make that legislation unconstitutional.

The better approach would be to just revoke the whole FPA. It’s absurd that we spend millions of dollars a year subsidizing the post-presidencies of very rich men, who indeed in the majority of cases are very rich because they were president.

In addition there’s a fascinating and scandalous backstory here, which I won’t go into detail about now. The very short version is that the FPA only exists because Harry Truman pulled off an egregious fraud on Congress and the public, claiming he was on the edge of financial distress after he left the White House, when in fact he was totally loaded on the day he left, and got a lot richer in the years before the FPA was passed in 1958, by cannily exploiting his status as an ex-president, while at the same time proclaiming loudly and sanctimoniously that he wasn’t doing that. (Part of this story, unfortunately, involves good ‘ol straight talking Harry embezzling a whole lot of money from the federal government).

An interesting side detail of this story is that all of Truman’s biographers have swallowed Truman’s representations about his financial situation hook, line, and sinker, without ever bothering to inquire about whether they were accurate.

Anyway, the FPA is a really bad law, and the soon to be revealed in detail facts about its fraudulent origins merely emphasize why we should get rid of it, especially now that Donald Trump is poised to try to rip off his latest series of marks — American taxpayers — via its poorly drafted provisions. (The provisions are poorly drafted in part because nobody ever anticipated that somebody as shamelessly crooked as Trump would be in a position to cash in on it, but here we are).

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