Black’s Law Dictionary defines Emolument as “profit arising from office or employment; that which is received as a compensation for services, or which is annexed to the possession of office as salary, fees, and perquisites; gain, public or private.”
Although the term might seem obscure and antiquated, it will soon become more familiar to Americans who pay attention to national news because of the vast economic holdings and ongoing activities of our current president and because of safeguards against corruption that are written into our Constitution.
The original Constitution uses the word “emolument” several times. Article I, Section 9 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.” Article II, Section 1 declares: “The President shall, at stated times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be encreased (sic) 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 from any of them.”
While many of our presidents throughout history began their lives in modest economic circumstances –– and while nearly all politicians would like voters to believe that they did –– most presidents had already achieved personal wealth by the time they were elected. But in order to maintain public confidence both in their own honesty and in the integrity of our government, most recent presidents have taken two simple steps: they have made their own tax returns public; and they have placed their personal investments in a blind trust to be managed during their term of office.
But one thing is clear both to his supporters and critics: Donald Trump is not like most presidents. Not only is he far more wealthy, but his business relationships are more secretive, complex and multinational.
Although it is difficult to pin down a specific number, business journalists estimate that Trump owns more than 350 corporations, many of which are designated simply by initials. And while he promised during the campaign to release his tax returns, he continues to stonewall in that area, choosing instead to release financial disclosure statements, which give a much more broad estimate of his wealth without providing the specific details.
Likewise, Trump’s decision to retain ownership in his investments while turning over the everyday management of his corporations to his two sons hardly constitutes what most government ethics experts would regard as blind trust management.
Less than six months into his presidency, examples already abound of instances where Trump could be in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments prohibitions. Until recently, the First Lady resided at Trump Towers in New York, which necessitated that the Secret Service pay with our tax dollars directly into Trump’s pocket for the rental of two floors there. And on many weekends since his election, Trump has brought his entire publicly paid entourage, along with national media and international VIPs vying for his attention and favor, to stay at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
The growing appearance of the quid pro quo is also troubling. The head of China’s government visited Trump in Florida a few weeks after China had announced it had awarded Trump 38 trademarks, which was an extremely lucrative and timely advance of Trump’s business interests in that market.
The ambassador from Saudi Arabia, whose nation was not included as one of the Muslim countries listed under Trump’s travel ban (even though most Americans bitterly recall that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 hailed from that country), paid his respects to the new president by staying at Trump’s hotel in Washington, D.C. When Trump returned the visit to their country, he announced that his son-in-law had brokered a deal with Saudi Arabia, which would include $110 billion in arms and other economic benefits from the United States.
Skeptical Americans have a right to ask whether this arms deal will really keep our country safer, or whether it is a way of promoting relationships between the businessman Trump and wealthy Saudis who rent or buy his high end hotel rooms and condominiums there.
Questions, conflicts and frustrations have already risen to the point where two attorneys general, representing Maryland and the District of Columbia, have filed suit against Trump, alleging that he is violating the Constitution’s emoluments clauses. Now 196 members of Congress, including five Congressmen from Oregon (but not a single Republican), have filed a similar lawsuit.
Only time will tell whether either the courts or the Congress will hold the president accountable to the words and the spirit enshrined in our Constitution.
John McColgan writes from his home in Joseph.