• The Emoluments Clause, Impeachment, and Trump: An Explainer

    January 30, 2017 // 42 Comments »


    Many of the Wikipedia-driven insta-experts on the Electoral College are now transforming into insta-experts on the Emoluments Clause, claiming the Clause can be used to impeach President Trump. But it is not that simple. What is the Clause, and in practical terms, how might it affect Trump?


    Save Us Please, Emoluments Clause!

    Deep inside Article I of the Constitution are a handful of lines called the Emoluments Clause, intended to bar office holders from accepting gifts (the full definition of emolument includes a salary, fee or profit from employment or office) from foreign sovereigns, including in the language of the 18th century, kings and princes. The Founders’ intent was to prevent foreign influence buying.

    Insta-experts seem to be circle-logicing themselves into believing Trump will be in violation of the Emoluments Clause literally as he takes the oath of office, and thus impeachment proceedings can follow, all because of his global business interests.

    But unlike most everything else in the Constitution, issues connected to the Clause have never gone before the Supreme Court, there is very little case law, and very little legal study. It has simply not come up in any significant way. Journalists have discovered the Clause, however, and now are promoting it as a way to defeat President Trump.

    The problem is that much of what is being written appears to come from Clinton supporters in denial. The election failed, the recounts failed, the move to sway faithless Electors failed, the sludge of Russian allegations failed, Meryl Streep failed, and Beyonce not pole dancing at the inauguration failed. All that stands between democracy and the abyss is the Emoluments Clause.

    Luckily, there are non-partisan sources out there, including the American Bar Association, and the National Constitution Center. Before wading through your next fake news article, let’s synthesize some of what has been said about the Emoluments Clause.


    The Emoluments Clause

    The Clause is aimed at governments, those kings and princes, seeking to influence the United States. It has nothing to say about 21st century life, such as Trump’s companies doing business with entities controlled in whole or part by foreign governments (state-owned businesses, such as the Bank of China, as is common in many parts of the world.)

    The Clause is also untested in regards to complex corporate ownership. It is common in the media to state matter-of-factly “Donald Trump owns a hotel in Dubai.” Yet most of Trump’s business, like most corporate business in general, is done through a web of companies that are legal entities of their own. Some involve stockholders, some in which Trump holds a minority position. Similar questions would likely have been asked about foreign government donations to the Clinton Foundation had Hillary been elected president. None of this existed when the Clause was written, and all of this requires a 21st century judicial interpretation.

    Emoluments are more complex than simply doing business overseas. The Clause may allow for fair market price transactions, for example. So, if a piece of real estate is legitimately (and yes, we’ll argue over that word) valued at $100,000, it is not a bribe or a representation of influence to sell it for $100k. It would be more questionable to accept $150k. Some have claimed if a foreign diplomat stays at a Trump hotel, the standard room price paid would violate the Clause. That’s a question of legal exchange; if Trump accepts money from Iran to remove sanctions, that’s a bribe. If a Trump hotel collects money for a night in the bridal suite, that’s a simple exchange of goods and services. Does the Emoluments Clause apply?

    Some legal scholars argue the Emoluments Clause doesn’t apply to the president at all. A different clause of the Constitution makes bribery an impeachable offense. That clause specifically mentions the president by title, while the Emoluments Clause does not. In addition, other parts of the Constitution that specifically address the president typically include a separate delineation for “officials,” the wording used in the Emoluments Clause.

    That all suggests emoluments may exclude the president. However, precedent suggests the Clause does apply. George Washington was allowed to accept a foreign gift, Andrew Jackson was not, and Martin Van Buren had to agree to a 50-50 split with the State Department over gifts from the Imam of Muscat. And in 2009 the Office of Legal Counsel said President Obama could accept the Nobel Peace Prize money without violating the Clause. But all four men asked for an OK ahead of time. There was no actual challenge, and none of the cases involved doing business.

    Another issue is standing, who can sue over any of this to get it into the courts for a ruling. One legal professor feels no one seems to have such standing, and so states “if there are concerns about how President Trump handles his various investments, the only remedies will be political.” Meaning vote him out of office in the next election if you don’t like what he’s doing.

    There are also those who skip most of the legal arguments, and focus on the so-called larger picture; clearly the Founders did not want the president beholden to foreigners. So never mind the parsing of words, the Emoluments Clause was written precisely to stop a person like Trump.

    In terms of practical matters, the less Trump makes public about his business dealings, the less chance anyone has of looking into any of this. Congress can’t even think about impeachment unless there is a “high crime or misdemeanor” involved and a Trump business deal per se is far from definitive evidence of that. Impeachment involves a lot of people in Congress agreeing on moving forward, and Congress for at least the next two years is controlled by the Republicans.

