“Emolument” is a word few people used, or even knew, until Donald Trump assumed the presidency. Now, it’s being bandied about the Beltway on a daily basis, and is at the heart of several lawsuits accusing President Trump of corruption. At issue is a rarely referenced item in the U.S. Constitution, the foreign emoluments clause. There is a parallel domestic emoluments clause as well, which plaintiffs say Trump also is violating. Trump told The New York Times last November, after winning the Electoral College but losing the popular vote, “The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” This slew of lawsuits is taking aim at his claim, as evidence mounts of his personal enrichment off the presidency.
“In a democracy, no one is above the law, not the president or anyone else.” —Elizabeth Goitein, Brennan Center for JusticeThe eighth clause in Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution states: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” No one is accusing Trump of taking a title of nobility, although who would be surprised if he did accept one? But emoluments aplenty seem to be coming Trump’s way since he took office, some from foreign governments with important business with the United States. Three prominent lawsuits to date seek to remedy this. One was filed days after Trump took office by the nonprofit watchdog group CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington). Another was filed Monday by the Washington, D.C., and Maryland attorneys general. And despite the tumult in Washington caused by the terrible shooting at a Republican congressional baseball practice where five were injured, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a third lawsuit was filed Wednesday by close to 200 Democratic members of Congress.
Never in U.S. history has the prospect of a president’s real and potential business dealings created such a marked array of conflicts. Donald Trump has real estate and other businesses around the globe. The Atlantic has been compiling a rolling “crib sheet” of his potential conflicts, listing no less than 44 separate, serious items in which his personal profit could hinge on U.S. government actions or policies over which he presides.
The CREW lawsuit addresses a direct conduit of foreign-government money to the Trump family via the new Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, just blocks from the White House. CREW’s complaint alleges that “since the November 8, 2016 election, foreign diplomats have been flocking to Defendant’s D.C. hotel, eager to curry favor with Defendant and afraid of what Defendant may think or do if they send their business elsewhere in Washington. ... The hotel also hired a ‘director of diplomatic sales’ to facilitate business with foreign states and their diplomats and agents.” The lawsuit continues, “One ‘Middle Eastern diplomat’ told The Washington Post about the hotel: ‘Believe me, all the delegations will go there.’”
The D.C./Maryland lawsuit explains: “Following the defendant’s inauguration, he continues to own and control hundreds of businesses throughout the world, including hotels and other properties. His business empire comprises a multitude of different corporations, limited-liability companies, limited partnerships, and other entities that he owns or controls—in whole or in part—operating in the United States and at least 20 foreign countries.” They are suing, they write, so that, among other issues, “Americans do not have to guess whether a President who orders their sons and daughters to die in foreign lands acts out of concern for his private business interests.”
The congressional lawsuit, led by Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Detroit Congressman John Conyers, reiterates many of Trump’s alleged constitutional violations of the emoluments clause, but focuses on a key phrase: “without the Consent of the Congress.” They want the courts to force Trump to seek congressional approval before he receives any profits, or “emoluments,” from business dealings with foreign states. A key condition congressional Democrats would demand: release of Trump’s tax returns.
“We have seen over and over again that this president believes he is above the law in so many ways,” Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said on the “Democracy Now!” news hour. “In a democracy, no one is above the law, not the president or anyone else.”
As the members of Congress filed their lawsuit, The Washington Post broke the news that special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating Trump for possible obstruction of justice related to his firing of FBI Director James Comey—all this on Donald Trump’s 71st birthday.