MARYLAND AND the District sued President Trump on Monday, and on Wednesday 196 Democrats in Congress agreed to file their own lawsuits against the president. Each claim that Mr. Trump has violated the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bars government officials from accepting “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State” without Congress’s consent. The president still owns Washington’s Trump International Hotel, which has drawn business from foreign officials since Mr. Trump was elected. This has resulted, Maryland and the District argue, in unconstitutional payments that harm local facilities that must compete with the president’s hotel. Members of Congress, meanwhile, argue that they have not been consulted, as the Constitution requires.
Since its drafting, the emoluments clause has been a provision of interest primarily to constitutional scholars. It is unclear who can bring an emoluments clause case; Maryland and the District face a high hurdle in persuading federal judges to entertain their suit, as do a group of minority-party lawmakers acting without the consent of the whole legislature.
In the end, the courts may not solve the financial questions raised by Mr. Trump’s election. What should he do about the clear conflict-of-interest issues raised by the Trump International Hotel, not to mention the rest of his properties? More broadly, what should the public expect billionaire presidents to do to limit impropriety or the appearance of impropriety?
In most cases, the only reasonable, ethical course is creating a blind trust. Assets should be sold off and transferred into an account run by people with independence from the president. For billionaires whose wealth is mostly in paper assets, this would likely be sufficient to relieve most ethical concerns.
But Mr. Trump rejected this approach. Selling off real estate can take more time than liquidating stock holdings. It would raise its own ethical flags — who is buying, and at what price?
Mr. Trump proposed an alternative in January, including a promise to donate all Trump hotel profits derived from foreign governments. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump has not met his own standard. Late last month, congressional investigators revealed a Trump Organization pamphlet showing that his hotel business probably would not account for the money it gets from various kinds of government-owned enterprises and other foreign state entities.
Then there are the standards Mr. Trump has neither set nor met. For example, he should take no profit from foreign sources on any of his properties, not just his hotels. He turned over day-to-day control of his business to others, but two of those people are his sons; it is unreasonable to expect family members to maintain the proper distance. It is fine for presidents to spend time at their own property, but if that has the effect of benefiting their bottom line — the Mar-a-Lago membership fee recently doubled to $200,000 — then they should keep their distance.
If Mr. Trump insists on keeping his business, its operations should be run by caretakers. Mr. Trump’s current arrangement calls for no new foreign deals, but he should proscribe new domestic enterprises as well. Finally, there must be far more transparency. Mr. Trump should release not only his tax returns but a detailed, complete accounting of his businesses and ties.
Courts may not make these things happen. But voters should expect no less.