As previously reported by Restore Progress, a group called the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has filed a lawsuit against Trump claiming that he is in violation of the U.S. Constitution by accepting “emolument” while in office. As this lawsuit levies very serious charges against the president, and involves vocabulary outside the mainstream, we thought it would be helpful to provide an explanation of what the lawsuit is all about.
What is an Emolument? An “emolument” is a fancy word for a salary, fee, or profit from employment or office.
OK, but what is the Emoluments Clause? . Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution, also known as the Emoluments Clause, prohibits anyone holding a government office from accepting a present from any foreign state.
Why do we have such a law? The clause’s goal is to prevent bribery, or in other cases, the appearance of bribery.
Does this cover all gifts? No. It used to, but when the U.S. gained world power, Congress passed a law allowing presidents to exchange gifts with foreign dignitaries. Over time, the gifts presidents received became more extravagant. In 1966, Congress passed a law capping the gift limit at $375 to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Presidents do not keep those gifts. They are sent to the National Archives. If a president particularly likes a gift, he (or she!) can purchase the gift at market value.
So how is Trump receiving gifts? CREW alleges that the Emoluments Clause prevents Trump from taking any money from a foreign state. They allege this includes fees and payments for services rendered.
Trump owns several businesses that lease apartment and office space around the world. His D.C. hotel is of particular interest. With other properties, Trump contracts out his name to other companies who then profit. His Washington hotel, just blocks from the White House, is different. Trump has a 75% ownership stake in the hotel and has millions of dollars riding on the hotel’s success. If his project goes south, he will be on the hook for a $170 million bank loan. The more people stay in his hotel, the more he profits.
Foreign business and Washington hotels are inextricably linked. The Trumps even hired a “director of diplomatic sales” to curry hotel business. His company has even specifically targeted foreign diplomats, advertising the hotel as the place to hold meetings and galas. After Trump’s election, the Trump hotel’s rooms sold out at five times their normal going rate. As one Asian nation’s diplomat told the Washington Post: “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’”
Did Trump respond to the lawsuit? Briefly. He said in his last press briefing that the lawsuit was “without merit.” His attorney claims that paying for a hotel room is not a gift or a present. The lawyer claims that Trump will turn over any “profits” from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury. However, at this point Trump has not offered a method he would calculate such profits.
What are the legal hurdles this lawsuit might face? In order to sue someone, you need standing. In other words, the Plaintiff must be able to show that they suffered some kind of harm from the other person’s actions. The Court is sure to ask, “even if this violates the constitution, does it hurt the Plaintiff?” If the answer is no, the suit may be tossed. If this case is dismissed, some have theorized that another rival hotel might sue because they lost embassy business to the Trump Hotel.