Like a previously unknown contestant on “The Apprentice,” the Emoluments Clause has been catapulted to stardom by Donald Trump. There has probably been more written about this obscure section of the Constitution in the past few weeks than in its entire previous 229-year history. Debate is raging about the meaning of the Emoluments Clause. Many people are saying that president-elect Trump’s foreign business holdings and relationships create a risk — or even a virtual certainty– that he will be embroiled in a constitutional crisis from day one of his presidency.
Some recent commentary has suggested the Emoluments Clause is basically an anti-bribery provision, but this is only partially correct. As a ban on public officials accepting gifts, the clause is indeed related to laws against bribery and conflicts of interest. But the Emoluments Clause differs from bribery in important ways, and those differences have significant implications for President Trump and his new administration.
I should note up front that everyone is sort of flying blind when it comes to the Emoluments Clause. There is basically no precedent concerning the clause and the Supreme Court has never interpreted it. We’ve also never had a president-elect with such extensive foreign business entanglements. For many questions about how the clause would apply to Trump, the most honest answer is, “we’re not entirely sure.” So with that caveat . . . .
What Does the Emoluments Clause Prohibit?
The Emoluments Clause arose out of the framers’ fears about potential foreign influences on their fledgling country. Contained in Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution, it provides:
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 Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatsoever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.
No one is concerned about Trump being granted an office or title from a foreign government, and no one is particularly worried about him receiving presents from Kings or Princes. The most relevant prohibitions are on the receipt of any “present” or “emolument” from a “foreign state.” An emolument is generally defined as a profit, fee, or compensation arising from an office or employment. “Present” presumably has its ordinary meaning of a gift, or something freely given without any strings attached.
Simply put, then, the clause prohibits government officials from accepting gifts or payments from a foreign government.
How Is the Emoluments Clause Related to Bribery?
The crime of bribery requires a quid pro quo. In exchange for something of value, a public official agrees to be influenced in the exercise of the powers of his or her office. Bribery is the quintessential corruption offense; the political process is corrupted because the public official acts not for the good of all but to benefit the person who is paying off the official.
In an op-ed in the New York Times, Professor Zephyr Teachout recently wrote that the Emoluments Clause is “essentially an anti-bribery rule.” Commentators at NPR and The New Republic have said the same thing. But this is not entirely accurate. When it comes to gifts from foreign states, the Emoluments Clause actually is far more sweeping than bribery because it does not require a quid pro quo. Even if the term “emolument” is read to imply compensation in exchange for a particular service (which is far from clear), the term “present” is far broader and contains no such implication.
Unlike bribery, the Emoluments Clause does not require that the public official agree to do anything in exchange for the gift. It doesn’t even require that the gift be linked to some particular official act, as does the federal gratuities statute. In this sense the Emoluments Clause is more akin to a simple gift ban, similar to those contained in most codes of ethics for government employees. It appears to guard against not only actual influence of public officials, as would occur with a bribe, but also the mere appearance of potential influence or divided loyalties that could be created by even a gift.
For a gift from a foreign government to constitute a bribe, President Trump would need to agree to perform some official act or be influenced in the exercise of his powers in exchange. But if a foreign government gave the President a present simply out of admiration, or out of hope that it might curry favor with the President, that would violate the Emoluments Clause even though it would not be a bribe.
In another sense, bribery is broader than the Emoluments Clause because it applies to private parties, not just to foreign states. So if a private foreign corporation or individual gave the President a gift in exchange for some exercise of his official power, that would be a bribe even though it would not violate the Emoluments Clause.
In short, there are many violations of the Emoluments Clause that would not be bribes, and many bribes that would not violate the Emoluments Clause.
Does the Emoluments Clause Apply to the President?
It’s not 100% clear – unlike some provisions of the Constitution, the clause does not specifically name the President and refers only to those holding an “office of profit or trust” under the United States. At least one commentator, Seth Tillman of Maynooth University in Ireland, argues that this and other historical clues suggest the clause was not intended to apply to the President.
