The Emoluments Clause Cases Against Donald Trump: A Post Mortem

Of the many credible corruption and conflict-of-interest allegations against former President Donald Trump, some of the most prominent concerned the income that the Trump Organization earned from parties with interests in influencing U.S. government policy. While the general conflict-of-interest rules that cover most federal officials do not apply to the President, a subset of the Trump Organization’s business dealings—in particular, those involving foreign governments and state governments—at least arguably violated the U.S. Constitution’s two so-called “Emoluments Clauses. (The Foreign Emoluments Clause prohibits any U.S. official from receiving gifts, titles, or “emoluments” from foreign governments, while the Domestic Emoluments Clause prohibits the President in particular from receiving any benefits other than his official salary from federal, state, or local governments.) President Trump’s alleged violations of the Emoluments Clauses triggered three separate lawsuits, filed by different parties in different federal courts, within Trump’s first six months in office. Those cases gradually wound their way through the legal system, with some defeats and some victories, mainly on threshold legal questions.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court brought that whole process to a halt, dismissing petitions for review in two of those pending cases as moot. (The third case had been dismissed by an appeals court, and the Supreme Court declined to review that case last fall.) Thought the Court’s terse, unsigned order included no explanation, the obvious inference is that the Court determined that the Emoluments Clause suits were moot because Donald Trump is no longer President. Importantly, the Court’s mootness order means not only that these suits won’t proceed, but also that the previous legal rulings in the cases under review are vacated, and thus have no precedential value. Legally speaking, it’s as if the cases never happened.

This did not sit well with everyone. Former head of the Office on Government Ethics Walter Shaub described the Court’s dismissal of the cases as “insane,” arguing that the cases are “not moot” because Trump “still has the money.” “When any other federal employee violates the emoluments clause,” Shaub observed, “they have to forfeit the money.” Others involved in the litigation against Trump tried to look on the bright side. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), for example, issued a statement noting that the Emoluments Clause litigation “made the American people aware for four years of the pervasive corruption that came from a president … taking benefits and payments from foreign and domestic governments.”

I’ve been trying to figure out what I think about all this. I don’t have a clear, clean bottom line, but I do have a few scattered thoughts about what we might take away from the denouement of the Emoluments Clause controversy. Continue reading

The Trump Administration and Corruption: A Preliminary Retrospective

As of yesterday at 12 noon, U.S. East Coast Time, Donald Trump is no longer the President of the United States of America.

First, let’s all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

OK, now we can start thinking about what we’ve learned from this traumatic experience. There is no shortage of political and cultural commentary on the Trump era and its implications, and I have little of substance to add to that general discussion. But, given that this is a blog specifically focused on corruption, let me offer a few reflections on the implications of the last four years for corruption and anticorruption in the United States.

At the risk of self-indulgence, I’ll frame this preliminary discussion in terms of my own guesses, as of four years ago, about how the Trump Administration would affect U.S. corruption and anticorruption policy. Immediately after Trump’s election, I wrote a despondent post about why I thought that Trump’s election would be a disaster for the fight against corruption on many different dimensions. Roughly a year later, I did a follow-up post assessing my own predictions, concluding that on some issues my pessimistic forecasts proved inaccurate (for reasons I did my best to assess), while on other dimensions the Trump administration was as bad or worse than I had feared. Now that Trump is finally out of office, it’s a good time for another retrospective assessment—both to understand where things stand now with respect to U.S. policy and leadership on anticorruption issues, and also to see what lessons we might be able to draw from the experience of the past four years. Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Jack Goldsmith

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview my Harvard Law School colleague Jack Goldsmith about what the Trump Administration has taught us about the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. system for constraining corruption, conflicts of interest, and other forms of wrongdoing by the President and senior members of the executive branch, as well as what kinds of institutional reforms and policy changes would help prevent such wrongdoing going forward. The conversation centers on Professor Goldsmith’s new book, After Trump: Reconstructing the Presidency, co-authored with Bob Bauer. Jack and I discuss the importance of norms in constraining wrongdoing and maintaining the independence of law enforcement bodies, various approaches to addressing financial conflict-of-interest risks in the context of the U.S. president, the challenges (but also the necessity) of relying on political checks, and the debates over whether to prosecute a former president, such as President Trump, for crimes allegedly committed while in office. You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations: KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–October 2020 Update

Back in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

The most significant new additions are primarily due to some very good pieces of investigative reporting.

