Robbins: Trump and the Emoluments Clause
Mr. Barr is having a party.
You’re likely not invited.
Neither am I.
Mr. Pence just enjoyed a lovey taxpayer-funded stay in Ireland. At Doonberg, about 180 miles west of Dublin … where Mr. Pence’s business was. And the back and forth from Doonberg to Ireland was paid for by —you guessed it — you and me.
A couple of weeks ago, following the G7 Summit in Paris, Mr. Trump suggested that the next G7, which is slated to take place in the U.S., should be convened at the Doral Golf Club just outside Miami.
What do Attorney General William Barr’s scheduled Christmas party, Vice President Mike Pence’s sojourn to the Emerald Isle, and a golf resort near Miami have in common? In a word — or perhaps three — Trump, Trump, and Trump. Just the way the president likes it.
Now besides the patent sycophantry, what is wrong with the attorney general kicking up his heels at DC’s Trump International, VP Pence resting his at the end of a long, politically disruptive day at Trump International Golf Links & Hotel in Doonberg, or the United States hosting the world at Trump National Doral Miami?
Um … this little thing called the Emoluments Clause. Which is part of the United States Constitution.
The supreme law of the land
Before we take a deeper dive, what, exactly, is the constitution? Although we kick the word around like a well-worn hacky sack, kicking more left or right depending on our particular proclivities, it is worth understanding the central place it plays — or should play — in our daily lives. Stated concisely as I can, the United States Constitution is the supreme law of this nation. Read that again. Slowly and with emphasis. And as the supreme law — the one above all others — it should be followed. Most especially by those in government, those sworn to “uphold and defend” it.
The word “emoluments” gets sorta twisted on the tongue. Unless you’re a different breed than the rest of us, I’d wager it’s not a word you dish out in your daily life. “Two eggs over easy, hash browns, whole wheat, and some fruit, please. And if the service is exemplary, I’ll leave a generous emolument.”
More likely, if you’ve ever used the word at all it was in the context of the constitution. And I’ll place a second wager that you never even tried it out before this administration parked their Pima-cottoned keesters in the White House.
So what is it then and why does it matter?
Emoluments and ethics
“Emoluments” which, despite sounding like something you’d apply to smooth your skin, means something entirely different. Merriam-Webster defines an “emolument” as “the returns arising from office or employment usually in the form of compensation or perquisites.” In our two-eggs-over-easy example, it could — if a bit formally — mean a tip.
In the Constitutional setting, the word is subtly different.
Found at Article I, Section 9, Clause 8, what the U.S. Constitution has to say about emoluments is this: “…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.”
Well, there you have it. OK, at least sorta. But how does this potentially apply to Trump DC, Trump Doonberg, Trump Doral and Misters Barr and Pence and the (dare I say it?) tee-ed up 2020 G7 meet-and-greet?
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler has claimed “The Doral and Doonbeg cases are just two of the many examples of the solicitation or receipt of foreign government spending to the benefit of the President’s private financial interests.” Many others have nodded in agreement.
And while Doral and Doonberg exist in splendid isolation amid hectares of manicured greens, they are isolated examples. Mr. Trump’s companies do in fact do business with entities controlled by foreign governments and people with ties to them. Many legal ethicists are concerned that those kinds of arrangements run afoul of the sharp strictures of Emoluments Clause and the president is turning a blind eye to the constitution, all the while filling his already deep pockets with foreign lucre.
What underlies the Emoluments Clause was well-stated by Nadler. “The impact that the President’s business interests may have on his official conduct and American foreign policy interests demands scrutiny…” This is precisely what the framers of the U.S. Constitution were concerned about and why the clause is postured so prominently within the constitution.
At the end of the day, it is a question of influence.
The president and every other elected official needs to be an honest broker on all of our behalves and needs to glow with the appearance of the same. Shaking hands with one hand while holding out the other for “emoluments” undermines the common trust.
And, oh yeah, it flouts the constitution.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody and divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address, email@example.com.