But this appears to be a minority view. An “office of profit or trust” under the United States would logically seem to include the presidency. It would be quite strange if the framers did not intend the ban on potential foreign influence to extend to the highest office in the land, where such influences could potentially do the most damage.
Adam Liptak recently wrote in the New York Times about how a newly-elected President Obama sought legal advice from the Department of Justice concerning whether he could accept the Nobel Peace Prize without violating the Emoluments Clause. The DOJ Office of Legal Counsel, in its written opinion, considered it beyond debate that the presidency was “surely” an office of profit or trust under the United States. That seems correct.
Does Bribery Apply to the President?
Yes. Trump made headlines last week when he told the New York Times that “the President can’t have a conflict of interest.” Federal criminal statutes related to conflicts of interest are contained in the 200-series of Title 18. It’s true that 18 U.S.C. § 202(c) provides that a number of those laws – including the primary conflict of interest law, 18 U.S.C. § 208, prohibiting acts “affecting a personal financial interest” – do not apply to the President.
But this does not mean it is impossible for a President to have a conflict of interest. Hopefully Trump does not really believe he is free to pursue federal policies designed to benefit his personal financial interests. The universe of concerns about conflicts of interest is not encompassed by the federal criminal code; simply because something may not be a felony does not make it appropriate Presidential behavior. Indeed, the Emoluments Clause itself is plainly animated by a desire to avoid even a perception of potential conflicts of interest.
In any event, unlike the conflict of interest statutes, the President is not exempted from the federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 201. That law applies to any “officer or employee or person acting for or on behalf of the United States,” which certainly includes the President.
How Could Trump Violate the Emoluments Clause?
Trump has numerous overseas business ventures and properties, as well as business relationships with many foreign entities. Once he is President, any business transaction with a foreign government that is anything less than completely arms-length could potentially violate the clause. If a foreign government gave him a sweetheart deal on a particular project, or purchased assets or paid rent at above-market rates, or pressured state-owned banks to give Trump favorable loan terms, those could be considered gifts or emoluments. A foreign government could also grant permits or approvals for Trump projects on more favorable terms or cancel investigations related to Trump deals, all of which could be considered financial benefits to Trump.
Some have suggested that even at fair market rates, any foreign government transaction with a Trump business — such as diplomats staying at the new Trump hotel in D.C. — would be payment for a service and therefore a prohibited emolument.
But there are a number of potential qualifications and loopholes. First, the clause only prohibits gifts from a “foreign state,” so gifts from a foreign private corporation would not violate the clause. Presumably a number of Trump’s overseas deals are with private companies and not with governments. (This is why President Obama ultimately was able to accept the Nobel Peace Prize money – the Department of Justice concluded that the prize was coming from a private organization, the Nobel Committee, that was sufficiently independent from the Norwegian government.)
A factual issue could arise concerning whether foreign corporations that are government owned or controlled would be treated as a foreign state for purposes of the clause. The answer should be yes if the clause is not to be completely undermined. (An analogous issue arises under laws such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, where employees of state-controlled private corporations are often deemed to be “foreign officials.”) As Liptak reported, in the opinion for President Obama the Department of Justice noted it believes that corporations owned or controlled by a foreign government are presumptively foreign states for purposes of the Emoluments Clause. Whether this was true in any particular case would likely depend on the degree of state control.
Another issue could arise if a gift was given to the Trump Organization rather than to President Trump personally. Because corporations are generally considered distinct “persons” under the law, a gift to Trump’s corporation might not be considered a gift to the President. But because it is a privately-held corporation, arguably even a gift to the corporation should be deemed a gift to Trump. Some commentators recently argued that gifts to the Clinton Foundation should be considered gifts to Hillary Clinton for purposes of the Emoluments Clause – presumably the same analysis would apply to gifts to the Trump Organization.
A separate question could arise if the present was given to one of the Trump children, or one of their businesses. Assuming they are not holding an office in the new administration, such a gift would appear not to violate the clause. But particularly given the important role Trump’s family seems to play in his administration, the underlying concerns about outside influences and conflicts of interest would certainly still be present. This would seem to violate the spirit of the clause, if not the letter.