  • The first, and more widely covered, is the New York Times reporting on several years of President Trump’s federal income tax returns, including the returns from his first two years in office. The returns shed light on many troubling aspects of the President’s finances, including the exceptionally low tax rates he has paid, evidence of multiple instances of possible fraud (still under investigation by the IRS), and his deep personal indebtedness, which plausibly raises security and other risks. The tax returns also provide significant corroborating evidence of the extent to which President Trump and his businesses have continued to earn substantial income from both private firms and foreign governments, giving rise to extraordinary conflict-of-interest concerns, as well as possible (indeed, likely) violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses.
  • Second, Dan Alexander’s new book White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned the Presidency Into a Business, covers in much greater depth, and with significant original reporting, the same themes that we’ve been trying to keep track of here, namely the ways that President Trump has sought to monetize the presidency for personal financial gain. A terrific and troubling Vanity Fair article summarizes some of the most significant findings, including compelling evidence that the government of Qatar rented office space in a building 30% owned by President Trump for no apparent purpose other than to influence the U.S. government’s Middle East policy.

As previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–September 2020 Update

Back in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

As previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

Lebanon Disaster Update: An Excellent and Disturbing OCCRP Report Sheds New Light on the Backstory of the Deadly Explosion

A couple of weeks ago, I did a short post in reaction to the deadly warehouse explosion in Beirut, which killed at least 182 people, wounded thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. My post wasn’t really about the Lebanon blast per se—especially because the causes of the explosion, and the role that corruption may have played, were unclear—but rather discussed more generally the direct and indirect ways that widespread corruption can increase the risk of deadly accidents. But I continue to wonder whether, with respect to the Beirut tragedy, it will turn out that corruption (rather than “mere” incompetence) will have been a contributing cause.

We still don’t have all the answers—particularly with respect to the decision-making process within Lebanon itself—but thanks to excellent investigative reporting by an international team of journalists with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), we now have a great deal more information about the shadowy and highly suspicious backstory of the abandoned ship that brought the ammonium nitrate to Beirut in the first place. I don’t think I can do the report justice, but I highly recommend that everyone read it—it’s available here. And to give you a sense of what’s in it, I’ll just quote the main findings summarized at the beginning of the report: Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–August 2020 Update

Back in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here. As has been true for the past couple of months, most of the newest items relate to the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including further evidence that federal bailout money has flowed to businesses owned or closely connected to President Trump’s family and cronies, and White House pressure to include in the next coronavirus relief package an unrelated $1.75 billion for the renovation of the FBI headquarters building located across the street from Trump’s D.C. hotel. One item, though, actually concerns events that took place over two years ago, but were only disclosed this past month: Apparently the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, acting at President Trump’s request, tried (unsuccessfully) to use his influence to get the British Open held at Trump’s Scotland golf course.

As previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–July 2020 Update

Over three years ago, in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here. As was true last month, there are relatively few new items this month, in part because other issues (especially but not exclusively the coronavirus pandemic) have dominated the news. And indeed most of the notable new issues related to concerns about corruption and conflicts-of-interest in the Trump Administration relate to the coronavirus response. For example concerns that the administration has been steering relief funds to companies connected to Trump and his allies have been exacerbated by the administration’s efforts to block oversight of how these funds are spent. For example, the Treasury Department refused to share information about beneficiaries of certain business relief programs, and the Small Business Administration (SBA) has also provided federal officials and their families with a blanket exemption from the conflict-of-interest review that would otherwise apply when business owned by these individuals apply for coronavirus relief funds administered by the SBA.

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–June 2020 Update

Over three years ago, in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here. There are not too many updates this month, perhaps because the news has been dominated by other matters, including the ongoing coronavirus/COVID-19 health emergency. As noted in last month’s updates, many of the most recent stories involving potential corruption or conflicts of interest in the Trump Administration involve the administration’s response to the pandemic. This month’s update, for example, notes concerns about financial conflicts of interests for the people the administration has tapped to lead the U.S. government effort to develop a vaccine, as well as further evidence that the administration’s reluctance to insist on rigorous social distancing may be influenced by the impact on Trump hotels.

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

The Bribery Trial of Sitting Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu Poses Unprecedented Challenges

The criminal trial of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, on multiple corruption charges, opened yesterday, only ten days after the formation of a new government, and after years of police investigations, indictment procedures, and three rounds of early general elections. The trial is an unprecedented event in Israel, and one of the few examples anywhere in the world where a sitting head of government has stood trial on criminal charges in his own country. This situation poses unique challenges. On the one hand, the court must ensure that Netanyahu’s rights, as a criminal defendant, are respected. That said, though, some adjustments will have to be made to secure both the fairness of the trial and the integrity of Israeli executive and judicial branches, given that as the trial unfolds, Netanyahu will continue to serve as Prime Minister.

Continue reading