Tag: Emoluments Clause

Trump and the Emoluments Clause: What Congress Needs to Do

This morning President-elect Donald Trump announced via Twitter that “I will be holding a major news conference in New York City with my children on December 15 to discuss the fact that I will be leaving my great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country in order to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! While I am not mandated to do this under the law, I feel it is visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses. Hence, legal documents are being crafted which take me completely out of business operations. The Presidency is a far more important task!”

With that announcement, Trump takes one important step toward addressing both the wider problem of conflicts of interest, and within it the narrower problem—of distinct constitutional dimensions—of the Trump Organization’s complex ongoing dealings with foreign governments. On those latter entanglements, I argue in a new Philadelphia Inquirer piece that under the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, Congress will affirmatively need to “decide what it is willing to live with in the way of Trump conflicts”—and it should draw those lines before the fact, not after. Excerpt:

…That clause reads in relevant part: “And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States] , 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.”…

The wording of the clause itself points one way to resolution: Congress can give consent, as it did in the early years of the Republic to presents received by Ben Franklin and John Jay. …

…it can’t be good for America to generate a series of possible impeachable offenses from a running stream of controversies about whether arm’s-length prices were charged in transactions petty or grand. …

There is no doubt that doing the right thing poses genuine difficulties for Trump not faced by other recent presidents. If he signals that he understands the nature of the problem, it would not be unreasonable to ask for extra time to solve it.

For reasons that Randall Eliason outlines in this helpful explainer, Emoluments Clause issues do not map well onto the concept of “bribery.” (Payments can violate the Emoluments Clause even if made with honest intent on both sides; bribery, for its part, is subject to a separate ban.) Removing himself from day-to-day management should help Trump avoid some violations of the Clause (for example, it will become less likely that a foreign state firm will wind up compensating him for his time). Stephen Bainbridge of UCLA has suggested that if the President-elect refuses to divest ownership of his business he at a minimum “needs to create an insulation wall separating his political activities from those of the organization. Such walls were formerly known in colloquial legal speech as ‘Chinese walls.’”

Even if Trump does that, serious Emolument Clause issues will remain, especially those surrounding favorable treatment that a presidentially owned business may not have sought out but which may nonetheless constitute “presents.” Congress should expect to ramp up the expertise it can apply to these problems, and (absent divestiture) assign ongoing committee responsibility to tracking them. And it should issue clear guidelines as to what it is willing and not willing to approve. Such a policy will not only signal that lawmakers are taking their constitutional responsibilities seriously, but could also benefit the Trump Organization itself by clarifying how it needs to respond if and when foreign officials begin acting with otherwise inexplicable solicitude toward its interests.

Expanded and adapted from Overlawyered.

Weirdest Scandal Ever: Foreign Knights Invade America

When Politico gave its usual run-down of the morning’s hot topics in health care on Wednesday, one extra special blurb caught my colleague Michael Cannon’s eye. Apparently a Dutch knight is working at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), a key federal agency in the Department of Health and Human Services.

On April 29, Sir Jay Merchant was knighted by Ambassador Rudolf Bekink on behalf of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Merchant is the “international relations adviser” in the Office of the Administrator of CMS, which is the agency’s highest executive office.

While this may seem like just a neat factoid for inside-the-Beltway water-cooler amusement, there’s actually a constitutional problem that precludes this gallant story from having a fairytale ending. Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 (the “Emoluments” or “Titles of Nobility” Clause) states:

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. 

In other words, it’s illegal for someone holding a federal “office of profit or trust” to accept a knighthood or other noble title. And this isn’t some archaic provision that hasn’t been dusted off since knights wore suits of armor. Believe it or not–and nothing is unbelievable when it comes to Obamacare implementation–this isn’t the first time this issue has arisen. It’s not even the first time in the last decade!  

In 2007, for example, the FBI asked the Department of Justice for a legal opinion as to whether a member of the FBI Director’s Advisory Board held an “Office of Profit or Trust” under the Emoluments Clause, in the context of accepting travel reimbursements from foreign government. In his memorandum on the topic, Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Elwood (who wrote an article in the Cato Supreme Court Review just last year) concluded that an advisory board member doesn’t hold such an office “[b]ecause mere access to, or receipt of, classified information is not a delegation by legal authority of a portion of the sovereign power of the United States.”

But that was a different scenario than what we have with Sir Jay. He is a federal employee, listed among seven similar-ranking colleagues on the CMS employee directory. The Office of the Administrator is surely an “Office of Profit or Trust,” implementing and making decisions regarding Medicare, Medicaid, and other parts of the Social Security Act.

More Politicization of the Department of Justice

At the last election, Democrats complained mightily of George Bush’s having politicized the Department of Justice: firing prosecutors, suborning legal memos justifying an expansion of executive power, etc., etc.  Well, it now seems at best that the pot was calling the kettle an abuser of power.

Early in the administration, when the DC Voting Rights Act last made the news cycle, it came out that newly confirmed AG Eric Holder sought a second opinion from the acting solicitor general when the Office of Legal Counsel affirmed its 45-year position that giving DC residents representation in Congress could not be done without amending the Constitution.  The bill is now stuck because of an amendment that was added to it relaxing the District’s strict – even after Heller – gun regulations, but this issue will resurface.

Now, in the most recent development in the “Is Hillary Clinton Constitutional?” saga the OLC reversed its own position from 1987 just in time for federal prosecutors to file a motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging Clinton’s appointment that cites the new memo (see footnote 21).  Indeed, the motion was filed the same day Acting Assistant Attorney General David Barron – who had previously rebuffed Holder on the DC Voting Rights Act (though we still have to see what the next confirmed OLC head says, be that Dawn Johnsen or someone else) – signed the new OLC memo.

The issue is that Clinton’s appointment to the cabinet – as well as that of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar – violates the Emoluments (sometimes called Ineligibility) Clause of Article I, section 6 because both she and Salazar were sitting Senators when cabinet salaries were increased.  Congress later passed short laws reversing these raises for the duration of both officials’ tenures but, as I’ve argued previously – and as OLC head Chuck Cooper spelled out in the 1987 memo – there is no “net accounting” proviso which somehow erases the constitutional defect.  While the new memo relies heavily on historical practice – several presidents going back to William Howard Taft (most recently Bill Clinton in appointing Lloyd Bentsen to be Treasury Secretary) have proceeded in this manner – the fact that political branches have acted in a certain way doesn’t speak to the constitutionality of that action.

In short, again the Obama Justice Department has found a politically expedient way of dealing with pesky constitutional issues.  In this case, that way involved issuing a memo to buttress a motion being filed that very same day in federal court.

H/T: Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, which is involved in the suit challenging Clinton’s appointment.