    And should anyone find a way to pursue it, it would be easy for Trump’s side to drive the issue through the courts for some time, and, because it ultimately involves interpretation of the Constitution, to the Supreme Court.


    Bottom Line

    There are mostly questions and very few answers about the Emoluments Clause. There are also legitimate concerns over conflicts of interest during the Trump administration; no president in history has come into office with as vast and complex financial holdings. Modern presidents have bypassed all of this by using blind trusts, something Trump has said he will not do. This is clearly uncharted legal and political territory.

    That said, it appears use of the Emoluments Clause to impeach Trump is another Clinton martyrdom political fantasy. Any clarification will involve extensive travel through the court system, and given the initial question of who even has standing to pursue that, nothing can happen quickly, if at all.

    (Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” His next book is “Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.” @WeMeantWell)



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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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    Posted in Post-Constitution America, Trump

    I Don’t Think Everything is Different

    January 26, 2017 // 54 Comments »




    I am still not getting the “everything is different” argument. Everything seems sort of the same way it always has worked. Sure, the policies are different, but the process is working the same as always. The system is not breaking down.

    Trump was elected by the same electoral system in place for over 200 years. There have been four other elections where the winner of the popular vote lost the Electoral Vote. Sometimes elections are close. Close doesn’t count, popular vote doesn’t win. That’s just the way it is.

    Trump was elected by people who want him to make changes and he has and will continue to do so, like every other president (ex. Carter to Reagan, Bush to Obama.) About half the country, maybe more, will disagree, as usual. The president’s popularity will go up and down and everyone will argue about the statistical methods used. The same party currently controls the Congress and Executive. Nothing unique, happens often in history. The president will try and fill the courts with judges who agree with him. Political appointees will be seeded throughout government. Business as usual.

    Congress has steadfastly chosen not to pass a law that requires the president to release his taxes, and so Trump has not. So maybe somewhat unique, but seriously, you think you’ll find a 1099 form in there for “Misc Espionage Work, Russia?” A yellow sticky saying “Owe money to China, be nice to them?” The taxes have become a strawman argument, something opponents can throw up (likely forever) and then say “See, he won’t release them!” as proof that Trump has something to hide.

    The press can choose for itself what role to play (so far, it is largely that of Chicken Little.) People will protest, sometimes a lot of them at once. Some policies and decisions will work out better than others. Cabinet members will disagree with the president and either be pulled into line, kept as alternate opinions, or fired.

    Any panic that Trump will start a nuke war is based on nothing but fear based on fear; hell, if it makes you feel better, he won’t start a nuclear war because it’ll be bad for his business. On the other hand, the last two presidents started and/or continued plenty of wars. And hey, maybe some reassuring news, Trump has made his first drone strikes, on Yemen, continuing Obama’s policy. He plans to keep Gitmo open, just as Obama did for eight years. He wants to restart torture, like Bush did and Obama silently allowed to pass without prosecutions.

    The only significant thing that seems new is that yes, absolutely, Trump is crude in his manner and speech. We’ll agree is is a pretty lousy human. But he’s in the White House now and that reality has to be dealt with as a reality. If you feel better calling his wife a classless whore and his son autistic, sad for you, but whatever. People are welcome to hate Trump for the person he is, but that is not the same as being terrified of everything that might happen and concluding the Republic is finished. Most of the rest seems stuff people just don’t agree with and which would not have changed under Clinton and they can’t accept that.

    What does seem new is the scary willingness of people, in and out of the press, to make giant leaps of terrified pseudo logic. For example, the people who clapped for Trump at his CIA speech were White House staffers. not CIA –> the CIA hates Trump –> Trump will not accept information from the CIA and/or they won’t provide it –> another 9/11! Seriously?

    The one thing that does seem unique this election is the continuing efforts to believe somehow Trump can be made to “un-win.” So we had Jill Stein’s failed campaign to recount critical states, followed by Michael Moore’s, et al, failed campaign to sway so-called faithless electors to not vote Trump, followed by the IC’s failed campaign to scar Trump as a Russian super agent, followed by the lame hope Congress would not certify the election results, plus Meryl Streep and Madonna’s calls to Les Barricades. Now it is on to the Emoluments Clause with the idea that that will lead to Trump’s impeachment.

    Quick note: since the Republicans control the House for at least two more years, there’s not going to be any impeachment for at least that long.



    Disclaimer: It seems these days any article that does not simply insult and criticize Trump is deemed to be pro-Trump, and, often by extension, racist, sexist, etc. I do not like Trump, I disagree with most of his positions (I am no TPP fan, and I like the idea of disengaging with Syria and negotiating with Putin as needed) and certainly did not vote for him. Please touch in with reality and read critically if you can. Thanks!



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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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    Posted in Post-Constitution America, Trump

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