Many of the Wikipedia-driven insta-experts on the Electoral College and immigration law are now transforming into insta-experts on the Emoluments Clause, claiming the Clause can be used to impeach President Trump. But it is not that simple. What is the Clause, and in practical terms, how might it affect Trump?
Save Us Emoluments Clause!
Deep inside Article I of the Constitution are a handful of lines called the Emoluments Clause, intended to bar office holders from accepting gifts (the full definition of emolument includes a salary, fee or profit from employment or office) from foreign sovereigns, including in the language of the 18th century, kings and princes. The Founders’ intent was to prevent foreign influence buying.
Insta-experts seem to have convinced themselves into believing Trump is in violation of the Emoluments Clause every day he stays in office, and thus impeachment proceedings can follow, all because of his global business interests.
But unlike most everything else in the Constitution, issues connected to the Clause have never gone before the Supreme Court, there is very little case law, and very little legal study. It has simply not come up in any significant way. Journalists have discovered the Clause, however, and now are promoting it as a way to defeat President Trump. All that stands between democracy and the abyss is the Emoluments Clause.
Luckily, there are non-partisan sources out there, including the American Bar Association, and the National Constitution Center. Before wading through your next fake news article, let’s synthesize some of what has been said about the Emoluments Clause.
The Emoluments Clause
The Clause is aimed at governments, those kings and princes, seeking to influence the United States. It has nothing to say about 21st century life, such as Trump’s companies doing business with entities controlled in whole or part by foreign governments (state-owned businesses, such as the Bank of China, as is common in many parts of the world.)
The Clause is also untested in regards to complex corporate ownership. It is common in the media to state matter-of-factly “Donald Trump owns a hotel in Dubai.” Yet most of Trump’s business, like most corporate business in general, is done through a web of companies that are legal entities of their own. Some involve stockholders, some in which Trump holds a minority position. Similar questions would likely have been asked about foreign government donations to the Clinton Foundation had Hillary been elected president. None of this existed when the Clause was written, and all of this requires a 21st century judicial interpretation.
Emoluments are more complex than simply doing business overseas. The Clause may allow for fair market price transactions, for example. So, if a piece of real estate is legitimately (and yes, we’ll argue over that word) valued at $100,000, it is not a bribe or a representation of influence to sell it for $100k. It would be more questionable to accept $150k. Some have claimed if a foreign diplomat stays at a Trump hotel, the standard room price paid would violate the Clause. That’s a question of legal exchange; if Trump accepts money from Iran to remove sanctions, that’s a bribe. If a Trump hotel collects money for a night in the bridal suite, that’s a simple exchange of goods and services. Does the Emoluments Clause apply?
Some legal scholars argue the Emoluments Clause doesn’t apply to the president at all. A different clause of the Constitution makes bribery an impeachable offense. That clause specifically mentions the president by title, while the Emoluments Clause does not. In addition, other parts of the Constitution that specifically address the president typically include a separate delineation for “officials,” the wording used in the Emoluments Clause.
That all suggests emoluments may exclude the president. However, precedent suggests the Clause does apply. George Washington was allowed to accept a foreign gift, Andrew Jackson was not, and Martin Van Buren had to agree to a 50-50 split with the State Department over gifts from the Imam of Muscat. And in 2009 the Office of Legal Counsel said President Obama could accept the Nobel Peace Prize money without violating the Clause. But all four men asked for an OK ahead of time. There was no actual challenge, and none of the cases involved doing business.
Another issue is standing, who can sue over any of this to get it into the courts for a ruling. One legal professor feels no one seems to have such standing, and so states “if there are concerns about how President Trump handles his various investments, the only remedies will be political.” Meaning vote him out of office in the next election if you don’t like what he’s doing.
There are also those who skip most of the legal arguments, and focus on the so-called larger picture; clearly the Founders did not want the president beholden to foreigners. So never mind the parsing of words, the Emoluments Clause was written precisely to stop a person like Trump.
In terms of practical matters, the less Trump makes public about his business dealings, the less chance anyone has of looking into any of this. Congress can’t even think about impeachment unless there is a “high crime or misdemeanor” involved and a Trump business deal per se is far from definitive evidence of that. Impeachment involves a lot of people in Congress agreeing on moving forward, and Congress for at least the next two years is controlled by the Republicans.
And should anyone find a way to pursue it, it would be easy for Trump’s side to drive the issue through the courts for some time, and, because it ultimately involves interpretation of the Constitution, to the Supreme Court.
There are mostly questions and very few answers about the Emoluments Clause. There are also legitimate concerns over conflicts of interest during the Trump administration; no president in history has come into office with as vast and complex financial holdings. Modern presidents have bypassed all of this by using blind trusts, something Trump has said he will not do. This is clearly uncharted legal and political territory.
That said, it appears use of the Emoluments Clause to impeach Trump is another Clinton martyrdom political fantasy. Any clarification will involve extensive travel through the court system, and given the initial question of who even has standing to pursue that, nothing can happen quickly, if at all.