President Trump won the 2016 election while still chairman and president of the Trump Organization, a privately held conglomerate that has sizable investments and properties around the world. Though it’s not unprecedented to have a businessman as president, Trump’s significant wealth and foreign entanglements challenge norms and confront ethical guidelines for the nation’s highest office.
Though Trump has since handed control of his businesses to his sons (he still owns the businesses), the arrangement presents a new set of questions for Congress, lawyers, advocacy organizations and those of us who bring you the “Can He Do That?” podcast each week.
What is the emoluments clause, you ask?
It is 49 words in Article I of the Constitution.
“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 this instance, the words that matter most are the ones we have placed in italics.
According to legal scholars, these words were added out of a concern from the 1700s that American ambassadors, on the far side of the ocean, might be corrupted by gifts from rich European powers.
Benjamin Franklin, for instance, had accepted a snuffbox festooned with 408 diamonds from the King of France. John Jay accepted a horse from the King of Spain.
After that, the emoluments clause rarely came up again. It’s never been the subject of a major court case and never been taken up by the Supreme Court, leaving great uncertainty about what it means — and to whom, exactly, it applies — in the 21st century.
So is Trump violating the clause?
We answer this question, talk to Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout about a lawsuit that’s been filed against Trump, and we address various other conflicts of interest worth investigating.
Here's the latest episode of “Can He Do That?”
More on Fahrenthold: He spent 2016 covering Trump’s charitable giving. He shares what he uncovered — and the captivating story of how he did it — in this piece from The Washington Post Magazine. Keep up with his reporting here.