The “emoluments clause” is the only conflict of interest law that applies to the presidency. It is designed to keep foreign interests from essentially buying influence with U.S. government officials, including the president. Trump may tread on this clause literally during the first week of his presidency as foreign agents pay vast sums to stay at his hotel during inauguration week. Here’s the exact language from the “Emoluments Clause” in the Constitution: “No person holding any (U.S.) office of profit or trust…shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present…of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”The central question will be this: if foreign agents spend $5 million—or $500 million—to stay at Trump properties as a way to curry favor with the White House, does this constitute an emolument given to directly benefit the president-elect? The clause’s applicability to a president has never really been tested in court. It might during a Trump presidency if he chooses not to sell his assets, or set up a true blind trust that shields him from knowing if anything valuable is offered to him.
“And if they take those offers, it’s hugely problematic. It’s not only a conflict of interest, it’s the appearance of a conflict of interest. And then you’ve got major problems around U.S. foreign policy towards that country,” said Schweizer, pointing out that in many countries “those large real estate deals that they engage in are inherently political.”The Argentine government on Monday pushed back on a report that Trump used an official phone call with Argentine President Mauricio Macri to discuss a business project in the South American country.
Trump’s hold over the Republican Party gives him ample protection from the tut-tutting of good-government types offended by his manifest and manifold conflicts of interest. Any real challenge to Trump’s corruption can’t just be about his violation of laws and norms; it’ll have to take the form of a political attack designed to tarnish his popularity. Democrats need to use the corruption to make Trump unpopular—not just with a possible impeachment in mind, but to turn their fortunes around in 2018 and 2020, when they can deliver the other real cure for the problem: defeating Trump for re-election. That means Democrats will have to mount a sustained campaign to expose Trump’s corruption in a way they failed to do throughout the 2016 campaign.