Thanks to Trump, A 200-Year Old Question Is Finally Answered

Given all the news, this one isn’t likely to get a lot of attention, but it is still a pretty big deal:

A federal judge on Wednesday rejected President Trump’s latest effort to stop a lawsuit that alleges Trump is violating the Constitution by continuing to do business with foreign governments.

The ruling, from U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte in Greenbelt, Md., will allow the plaintiffs in the case — the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia — to proceed with their case, which says Trump has violated the Constitution’s little-used emoluments clause.

Here is the 200-year-old question this finally answers:

What, exactly is an emolument?

That was a question that remained unanswered for more than 200 years.

The Constitution bars federal officials from taking emoluments from any “King, Prince, or Foreign State.” The Founding Fathers’ intent had been to stop U.S. ambassadors overseas — emissaries from a new, poor, fragile country — from being bought off by jewels or payments from wealthy European states.

But the modern meaning of the clause had not been settled because most presidents — acting on the advice of their attorneys — had steered clear of business entanglements while in office.

Trump, on the other hand, has kept ownership of his business empire, including more than 10 hotels and golf clubs around the world. Although Trump has said he gave up day-to-day management of his businesses, he still owns them and can withdraw money from them at any time…

At the hearing in June, the plaintiffs had argued that when applied in a modern context, the Constitution’s ban on emoluments…should not just mean an outright gift but also any transaction that gave Trump “profit, gain or advantage.” That means it would apply to transactions in which a foreign government paid Trump’s company for a service or a hotel room.

To get why this is such a big deal, you might want to review an article in the January/February/March 2018 isssue of the Washington Monthly titled “Commander in Thief,” in which Nicole Narea walks us through “the ways in which Donald Trump spent his first year in office brazenly enriching himself and his businesses, making a mockery of the notion that the interests of the American people should come before the president’s own bottom line.” You might also want to run through Narea’s delineation of “A Year in Trump Corruption.”

In addition, there’s also this:

If the plaintiffs are allowed to conduct “discovery” at Trump’s hotel — examining its books to identify its foreign customers — that could require the president to provide more detailed information about his personal finances.

That would be, as the president says, “yuuuuge!”

We now have a president who will face charges for violating the Emolument Clause of the Constitution, in addition to being the subject of a criminal investigation into whether or not his campaign conspired with the Russians to influence the election and whether he obstructed justice in that investigation. He is also facing several civil suits about his sexual activities and payments to shut his partners up, combined with a whole host of potential legal problems as the material gathered in the raids on Michael Cohen’s offices are investigated by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. Am I forgetting anything? With all of this, it can be hard to keep up.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.