President Trump’s repeated exhortations that the US will soon have a coronavirus vaccine, plus his insistence that the Treasury is entitled to receive a percentage of what Microsoft might pay to purchase the TikTok video sharing app is setting off alarm bells with people close to the president, legal experts, and former administration officials.
The two ideas point to a president who appears increasingly desperate to secure a second term in the White House.
Trump first floated the Microsoft proposal on Monday while speaking with reporters during a signing ceremony for an executive order restricting the use of foreign labor by government contractors.
“Because [the current owner is] China, essentially…I said a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States because we're making it possible for this deal to happen,” Trump said when asked about the idea of the Redmond, Washington-based software giant purchasing the app, which he’d previously threatened to ban from operating in the U.S. “It's a great asset. But it's not a great asset in the United States unless they have the approval of the United States. So it’ll close down on September 15th, unless Microsoft or somebody else is able to buy it and work out a deal -- an appropriate deal. So the Treasury of the -- really, the Treasury, I guess you would say, of the United States gets a lot of money”.
Trump compared his proposal to the practice of a commercial landlord charging a prospective tenant “key money” — a sometimes-legal practice of charging a fee for use of fixtures, plumbing, equipment, and electrical wiring that add value to a space and was left by a previous tenant. But legal experts say his insistence that the government of the United States get a cut of the sale — which he lacks the authority to require — is more akin to a mob protection racket than any legitimate governmental prerogative.
“It is mob talk straight out of a bad mobster movie,” said Glenn Kirschner, a George Washington University lecturer who spent 30 years trying homicide and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act cases in Washington, DC federal courts. “If a mobbed-up guy who is working his territory goes to a mom-and-pop grocery store and says: ‘Look, I know that you're selling, Pepsi-Cola and oranges… I want a piece — a percentage — of everything you sell.’ That's exactly what Donald Trump just did”.
Kirschner noted that Trump did not even attempt to claim that the government had any right to a percentage of funds that would come from the sale of TikTok, but instead said it was a novel idea that no one else would have thought of.
“In other words, lawful law-abiding presidents wouldn't make a request like this, but he ain't a law-abiding president.”
Another ex-federal prosecutor, Dorsey and Whitney partner Nick Akerman, said Trump’s demand that the Treasury get a cut of the deal amounts to commercial bribery, and would result in an indictment if he was the governor of a state instead of the president of the United States.
“You’re basically forcing somebody to make a normal bargain in the marketplace and saying you want some money or you're not going to let them do it,” he explained.
Trump’s threat to ban the popular video app and his claim that he has the authority to demand a kickback for the treasury are just the latest instance of what aides describe as him lurching from issue to issue in hopes of finding a hot-button that will allow him to galvanize enough support to regain his standing in the polls against former Vice President Joe Biden.
One person close to the president who your correspondent contacted described Trump as frequently distracted and fixated on the non-stop television coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic that has sent the American economy into a slide that erased gains made over the past twelve years.
It was Trump’s push to blame China for the pandemic that led him to focus on TikTok, said the source, who added that Trump still harbors hope that enough voters can be convinced that the problems brought about by the pandemic are the fault of China — and not attributable to his administration’s response — that they will not penalize him by voting for his opponent.
Former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, who has known Trump for years, said the move is “just another pattern of irrationality and impetuosity” on the part of the president, which is further damaging the Republican Party’s chances in the November 3 election.
“There’s no Republican politician who would be silent if a Democratic president was making the same suggestion,” he added.
Scaramucci posited that the effect Trump’s myriad stressors have on him will become more and more evident as the election approaches, but despite the backlash he has received from a string of botched interviews — most recently with Jonathan Swan of Axios — the president will continue to push and even try to go beyond the limits of his lawful authority because he thinks any time he is being talked about in the press, it is good for him.
“It’s part and parcel of his social pathology…he doesn't necessarily discriminate between positive and negative tension,” he said. “He wants to be the focal point of the conversation”.
Another person familiar with the president’s thinking agreed with Scaramucci’s assessment of Trump’s recent actions, and even expressed worries that if a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 is ready before 3 November, Trump would attempt to use it to manipulate the upcoming election by directing doses to states he needs to win in order to retain the presidency.
Trump himself alluded to such a possibility on Thursday morning while addressing reporters on the White House’s South Lawn. Shortly before he boarded Marine One for an event in Clyde, Ohio, he said he was “optimistic” about vaccine development efforts, and suggested that one could be available by election day (a claim no experts have heretofore supported).
“There’s supposedly a distribution plan in place, but there’s no guarantee that the president won’t step in and order something entirely different,” said the person, who noted that the plan in development depends on the use of the military to get vaccine doses distributed quickly.
“Will he [Trump] try something like that? I don’t know, but what scares me is that the people who’d be involved are military and will follow the president’s orders if they are legal on their face”.