When the White House announced that Donald Trump would host the 2020 Group of Seven meeting at his Doral golf resort in Florida — an in-your-face bit of self-dealing and a blatant violation of the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause — Republicans and Democrats howled. Reporters had only just begun to tally the ways awarding himself a government contract could enrich Trump and the Trump Organization when the president backed down, but not before he publicly decried the “phony” emoluments clause.
The Doral reversal dimmed the spotlight on emoluments, but that should not lead us to drop the focus on the rest of Trump’s self-dealing and conflicts of interest. For strategic reasons, the House of Representatives may not include emoluments transgressions among potential impeachment charges. Nonetheless, the number of Trump’s violations are staggering, and growing by the day.
There are two separate emoluments sections in the Constitution; neither are phony, and both reflect the deep concern the Framers had about possible corruption in the highest offices in the land.
“Emoluments” are anything of value. The first constitutional clause, forbidding any officer of the United States from taking “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever” from a foreign government, is in Article I. It has no loopholes; the Framers feared that a rich foreign government could influence or sway American policy by giving something of value to a policy-maker. It is not limited to the president or vice president, but to all holding an office of trust in the U.S. government.
The second emoluments clause is in Article II and is limited to the president. It reads, “The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.” Here, the fear was that Congress could shake down the president by withholding his salary or bribe him by increasing it, and that a president could use the leverage of his office with states or the federal government to enrich himself.
We have never had occasion in our history to be deeply concerned about violations of these constitutional clauses. Most previous presidents have scrupulously adhered to them in spirit and letter. Jimmy Carter, to pick one example, put his peanut farm in a blind trust to avoid any appearance of conflict or attempt to profit via his office.
Trump, whose chief of staff on Sunday said the president still thought of himself as an innkeeper, has kept ownership of all his properties and has lied about not participating in their operations. He pushed officials at the General Services Administration to allow him to keep his federal lease for his Washington hotel while pressuring the District of Columbia to lower his property taxes. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, holding an office in his administration, has taken valuable trademarks, including, staggeringly, one on voting machines, from China. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, holding an office of trust in the administration, has promoted Trump and Kushner properties and solicited loans from foreign governments.
In other words, the president is unique in his corruption in American history. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has regularly compiled a tally of Trump’s conflicts of interest and violations of the emoluments clauses. The latest numbers are stark: 1,493 trips to Trump properties by government officials, usually spending taxpayer money that will enrich the president; 292 promotions of Trump properties by White House officials; 63 foreign trademarks awarded to Trump brands, mostly from China and Brazil, while he has been president.
The president himself had made 387 trips to his properties, 240 of them to play golf. He regularly does semi-official infomercials for his properties, and he’s told couples considering staging a wedding reception at Mar-a-Lago in Florida or the Trump country club in Bedminster, N.H., that, if they do, he might be available for a photo op. He famously doubled the initiation fee at Mar-a-Lago, to $200,000, when he became president, enabling foreign figures (and others) to gain entrée to the president for a price his businesses collect.
The message has been received: Foreign governments, including Romania, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, moved events from other venues to Trump properties, and foreign countries or other foreign-connected entities have held 13 events at his properties, surely enriching him along the way. (He claims profits from foreigners are repaid to the Treasury; without his tax records, this can’t be checked). One hundred and twenty-one foreign officials from 71 foreign governments have visited his properties; lobbyists of all stripes have scheduled events there. Trump has openly talked about his ventures in places like Saudi Arabia and Turkey even as he has bent American foreign policy in ways that benefit those countries’ autocrats.
The president likes to pretend that there is no such thing as a conflict of interest, that his actions are ”perfect” and “innocent.” But we should not let his lies obscure what are ongoing, direct and outrageous abuses of the Constitution for financial gain by the president and his cronies. The House impeachment hearings are concentrating on other abuses of power, but there is no doubt our Framers would see the emoluments violations as a long series of impeachable and unconscionable offenses.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, with Thomas E. Mann and E.J. Dionne Jr., is “One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate and the Not-Yet-Deported.”