by Erwin Chemerinsky, ACS Board Member and Dean and Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law
From the first moments of his presidency, Donald Trump risks violating an important constitutional provision: the emoluments clause, which prevents a government official from benefiting from a foreign government. Article I, section 9, of the Constitution 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.”
This provision was meant to restrict the ability of foreign governments to influence American office-holders, a matter of great concern to a fledgling nation. Also, it helps to prevent conflicts of interests. As Edmunds Jennings Randolph said in 1787, “This restriction is provided to prevent corruption.” The clause is meant to be much broader than a prohibition of bribery; it forbids a federal officeholder from receiving anything of value from a foreign country.
The emoluments clause has received virtually no attention through most of American history because few issues have arisen concerning it. But Trump’s extensive foreign business holdings mean that this clause is likely to have great significance in the months and years ahead. It is easy to imagine countless ways that Trump’s businesses can benefit from the actions of foreign governments. This is especially so because Trump has yet to act in a way that will reduce the conflicts of interest that are sure to arise because of his many businesses. In fact, Trump has declared: “I can be president of the United States and run my business 100 percent, sign checks on my business.” Trump also has said, “The law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” That, of course, is simply false, including because of the emoluments clause.
The emoluments clause applies to all who hold “office” in the United States government. The Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice explicitly has declared that this includes the president of the United States. The clause is broad in what it prohibits. A recent report issued by the Brookings Institution, authored by Norman Eisen, Richard Painter and Laurence Tribe, explained: “The Emoluments Clause is thus doubly broad. First it picks out words that, in the 1790s, were understood to encompass any conferral of a benefit or advantage, whether through money, objects, titles, offices, or economically valuable waivers or relaxations of otherwise applicable requirements. And then, over and above the breadth of its categories, it instructs that the Clause reaches any such transaction ‘of any kind whatever.’”