Finally, it appears that Congress could simply give Trump a pass on all of this. The Emoluments Clause provides that presents or emoluments may not be accepted “without the consent of Congress.” That suggests Congress could pass some kind of blanket permission for President Trump to pursue his businesses without worrying about the clause. How something like that would play politically would be another matter.
What Is the Remedy for a Violation of the Emoluments Clause?
There’s probably a reason there are no court cases interpreting the Emoluments Clause: most commentators think it is non-justiciable. In other words, no one would have standing to bring a lawsuit and a court would not be able to fashion a workable remedy. As Professor Jonathan Adler noted in the Volokh Conspiracy blog, if the clause is violated “the only remedies will be political.”
Political remedies include elections. If voters are upset by President Trump’s foreign entanglements they could toss him out of office in four years. Political remedies could also include hearings on Capitol Hill. Congress could issue sternly-worded resolutions of disapproval that Trump could dismiss with a Tweet storm. Congress presumably could pass legislation that would impose some restrictions consistent with the clause, although enforcing it would again be problematic.
Or political remedies could include impeachment.
Is Violating the Emoluments Clause an Impeachable Offense?
The Impeachment Clause, Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, provides:
The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Although it’s not a crime, a violation of the Emoluments Clause most likely is an impeachable offense. The phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” is generally understood to refer not to criminal law but to political violations and misconduct related to public office. Impeachment is a political process, not a criminal one. As Hamilton wrote in The Federalist No. 65, impeachable offenses “proceed from the misconduct of public men . . . from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
That being said, the meaning of the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” is not completely settled. There was a lot of debate about it during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Clinton’s lawyers argued that “high crimes and misdemeanors” meant misconduct related to the exercise of public office. They maintained that Clinton’s behavior in his personal life did not meet that standard. Congress, of course, ultimately disagreed.
But a violation of the Emoluments Clause would be directly related to the exercise of Trump’s public office and his abuse of that trust. As such it should qualify as a “high crime or misdemeanor.” It would be strange indeed if the framers included the prohibition against emoluments but contemplated no possible remedy for its violation. The most logical remedy is impeachment.
And in the end, as then-Congressman Gerald Ford famously remarked, “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” If Congress were to conclude that a violation of the Emoluments Clause was (or was not) an impeachable offense, there would be no real way to challenge that conclusion.
What Would Be the Remedy if Trump Committed Bribery?
If President Trump were to violate federal bribery law, the issue again would be the proper remedy. Whether or not a sitting President can be indicted is another question that was debated during the Bill Clinton investigation and has never been fully resolved. The Supreme Court did rule in the Paula Jones case, Clinton v. Jones, that a President is not immune from civil litigation based on events that took place before he took office, but that is a different matter.
Indicting a sitting President raises far thornier issues. How would the President’s own Justice Department and Attorney General prosecute a criminal case against the President? Could the federal courts hear such a case without violating the separation of powers? What if a sitting President were convicted and sent to prison while still in office? And could a convicted President Trump pardon himself?
For all of these reasons, the better view is probably that a sitting President cannot be indicted for a crime. (This is also the official position of the Department of Justice.) The appropriate remedy for a President who commits criminal acts would once again be the impeachment process. In fact the Impeachment Clause (quoted above) specifically lists bribery as one of the grounds for impeachment.
If a President were impeached for bribery and removed from office, then presumably criminal bribery charges could be pursued against him or her as a private citizen. Article I, Section 3, Clause 7 of the Constitution provides that after removal by impeachment an official “shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.” But again, we are in uncharted waters.
Bottom Line – The Meaning of the Emoluments Clause
The Emoluments Clause is far more sweeping than the laws against bribery, at least when it comes to gifts from foreign governments. Almost any transaction involving Trump businesses and a foreign state or state-controlled entity is going to raise questions about whether any improper emolument was involved, even if Trump did not agree to do anything in return.
For any violation of either bribery law or the Emoluments Clause, the likely remedy is impeachment, not a lawsuit or criminal charges. And for those who believe a Republican Congress would never impeach a Republican President, bear in mind that if Trump were removed from office that would leave us with: President Pence.
That might be an outcome many Republicans would find very desirable.
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