SET AGAINST other past and present items in President Trump’s bulging portfolio of legal problems — reported payoffs to a porn star and a former Playboy model; allegations of fraud involving his onetime university; charges that he defamed a woman who accused him of groping her; the ongoing criminal probe into Russia’s intervention on his behalf in the 2016 presidential election — the question of the Constitution’s emoluments clauses and whether he has violated them, is arcane. It seems a stretch to suppose that the president might be imperiled by a case that turns partly on definitions of the word “emolument” gleaned from 18th century dictionaries.
Or maybe not much of a stretch for anyone who has spent time in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel, a few blocks from the White House. There, to the tune of $40 million in revenue last year, it’s possible to glimpse just the sort of influence-peddling the framers may have intended to prohibit by those clauses.
The hotel has been the lodging of choice for an unknown (but not unknowable) number of state and foreign officials, some of whom, it is a fair bet, thereby hoped to curry favor with the president. According to the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia, both Democrats, who have sued to stop it, that favor-currying falls squarely within the “emoluments” the framers meant to forbid.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte in Greenbelt allowed the suit to proceed. The judge agreed with the plaintiffs that the constitutional ban on “emoluments” for elected officials, including the president, should be broadly defined to encompass any gain, profit or advantage. He rejected a much narrower interpretation pushed by the Justice Department, as well as the Trump Organization, which argued that only a gift or outright bribe would constitute an “emolument” and therefore be covered by the constitutional ban. (The Constitution mentions bribery separately, and explicitly, among impeachable offenses.)
That was a critical ruling, and an eminently reasonable one. No federal court had ever examined the “emolument” question in regard to a president, partly because previous presidents have been careful to shed themselves of business entanglements while in office. As Mr. Messitte wrote, persuasively: “How, indeed, could it ever be proven, in a given case, that [a president] had actually been influenced by the payments? The framers of the clauses made it simple. Ban the offerings altogether.”
The government is certain to appeal, and the matter will probably be settled in a higher court. Nonetheless, the judge’s ruling opens the way for fact-finding to proceed in the case against Mr. Trump, meaning the plaintiffs may now seek financial records of his hotel and business — as well as his tax returns, which the president has refused to divulge.
In cutting through the definitional underbrush, it’s fair to think of the emoluments clauses as the means by which the framers intended to impede corruption and ensure officials would be beholden to the public interest, not private interests. Mr. Trump has seemed heedless of such distinctions. This lawsuit could change that.