A Big Victory in the Emoluments Clause Litigation Against Trump–But Might It Be Too Big To Last? A Search for Limiting Principles…

As many of our readers may already be aware, there was a significant and encouraging development last week in the litigation challenging President Trump’s ongoing business dealings with foreign and state governments as unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses. For those readers who haven’t already been following this, here’s a quick synopsis. (Readers who have been following this issue can skip to the end of this bullet point list.)

  • Although President Trump claimed he would turn over his business operations to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric, in fact President Trump retains substantial interests in those businesses. Several of those businesses, particularly his hotels (and among those hotels, especially his DC hotel, located at a property leased from the federal government) do substantial amounts of business with representatives of foreign governments, as well as with state governments. Many people have argued that accepting foreign government or state government patronage at Trump hotels violates the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses, respectively. The Foreign Emoluments Clause states that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States] shall, without the consent of Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any … foreign State.” In other words, no officer of the U.S. federal government can accept an “emolument” (whatever that is – more on this question in a moment) from a foreign government. The Domestic Emoluments Clause states that the President “shall not receive [during his term of office] any other Emolument [besides his official salary] from the United States, or any of them.” In other words, the federal government can’t provide any “emolument” to the President other than his official salary, nor can any state government provide any emolument to the President.
  • So, the argument goes, if a foreign government pays for rooms at a Trump hotel, which increases the Trump Organization’s profits and hence President Trump’s personal wealth, President Trump has received an “emolument” from a foreign state. Similarly, if a state government pays for rooms at a Trump hotel (or purchases other goods or services from a Trump business), the President is receiving an emolument from a state government. An additional violation of the Domestic Emoluments Clause may have occurred when the General Services Administration (GSA) (the federal government agency which is, in essence, the landlord for the Trump DC hotel) concluded that the Trump Organization could retain its lease even after Trump’s inauguration, despite the fact that the express terms of the lease appear to preclude this. The argument goes that in allowing the Trump Organization to keep its lease on the property, a federal government agency (in this case the GSA) had granted an “emolument” to the President, in violation of the Domestic Emoluments Clause.
  • Several separate lawsuits alleged these constitutional violations. When they were filed, many people (including me) expected the suits to be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, in particular though not exclusively the inability of the plaintiffs in these cases to show that they were personally and directly harmed by the alleged constitutional violations. And that was indeed what happened to the first case, filed by a civil society nonprofit in New York. But in a separate lawsuit filed in Washington DC by the DC government and the state of Maryland, the judge last April determined that court had jurisdiction over at least some of the plaintiff’s claims (including the claims described above).
  • The President’s lawyers then filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that even if everything the plaintiffs alleged were true (a stipulation the President reserves the right to deny later), there’s no constitutional violation, because neither the profit from a business transaction nor a favorable regulatory decision would count as an “emolument.” Rather, on the President’s view, an “emolument” is only a payment made as compensation for official services.
  • Last week, the District Court issued an order denying the President’s motion to dismiss, rejecting the President’s narrow interpretation of “emolument” and instead endorsing a sweeping definition in which an emolument, for purposes of the relevant constitutional clauses, includes anything of value.

That ruling, as Joe Biden might say, is a big f’ing deal. It’s not the end of the case—far from it—but it’s a huge win for the plaintiffs. Among other things, it means there will now be more fact-finding, including discovery, and probably in a few months we’ll have motions for summary judgment and another judicial order in response, which will likely both keep the issue in the news and possibly bring to light even more damaging information about the President’s business dealings. (The President’s lawyers may try to get an appeals court to consider the jurisdictional issue before this process moves forward by asking for what’s called an interlocutory appeal, but by friends who are experts in civil procedure tell me that such a motion is extremely unlikely to succeed, or at least it would be in an ordinary case.)  So, speaking as someone who was initially skeptical of this litigation—who not only thought it was unlikely to succeed but who worried that it could backfire—I’m delighted to confess error. (I suppose we could still debate whether this was a smart gamble at the time, but it does seem that the gamble is paying off, and who am I to argue with success?)

That doesn’t mean that these suits will ultimately succeed. Even if the plaintiffs prevail in the District Court, there will be an appeal, and I think the odds of the plaintiffs prevailing in the Court of Appeals are low. And even if they do win, the Supreme Court is almost certain to hear the case, and I predict that the Court would find a way to dismiss the case on jurisdictional grounds. (That said, if for some reason the Senate doesn’t confirm Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and in the November 2018 elections the Democrats take the Senate and vow to block any Trump nominee to fill the open seat, then it’s possible that the Supreme Court could deadlock 4-4, leaving any lower court decision in place.)

Now, in addition to the jurisdictional question, one of the issues on appeal will concern the breadth of the District Court’s definition of “emolument.” A lot of the arguments on this point concern matters of text and history. (How did 18th– century dictionaries define “emolument”? What do we learn from debates about the Emoluments Clauses at the Constitutional Convention and ratifying debates? What did early practice look like?) Those arguments are important, but I’m not going to explore them here. There is, however, a separate question of what definition of “emolument” would best serve the purposes of the Emoluments Clauses, which is closely related (if not necessarily identical) to the question of which definition would be the most sensible. I’m very sympathetic to the plaintiff and the District Court’s arguments that the main purpose of the Emoluments Clauses is to serve as broad prophylactic anticorruption measure, one that targets not only quid pro quo deals, but more broadly seeks to eliminate the possibility of governments currying favor with US officials by conferring benefits on them. And I agree that such benefits can take a wide variety of forms. Nonetheless, I do think that the breadth of the definition of “emolument”—as literally anything of value, or as any “profit, gain, or advantage”—might create some problems, and it’s important to think about how the potentially sweeping implications of this definition might be cabined.

I say this not because I’m terribly sympathetic to President Trump’s arguments that he’s not in violation of the Emoluments Clauses. Indeed, based on what I know thus far, I’m fairly confident that President Trump is violating the Emoluments Clauses, and should lose this case on the merits (though the jurisdictional arguments are a closer question). Rather, it’s important to think about appropriate limiting principles for two reasons. First, the likelihood of prevailing on appeal is higher if the plaintiffs and their allies can offer plausible rebuttals to the parade-of-horribles the President’s lawyers will argue follows from defining an emolument as “anything of value.” Second, whatever the appeals court (or perhaps the Supreme Court) says on this issue might have consequences for other cases—with other defendants and different sorts of conduct. So, in the remainder of this post I will first sketch out why the broadest version of the “emolument means literally anything of value” argument might create difficulties, and then consider a series of possible responses to those (alleged) problems. Continue reading