In his first interview as president-elect, Donald Trump pledged that he will accept as little of the presidential salary as he can get away with. “I think I have to by law take $1, so I’ll take $1 a year,” he told CBS’s Leslie Stahl. “$400,000 you’re giving up,” she responded, as if this were some sort of public-spirited sacrifice.
It is anything but a sacrifice. The precedent of insisting that the president accept a salary—not in his interest, but in the public interest—is as old as the first Congress, even older. The American framers considered payment of the presidential salary an important duty under the Constitution, and the principle that moved them then matters just as much as it ever did: It confirms that the president serves the public, and not the other way around. If the Founders’ reasons were good enough to persuade George Washington, our first independently wealthy president, they should be good enough for Donald Trump.
If we remember Washington’s 1789 inaugural address for anything today, it’s probably for the halting and soft-spoken delivery that surprised some of its audience. But we generally forget that a promise at the very end made quite a bit of news in its day. Washington had declined a salary as commander of the revolutionary army (though he did have a lavish expense account). Now, he announced that he would continue that tradition and once again serve for free. As a general, Washington said, “the light in which I contemplated my duty required that I should renounce every pecuniary compensation.” Since then, he went on, “from this resolution I have in no instance departed. And being still under the impressions which produced it, I must decline as inapplicable to myself, any share in the personal emoluments … for the Executive Department.”
In this, Washington was voicing one of the more high-minded ideals in the republican tradition: that service to a republic is its own reward, and that citizens should suspect anyone who seeks public office for financial motives. And yet, he was also claiming that part of the Constitution was, already, “inapplicable” to himself. In fact, the Constitution’s framers had debated and rejected a proposal that the president serve without pay. Alexander Hamilton explained the reasoning in Federalist 73: “a power over a man’s support is a power over his will.” A president who could not depend on a regular salary might be subject to corruption, to coercion by the members of Congress who held the purse-strings, or to the temptation to sell policy to the highest bidder. For the same reason, it was essential that the president’s livelihood be insulated from day-to-day politics. Congress was given the power to set and change the president’s salary by statute, but not to meddle with the salary of a sitting president. The Constitution dictated a fixed payment for his entire period in office, so that Congress “can neither weaken his fortitude by operating on his necessities, nor corrupt his integrity by appealing to his avarice.”
Yet those arguments seem to assume a president needy enough to sell out the public interest for profit. Do they still apply to a president who claims to be both independently wealthy and free from greed, someone who purports to be above “necessities” and “avarice”? Washington seemed to believe that they did not. But here again, the Federalist anticipated him: “There are men who could neither be distressed nor won into a sacrifice of their duty; but this stern virtue is the growth of few soils.” In other words, it is a terrible idea to write a Constitution as if all future presidents will be Washingtons.
For these reasons, the first Congress refused Washington’s offer to serve without pay—and in doing so, consciously set a precedent for the future. It did not want to risk that Washington’s refusal would become the norm rather than the exception. As representative John Page of Virginia put it, “the Constitution requires that he shall receive a compensation, and it is our duty to provide it.” Note that Congress did not try to evade the spirit of the Constitution by providing him a token salary. Congress voted Washington an annual salary of $25,000; the president backed down and accepted the payment. It was an implicit recognition that future presidents could be corruptible, and should be bound to the public interest as tightly as possible.
Two important principles flowed from that move. First, in ensuring the president a livelihood in office, and in safeguarding a president of ordinary means from the temptation to sell out, it opened the highest public office—at least in possibility—to those who were not independently wealthy. Second, in minimizing future presidents’ need to rely on outside sources of income, it confirmed that the president would be a true public servant, beholden to the people who elected him.
The founders were hardly democrats—but as in the case of “all men are created equal,” the principles they laid down were dramatically expanded by the democratic movements that came after them. When it came to the openness of political office, those principles developed into the radical claim that political office not only could be, but ought to be, open to people of ordinary means.
Washington’s ideal—the gentleman above money-grubbing, who serves from a sense of civic duty—has a compelling, even romantic ring to it. But all too often, the reality has been that the best-off identify the public interest with their own interest—that wealth and power tend to serve wealth and power. That is why it was a key plank of democratic movements around the world that politicians be paid a livable wage. As distrusted as professional politicians are today, the very idea of a professional politician emerged as a way to make our representative bodies more representative—to make space for laborers alongside the wealthy. In Britain, which fought its own struggle for mass democracy in the 19th century, the famous People’s Charter called for universal male suffrage, the secret ballot—and salaries for members of parliament. Men and women literally died for the right to pay politicians a salary, and those same demands inspired ordinary people to fight and die for democracy from Australia to Africa.
While our own Congress of millionaires is a poor testament to efforts like theirs, Trump’s $1 pledge—should the precedent set by him and other billionaire politicians like Michael Bloomberg take hold—risks turning our already money-filled political culture into one that even more openly celebrates its exclusivity. In such a political culture, we would increasingly question the capacity of anyone other than the wealthy to serve the public with integrity. Trump’s pledge is a powerful statement for a nation of booming inequality—testament to an oligarchy that no longer even feels the need to pretend it’s something else.
But even more worrisome is that the $1 pledge is a diversion from all of the far, far more lucrative ways in which Trump’s presidency could enrich him and his family. While journalists like Stahl take at face value that the president-elect is “giving up” something of real worth, Trump is promising to put his children in charge of his financial interests while he’s president: an unprecedented violation of the norm that the president places his assets in a blind trust, so that he has no idea whether his policies will benefit him financially. Remember that Trump has put those very same children on his White House transition team, with power over policy and personnel. Recall, too, that Trump has also broken the longstanding norm that presidential candidates release their taxes, so voters can understand their financial entanglements. Combine those facts, and a Trump presidency has the potential to benefit the Trumps by orders of magnitude more than $400,000, all hidden from public view. Donald Trump now has the power to appoint the IRS chief overseeing his tax audit and the National Labor Relations Board members who rule on union-busting efforts at his casinos. And that’s just for starters. As Jonathan Chait writes, “Business lobbyists could literally give Trump or his children stock in return for favorable treatment, and the public would have no way of knowing.”
And even if the public did find out, financial corruption is—by its nature and often by design—complicated. By contrast, “$1” is remarkably simple. You can tweet it and still have 138 characters left. Its simplicity is just what makes it, next to a tangled tale of corruption, the clearer story and the easier story. In other words, Trump and his team—if he accepts only $1—already have a convenient narrative that he is too rich, or too selfless, to be corrupt. Guarding against that corruption means defusing that narrative before it takes hold.
That, in turn, means that you should want Donald Trump to get his $400,000. He’s still free to donate it all to charity, as two of his predecessors have done. But he should take our money all the same, just like every president from Washington on. The reasoning behind the presidential salary has evolved since those days, but some truths hold every bit as strongly. Among them: We are beholden to the people who pay us. In Hamilton’s words, “he who pays is the master.” Donald Trump understands that as well as anyone—and in his refusal to take the people’s paycheck, he’s telling us who he intends to be master for the next four years. Believe him. And then let him know that’s not the way this works.
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