President-elect Donald Trump's global business interests continue to come under intense scrutiny, with two top ethics lawyers saying the Electoral College must reject Trump on December 19 if he does not divest his holdings and establish a truly blind trust.
Norman Eisen, chief ethics counsel for Barack Obama, told ThinkProgress this week that "the founders did not want any foreign payments to the president. Period."
"This principle," explained ThinkProgress editor Judd Legum, "is enshrined in Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution, which bars office holders from accepting 'any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.'" The provision, he said, is aimed at limiting foreign influence over the president.
However, according to Legum:
Eisen said that Trump's businesses, foreign and domestic, "are receiving a stream of such payments." A prime example is Trump's new hotel in Washington, D.C. which, according to Eisen, is "actively seeking emoluments to Trump: payments from foreign governments for use of the hotel."
Trump was totally wrong when he said the conflict of interest doesn't apply to me. It shows he doesn't know the constitution.
The most fundamental conflict clause in the U.S. constitution is the prohibition on emoluments on payments, presents or other things of value being given to American political officials including the president.
Because of [Trump's] international investments he gets these payments, presents and things of value and he'll be in violation of the constitution by the moment he takes the oath of office.
In turn, "to vote for Trump in the absence of such complete divestment...would represent an abdication of the solemn duties of the 538 electors," said Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe to ThinkProgress, concurring with Eisen's analysis of Trump's holdings.
"Trump's ongoing business dealings around the world would make him the recipient of constitutionally prohibited 'Emoluments' from 'any King, Prince, or foreign State'— in the original sense of payments and not necessarily presents or gifts — from the very moment he takes the oath," Tribe said.
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Both ThinkProgress and the Guardian point to comments by another former chief White House ethics counsel—Richard Painter, who served under George W. Bush—as evidence that such concerns are non-partisan.
"I don't think the Electoral College can vote for someone to become president if he's going to be in violation of the Constitution on day one and hasn't assured us he's not in violation," Painter said in a recent interview on CNN.
It is implausible that Trump and his lawyers could offer such assurances without completely severing his links with his business operation. His empire has been built in many countries where the line between public and private ownership is thin and blurred. According to a count by the Washington Post, at least 111 Trump companies have done business in 18 countries in South America, Asia and the Middle East.
There are two Trump Towers in Turkey. During the campaign, Trump registered eight companies in Saudi Arabia, according to the Post. There is a hotel being built under the Trump name in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. All these countries have authoritarian leaders, who Trump has praised in recent years.
Over and above these entanglements, Trump has diplomats on foreign government expenses rushing to check into his hotels; he also has loans from state-owned banks. It is impossible to gauge the extent of his reliance on foreign governments without full disclosure of his business dealings and the publication of his tax returns, which he has thus far resisted.
As Michael J. Green, who served on the National Security Council in the administration of George W. Bush, and before that at the Defense Department, told the New York Times for its exposé published Sunday: "It is uncharted territory, really in the history of the republic, as we have never had a president with such an empire both in the United States and overseas."
Indeed, the Times piece suggests that rather than disentangling their business interests, "Trump's family appears to have been preparing for the transition to the Oval Office and ways to capitalize on it both in the United States and around the globe."
According to the Times:
In April, even before Mr. Trump had secured the Republican nomination, his business moved to trademark the name American Idea for use in branding hotels, spas, and concierge services, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. It was one of more than two dozen trademark applications that Mr. Trump and members of his family filed in the United States and around the world while he was running for president.
The applications offer a glimpse of where the Trumps may intend to focus their business endeavors. Last month, representatives of the Trump Organization in Indonesia, where Mr. Trump has been pursuing two hotel deals, filed trademark registrations for use of the Trump name in connection with hotel management. Similar filings have been made in Mexico, Canada, and the European Union.
Ivanka Trump has filed at least 25 trademark registrations for her brand of clothing, cosmetics, and jewelry in the United States, Canada, the European Union, and Mexico since the beginning of the year, mostly recently in October. Mr. Trump's wife, Melania, filed an American trademark application for a line of jewelry in August.
It all lends credence to Eisen's warning to ThinkProgress: the country is facing a "wholesale oligarchic kleptocracy of a kind that we have never seen before in our history."