Those were official gifts given to officials.
Less clear is whether the Trump Organization should have to ask Congress every time a foreign government wants to spend money at President Donald Trump’s hotels. But it’s an important question, and it’s being litigated for the first time in US history during the Trump administration, since foreign governments seem to be spending a lot of money at Trump’s hotels.
It’s just about impossible to separate Donald Trump the man from Trump the business, which was always the point. Trump is the brand.
That was going to create some conflicts of interest when he became the President. The man whose sole job had been enriching himself and his business now had the power of the US government behind him and the responsibility of representing the American people abroad.
It’s a unique situation in US history, where the President is actively benefiting from his name while in office.
And it turns out the Constitution guards against exactly this sort of thing.
An emolument is a payment or favor
“Emoluments” are mentioned three times in the nation’s founding document, an archaic term that, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the returns arising from office or employment usually in the form of compensation or perquisites.”
The most important mention of emoluments in the Constitution is extremely clear in Article 1, Section 9:
“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.”
That makes total sense; as President, Trump is supposed to be representing the people, not himself, when he meets with foreign leaders. And it should be very easy for Trump the man to not take any emoluments from foreign states.
The man and the business share the same name, however, and it’s plastered on many buildings across the world, including one that houses a federally owned building Trump leases for his hotel a few blocks from the White House, where Trump carries out the nation’s business.
Payments to Trump’s business by foreigners
Since the early days of Trump’s administration, foreign states have been paying handsome sums to stay at his Trump International Hotel in Washington.
Some of the arrangements have undergone some government review, but not, apparently, been OK’d by Congress.
DOJ says these aren’t emoluments
These are business exchanges, according to the Justice Department, arguing on Trump’s official behalf, and so are not emoluments.
At his confirmation hearing to become attorney general, William Barr said he hadn’t yet researched the issue, but he offered a pretty good representation of the government’s argument on behalf of Trump. Basically, they say the Constitution’s prohibition on presents or emoluments from foreign states shouldn’t be applied to the commercial exchange of a good or a service, even if the person benefiting is the President.
“The Justice Department has veered away from its long track record of vigilance on behalf of the republic,” she says in her report. “Instead, the Department adopted the legal arguments put forward by Donald Trump’s personal lawyers, pushing for a narrow interpretation of the clause in order to advance Trump’s private financial interests.”
Who runs the Trump Organization?
Trump gave up day-to-day operations of his business to his two older sons when he took up the day-to-day business of the people, but he didn’t give up his ownership stake in the Trump Organization.
If the lawsuits progress, the Trump Organization could be forced to disclose information about its interactions with foreign governments. Trump has guarded his financial privacy by not releasing his tax returns and the company has too.
Emoluments and the Constitution
It was concerns about influence generally that led to the inclusion of the emoluments clause in the Constitution in the first place, according to notes taken by James Madison in which he said that Charles Pinckney “urged the necessity of preserving foreign Ministers & other officers of the U.S. independent of external influence and moved to insert” the clause.
“If discovered he may be impeached,” said Randolph. “If he be not impeachable he may be displaced at the end of the four years . . . I consider, therefore, that he is restrained from receiving any present or emoluments whatever.”
There was also consideration of an amendment that would strip US citizenship from officeholders who had accepted emoluments from foreign powers.